Anna Xu

I’ll never forget the way the bread frenzy stirred the world back in March. As the coronavirus swept across America and lockdowns became the new normal, thousands of people turned to the internet to open up about their loneliness and doldrums. Then they collectively discovered breadmaking as a source of joy, comfort, kinship, physical and spiritual nourishment. Soon, the World Wide Web was abuzz with talk of nights spent in the kitchen and images of golden loaves. The cold winds of change were stirring the atmosphere, and the only people who could weather the oncoming storm were the bread girls.

And I was not one of them.

#

As John Green might say, Twitter became obsessed with breadmaking “the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” First, the messaging was sporadic: a photo of a loaf here, a remark about kneading dough there. Then it was inescapable. Every time I logged into the app, I felt like I had aimlessly wandered into the kitchen of a local Panera while checking my phone.

Scrolling through the timeline each day, I was barraged with tweets about something called a “sourdough starter.” What is a starter? I wondered. Is 21 too old to not know what a starter is? How is the sacred knowledge of sourdough starters transmitted to bread girls everywhere? Did they learn it from their mothers? Is it a cultural thing? What culture does the sourdough starter belong to? Is there a region of America where all girls become bread girls at the age of… hmm, maybe 19? Or did every bread girl learn this cryptic art from another bread girl? Where is the tweet that explains this phenomenon at the “Bread Girls For Dummies” level?

For a while, I reacted to the bread trend with this sense of bemusement. Another “starter” tweet. Ha-ha. Then, as I read more and more tweets about how breadmaking had become a source of solace and community for bread girls across the nation during quarantine, my ha-has became more frustrated, more passive-aggressive. Before I knew it, they had devolved into whimpers for help.

Was everyone a bread girl but me? And if so, what was wrong with me?

#

My distress over bread might have been easier to deal with if it were solely about the feeling of being the odd one out. But that’s not the case here. “Bread” is not a MacGuffin in this scenario; it couldn’t be replaced with, say, “Tiger King” or Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Yet my panic was never really about bread itself. It was about the archetype of the bread girl — an archetype I feared I could never fulfill.

I’ve never been the domestic type. I put tinfoil in the microwave. I forget where I left the spatula. The kitchen is not my kingdom, but an unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. Staring at a recipe induces the same feeling in me that staring at my AP Calc BC tests did in 12th grade: a premature sense of defeat.

Whenever I’d tried to make bread in the past, there had been another issue, too. Even if I did manage to stir together the right amount of flour, yeast, eggs (does bread contain eggs?), my loaf would lack that magical ingredient that all bakers swear by — love. “Made with love!” is a classic baker slogan, but my bread would be more aptly described as “made with frustration” or “made with jealousy” or “made with sheer raging fury.” I found no meditative value in measuring flour. I didn’t feel that mixing ingredients in a bowl was satisfying. I didn’t glean a sense of success from turning the oven to the perfect settings. It was all process to me, process without pleasure — and if you find that sad, dear reader, know that I did, too.

I understood that breadmaking knowledge was not innate. I understood that passion for breadmaking was likely not innate, either. And I had no desire to acquire either of these things. To do so would have been to confront the truth of my inadequacy — at least, when it came to domestic pursuits. Despite my bewilderment at bread girls’ chosen pastime, I recognized their appeal. Their attention to detail, their patience. Their reclamation of tenderness as power. These were traits, I knew, that had been recognized as the divine feminine ideal for generations — traits that had been given a new feminist significance in the modern era — traits that I deeply admired. They were also traits I knew I did not naturally possess — and this became especially clear to me during quarantine, when I had all the time in the world to evaluate myself.

My greatest fear was that I had nothing to give. Bread girls were warm, like the loaves they remove from their lovely little ovens with such tenderness. They could provide. They could proffer. They were Mother Earth incarnate. They were soft, sugar and spice and everything nice, and I was harsh angles and haphazardness and who knows what.

I was acutely aware that even if I didn’t “get it,” baking would always be a meaningful skill. It was a way to sustain oneself. It was also a way to sustain others. What if I, who knew not the Path of the Bread, would never be able to do either?

