If the COVID-19 pandemic will be known for one thing — other than the many deaths, large-scale suffering, and economic collapse — it will be known for the production of sourdough bread on a scale never before known to man. Google search trends reveal that sourdough queries spiked in the United States at the beginning of March and have been setting records for “most interest in the term sourdough” continuously since then. The sourdough craze is so ubiquitous that even talking about how ubiquitous it is has become a cliché. But I’m not one to shy away from cliché, so here we are.
I respect sourdough. A sourdough starter is a self-organizing system that receives inputs from its environment and excretes waste, much like you or I, or our communities, or the Earth itself. There are those who say that sourdough tells a story and that it builds community. My housemate was just gifted a sourdough starter that’s apparently 100 years old. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything anywhere near that old. Many books — and not just cookbooks — have been written about sourdough, and many more will be written before the day is done.
But why the sudden interest? What is sourdough doing for the millennial generation as the world falters around us? In some ways, sourdough is an accessible way to reconnect with food production; it’s not the conventional perspective on “growing your own food,” but at the same time, it is exactly that. It’s a way of connecting with generations past in an era where native languages are forgotten and many of us don’t know where our great-grandparents were born, let alone who they were and how they lived. It serves as a catalyst for introspection. Only through looking inside one’s own kitchen and studying the processes within can one produce truly beautiful bread.
But for most, it’s a distraction.
It’s a distraction from the fact that our generation is the first to be worse off than our parents in modern history. It’s a distraction from the looming “curve” that we’re utterly failing to flatten: climate change. It’s a distraction from the fact that a black man can’t go running in his own neighborhood without being murdered. And it’s a distraction from the scale of global inequity that means some of us can stay at home baking sourdough while the rest of the world goes through the worst public health and economic crisis in a century.
Most fundamentally, it’s a distraction from the fact that the global system of human organization has failed, and that we are all simultaneously victims and perpetrators of this failure.
The answer, hopefully obviously, is not, “stop baking bread.”
We’re baking bread because we’ve been forced to slow down; the hustle and bustle of daily life, of the “rat race” in western culture keeps us all from pursuing life with skepticism. We see the value structures and measures of success of those who came before us — buy a house, get married, have kids, make money — and we assume those are immutable, defined in some way by Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene.” But they’re not immutable, and they aren’t working anymore. The global response to the pandemic has given us time: yes, time to bake sourdough; but more critically, time to ask ourselves the most important questions. Why do I need to follow the path to “success” that my parents’ generation took? Am I even able to, or is that a myth that serves only to perpetuate the status quo? And, what does it mean about the nature of “success” if one group’s “success” comes at the cost of skyrocketing inequality and ecological degradation that is threatening humanity’s ability to continue existing?
Before you return to “normal” — if that opportunity even arises — ask yourself what the United Nations means when it calls for “transformative change” across all aspects of human society. Ask yourself what it means that even the global response to the pandemic — shutting down most consumer activity, asking people to put their lives’ on hold — isn’t going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough in 2020 to be on track with the annual reductions required if we’re to limit global warming to +1.5C.
Keep baking bread. But while you’re baking — while your starter bubbles along, an ecological system in a jar — think. Think about ecological systems and social systems, think about value structures and wealth distribution. And just maybe, realize that while you may have the privilege of returning to some semblance of “normal” — perhaps you shouldn’t.