Farhad Manjoo: All I needed to survive lockdown was sourdough

Baking has been the duct tape holding together the fraying last threads of my sanity.

(Johnny Miller | The New York Times) A loaf of sourdough bread in New York on Sept. 9, 2019. Food styled by Laurie Pellicano. Props styled by Sarah Smart.

For a few innocent weeks about 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of the quarantine era of 2020, my Instagram feed and perhaps yours, too, was suddenly overrun with images of impossibly lovely loaves of homemade bread. It was one of the first social-media show-off fads of the pandemic; with everyone stuck at home, cut off from gym mirrors and airplane wings at sunset, bread-making virtuosity emerged in certain circles as the hottest new way to show everyone online how much better you were than everyone else.

Naturally, I jumped on the bread wagon. I remember the precise moment my sourdough FOMO kicked in. I was at the supermarket on one of those blissful last days of the Before Times, and I’d been amused at the fevered run on toilet paper (one word, folks: bidets!). Then I rounded the corner into the baking aisle and I went cold. The endless rows of empty shelves made the lockdown real to me: If we were facing a shortage of flour — you know, wheat, the staff of life — should we fear for the rest of civilization, too?

Right there, in the empty aisle, I pulled out my phone and found a wholesaler in New York selling flour in 50-pound bags meant for bakeries. I could get one delivered to my house in California, along with a few smaller bags of specialized bread flours, for about $100, which seemed both outrageous and totally reasonable. A couple weeks later, this ludicrous heave of flour dropped onto my doorstep, and I’ve been baking ever since — baguettes, challah and burger buns, but mostly, and most therapeutically, loaves and loaves of sourdough.

It has been revelatory. On Instagram, shots of rustic boules and rubber-banded Mason jars of fermenting starter have long since grown passé, but in my kitchen, sourdough has become an unexpected savior — a hobby, a challenge, an escape, a deceptively complex puzzle, and the deepest of comforts amid so much misery and stress. Through political strife and economic uncertainty, wildfires and toxic air, through Zoom-schooling and every anxiety-provoking cough and sneeze, sourdough has been the duct tape holding together the fraying last threads of my sanity.

I flew through the first 50-pound bag in about three months; now I’m elbow-deep into the second.

For me, the restorative magic of sourdough begins and ends with its tactility. Unlike work, school, friendships and so much else in lockdown, the blessing of sourdough is that it lives completely apart from digital screens.

Sourdough is a real thing in the real world — some bubbly goop in a jar, a jiggly mass in a bowl, a fragile loaf to be gently scored and coaxed into the oven, then sliced and eaten. In the very beginning, one attempts to make sourdough from a recipe, but that inevitably proves futile; explaining how to make sourdough is like explaining how to dunk a basketball — you can describe the process to a T, but you’ll get nowhere without taking a shot for yourself. Sourdough then becomes a pursuit of feel and touch, of timing and accumulated intuition, of endless practice approaching unattainable perfection.

There is much cliché here, I’ll grant you. The office-bound digital worker who discovers new purpose in an antiquated pastime is a stock character in everyone’s social feed. And sourdough is not my first domestic enthusiasm. I meditate, I pickle, I have even made my own cheese and churned my own butter.

And yet, banal as this sort of digital-detox hobbyism has become, I still believe there is much to recommend it — even more so now that the sourdough craze has passed. In the last decade, as most of us began carrying the internet along with us wherever we went, it’s become increasingly difficult to divorce oneself from the online clamor.

Escape has become especially difficult in the pandemic. The internet is no longer optional for anyone — in the past, I tried to enforce screen-time limits for myself and my children, but now that the screen is our sole portal to everyone else on the planet, limiting it feels cruel and, anyway, unworkable.

Quarantine has also limited many other nondigital outlets. A few years ago, I began attending a weekly ceramics class, and I found it thrilling for some of the same reasons I’ve come to appreciate sourdough — throwing clay on a wheel requires patience, focus and practice, and if your hands are covered in mud, you can’t touch your phone.

But pottery required lots of expensive and impractical equipment found in a specialized studio — which shut down just as the pandemic began. Sourdough, by contrast, is eminently accessible. You can do it at home with inexpensive ingredients, few specialized tools, and now that flour is abundant again, no big upfront investment.

Best of all, sourdough fits seamlessly into the work-from-home life. Bread is made over time, in snippets. You can take breaks between emails to fold your dough. You can attend a meeting, shape your boules, then attend another while the dough rests. As your colleague drones on about this or that office quandary, you can take in the warm aroma of freshly baking bread, and when you take a bite, you might be transported, for just a moment, far away from this terrible year, to a happier time in a more serene place.

Sourdough will not solve all your problems; the earth is still ailing, the country remains an ungovernable mess and pessimism still feels more appropriate than optimism. But we have bread, and that’s not nothing; sometimes, it might even be enough.

Farhad Manjoo | The New York Times (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.