Every time I attempted to peer into the future, I only saw the darkest possible timeline: I am doomed to a lifetime of being the other woman because I can never be the wife a man wants to come home to. My lover will cherish me because I will save him from mundanity. My embrace will be his Lethe. Yet he will not love me. After a few hours, I’ll excuse myself to go home to a turned-off TV set and a bag of Takis on the sofa while he’ll cozy up to his wife. In the morning, he’ll wake up to an empty bed and a sweet smell wafting in from the kitchen. When he walks downstairs, he’ll find her setting a loaf onto the table, a regular Angel of the Household. “Careful, honey,” she’ll say in a tone that could never be mine as his hand gravitates toward the plate. “It’s hot.”

#

I wish I could tell you that I had an epiphany sometime around mid-April. That I read a tweet about the flawed premise of the quarantine productivity myth and my woes instantly dissipated; that I ate a delicious slice of store-bought ciabatta and heaved a healing sigh. Yet there was no magical moment of clarity for me — no revelatory chat with a friend or Aesop-esque confrontation with a wise woodland creature. The truth is, everybody just kind of forgot about bread — or got bored of tweeting about it. Only then did my bread-related anxiety subside. Yup, there was a direct relationship between the Twitter masses and my mental health during those strange spring days.

It’s plain to see now that my angst was exacerbated by the physical isolation of quarantine. Stuck inside my house, only communicating with my peers via text conversations, phone calls, FaceTime sessions and the occasional squad Zoom night, I wasn’t experiencing community in the same routine ways I had known before the pandemic. Crowded dining hall tables were a thing of the past. So were stumbled-upon suite parties and late-night outings that ended in group hugs. I found myself looking towards Twitter for comfort, for validation. I’m positive that had the bread trend occurred outside the context of a global pandemic, I would’ve developed a less warped perception of breadgirlism: I would have understood that not all bread girls sailed through quarantine without shedding a single tear, that not all of my female peers professed baking as their go-to self-care strategy, that envy and comparison are ultimately fruitless. Alas, that was not the reality ordained for me.

As bread photos and sourdough jokes became less frequent on the Net — and as I began to venture beyond the yellow wallpaper of my home to spend more time in the great outdoors — it slowly dawned on me that I had believed in a false dichotomy. I had feared that my incapability to bake a hearty loaf was indicative of a host of other failures. I didn’t like baking, so certainly I was a shell, nay, a crust of a woman who couldn’t fulfill the most basic needs, wasn’t productive, wasn’t helpful or desirable on a personal or societal level. With time, however, I was able to recognize that even though I wasn’t one of the bread girls (who I admire and respect endlessly, to be clear), I wasn’t a total flop. Demeter may have been Greece’s beloved “Giver of Gifts,” but she wasn’t the only goddess praised for her contributions to civilization.

Sure, I hadn’t found comfort in kneading dough, but I had practiced self-care in my own way by watching reruns of “Criss Angel: Mindfreak” and choreographing ridiculous dances to pop songs with my sister at 2 a.m. I hadn’t surprised my loved ones with starchy creations, but I had shown my care for them by writing heartfelt pen pal letters. I hadn’t sculpted any edible modern art pieces, but I had worked on some screenplays and short stories I was proud of. And while I hadn’t learned how to operate an oven, I had conquered my fear of driving — another “practical” task that I had once deemed impossible.

My quarantine days hadn’t been spent in an adorable retro chic apron. They hadn’t been replete with the glow of sourdough. But that didn’t mean they had been wasted.

#

As I type this essay, I am sitting at my desk in an Airbnb in Los Angeles: my new headquarters while I take a semester off and work at a film production company. I can no longer rely on Yale Dining or my parents’ zesty home cooking for meals. I have to face the formidable challenges of the kitchen.

It turns out that I am not the impractical fool I once thought I was. I can chop broccoli, put chicken in a pan and fry it. I am surviving — some might even say thriving. Nevertheless, if you’re expecting this story to end with me discovering a passion for cultivating yeast and becoming a kitchen whiz, you’re dead wrong. I still make the microwave smoke sometimes. I still prefer grabbing a banana or Clif bar when I need to snack. Yet I am not unsatisfied. I am content in my organized chaos.

I may never be a bread girl in the way that I once longed to be — but I’m OK with that now. The supermarket down the street sells delicious microwavable sourdough loaves, and they’re only $3.99.