Between the 24/7 news cycle and parents suddenly finding themselves working from home and subbing as home-school teachers, the weeks since COVID-19 made itself known in the US have been a time of transition for all Americans. Some refer to it as a “collective trauma,” but many are searching for ways to cope with the unexpected stress and changes.
And if the internet offers any suggestion as to what people are doing, cooking seems to be a top choice of therapeutic activity.
“I’m not aware of any scientific journal that talks about baking as a way to alleviate stress and pressure. I know there’s lots of good research on mindfulness and being present in the moment. I do think, anecdotally, you’re on safe ground saying it’s a therapeutic practice,” said Drew Adelman, an out licensed psychologist in Midtown Atlanta. “When I think of something that’s therapeutic, it is anything that can help alleviate psychological, emotional or physical pain.”
Get in the zone
Julie Ohana, a culinary art therapist and licensed social worker in Michigan, has studied and practiced culinary art as therapy for nearly two decades. She wrote her master’s thesis on it, and two years ago opened her own practice.
“In a nutshell, [culinary art therapy] is using cooking as a means of expression. Cooking becomes the vehicle to connect, express oneself and learn an assortment of life skills and coping skills,” she said. “After even just 20 minutes of this practice, participants see a difference in mood and attitude.”
Ohana calls it mindfulness; Adelman refers to it as a flow state. Name aside, it means cooking gets them in the zone, focused on the moment at hand.
“You’re so invested and so right in it that the rest of the world kind of drops away. What psychology tells us is it reduces your heart rate, all the anxiety-reducing thoughts. You just get to be, and practice a mindful state,” Adelman said. “I find creative endeavors are extraspecial as flow states. With a creative endeavor, it activates different parts of your brain.”
He referred to this phenomenon as like a “mental massage exercise” to alleviate stress, and said baking in particular is a great example, as it requires measurements, calculation, time and specificity.
“It’s that nice nexus, and then you get to eat the results,” Adelman said.
Practicing mindfulness like this helps to put aside feelings of anger, anxiety and depression in order to be present in the recipe, Ohana said. She said it primarily assists with anxiety-based disorders, but also helps with feelings of self-worth and confidence.
Oftentimes, recipes are handed down through generations—Adelman has his father’s chocolate Cowboy Cake recipe—but when biological families aren’t affirming, it can make a once-beloved meal less beloved to make. This is where families of choice come into play, a reminder that “we have always developed our own sense of community out of necessity,” Adelman said.
Adelman specifically searches for queer bakers or chefs, or even community-driven blogs and websites that cater to the LGBTQ community.
Ohana recommends working to create new rituals.
“So much about cooking and eating is about ritual. When a person doesn’t have these rituals from their past that they want to continue, sometimes we need a reminder that we have the ability to create new rituals for our families,” she said. “There is so much power in the ability to create for yourself.”
Many cooking rituals are based on shared experiences, which are on hold right now due to shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines.
“We need to think a little more creative right now,” Ohana said. “Instead of hosting a dinner party, you can pack your dinner to go and drop off at someone’s house. Leave it on the doorstep of a loved one with a special note and let them know you are thinking of them. If loved ones are too far, consider surprising a neighbor.”
In the meantime, she said to focus on what is available to be social about this time: social media.
“Take to Instagram—photograph your hard work and share virtually,” she said. “I have been doing a lot of that, even doing Facebook live cooking classes. Again, it helps to connect and build community, even if it is a cyber community.”
But just because it’s on Instagram doesn’t make cooking the ideal therapeutic activity for everyone. Adelman cautioned against folks jumping on the “quarantine baking” bandwagon because everyone else seems to be doing it.
“If people hate to cook, this is not the time to take up cooking … it’s not going to give them the same flow as if they’re doing something they really enjoy,” he said. “If people want to engage in an activity that gets them into a flow, maybe watch a Netflix series or reading; something somebody loves is the way to get to that state. Not by doing what they feel like they are obligated to do because people are telling them it’s the trendy thing.”
Georgia Beer Garden Flatbread
Submitted by baker Molly Follett
Makes eight pieces. When cooled—if they last that long—any leftovers can be stored in a plastic bag for a few days, and can be reheated before serving.
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup cold water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Suggested toppings: freshly chopped and seasoned vegetables, cheese and braised meat of choice
In one bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, salt and baking powder. In a second, larger bowl, measure the cold water and oil.
Take the dry mixture, one-third at a time, and add it to the wet mix, stirring to combine with each addition. Once the dough starts to come together enough to pick up, pour it onto a clean surface and knead with your hands until it’s smooth and not tacky. Form the dough into a large ball.
Use a knife to cut the dough into eight pieces. Roll each piece into smaller balls, set aside and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Allow balls to rest for five to 10 minutes.
While the dough rests, heat a 10- to 12-inch flat pan or skillet on medium-high heat. Do not oil the skillet.
Once the dough is rested, dust a clean surface with a light amount of flour and roll the balls into seven- or eight-inch circles. If you don’t have a rolling pin, a clean wine bottle will work.
Place a piece of the flattened dough in the heated pan. Allow it to cook for approximately one minute on each side, until it is lightly browned. When each flatbread is done, be sure to set it aside and stack them, as the remaining heat steams the bread and keeps it both warm and soft.
A family recipe from Drew Adelman
2.5 cups flour
1.5 cups sugar, plus an extra quarter-cup
2 teaspoons baking soda
Two-thirds cup cooking oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 cups cold coffee
Put the flour, 1.5 cups of sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a 13 by 9 inch pan. Stir together and make three wells.
Add oil, vanilla and vinegar. Pour coffee over it all and stir until it is well mixed.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.
Sprinkle cinnamon and the remaining sugar over the hot cake.