Several weeks ago, a Facebook maven wailed via a Temple-based shopping page: “Where can I buy bread flour? The store shelves are empty.”
Amid the panic buying of paper goods, wipes and hand sanitizers have been shortages of flours and yeast as the home-bound shift attention to home. Bread baking, specifically the cultivation of sour dough starters, has become the new therapy for the quarantine. It requires time, patience and dexterity. The reward is sublime.
All cultures have breads — from naan to tortillas to brioche to biscuits to challah. Recipes develop from available grains and whatever yeast spores develop. No matter the county, bread baking is an ancient art and science, dependent on the magical alchemy of fermentation, heat and time.
The result is a mystical, transcendently joyful experience. Google says so.
National flour sales, as of mid-March, were up 233 percent year-over-year, according to market-research firm Nielsen. Likewise, dry yeast producers are working overtime to meet demand – an estimated 600 percent over last year.
In April, King Arthur Flour reported sales that are three-times higher than usual.
“Typically, at this time of year, we’re operating at 50 percent capacity,” said co-CEO Karen Colberg. “But in the past couple of weeks we’ve turned on to full tilt, and we’re operating 24/7.”
The shortages and restrictions of the current coronavirus pandemic may be a blessing because they force everyone to slow down and indulge in the need to knead their troubles away.
This year’s restrictions are reminders of a century ago, when homemakers were forced to make do with limited flour supplies during World War I. That’s when Americans focused on the plight of U.S. troops and starving Europeans; they sacrificed their bread so that others could eat. White flour was thought to be the purest, healthiest flour; thus, it was reserved for troops and shipped overseas.
As the U.S. prepared to declare war in early 1917, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned that rationing would be implemented. It urged grain millers to start processing more wheat into flour.
Reducing white flour also meant reducing gluten, which, when combined with yeast, helped the bread dough to rise and become pliable. This resulted in what was commonly called “war bread,” a dense, chewy loaf, akin to a quick bread rather than a fluffy yeast loaf.
Bread has always been an emotional topic, ripe for political wrangling. Standardization of store-bought loaves has been a constant source of political wrangling. Temple in 1917 passed ordinances fixing the weight of a standard loaf of bread. However, if bread is sold by the loaf, a loaf should be 16 ounces (one pound) — no more, no less, reported the Telegram.
The issue was bakers shorting their wares but selling them as one-pound loaves.
In 1970, county directors of weights and measures (yes, counties had that official posts back then), insisted consumers were milked by makers of “ballooned” bread. Ballooned bread was a regular loaf baked in a 15.5-inch pan that producers pump air into through a special process before going in the oven. The loaf weighed the same as a standard 1.5 pound loaf but looked larger, therefore deceiving shoppers.
Now, a century later, current unscientific spot-checks of Bell County grocers show ample supplies of flours and yeast; sales are definitely rising along with bread machines. General Mills, which owns Gold Medal flour and Betty Crocker, has reported shortages on its inventory of baking ingredients. Flour has been especially difficult to come by during the COVID-19 crisis as more people light the oven to bake at home.
The best indicator of local interest is Google Trends that charts searches, even by region.
In Central Texas, searches for information and recipes for sour dough took a sudden rise on March 8 in the Temple-Killeen-Waco area, just before the governor’s March 13 emergency declaration and shutdown. The searches remained high until July 5, when summer slammed this area like a hot oven.
Likewise, searches for bread recipes started increasing on March 1 with a sudden spike May 15-21. By early July, bread recipe searches suddenly climbed again nationally, except in Texas’ 100-plus weather. On the other hand, Central Texas searches for frozen desserts and ice cream recipes took a sudden leap.
Inching into the third week of November and creeping close to Turkey Day, bread and bread recipes took a sudden trot upwards.
Breads using baking powder instead of yeast were not forgotten by Googling home bakers. Of the searches for quick breads, banana bread was the most popular recipe in every state. In April, Google reported more than 2.7 million searches for banana bread, an 83 percent rise from the previous month and nearly 590 percent increase from the same time in 2019.
The interest of banana bread corresponds favorably to its popularity about nine decades ago, when the first recipe appeared during the Great Depression, another time of national thrift and uncertainty.
By late November’s coolish weather and a resurgence of coronavirus cases, Bell County Google searches puffed up suddenly for dinner roll and dessert recipes — second only to Austin in the state.
When the going gets tough, the tough turn on the ovens. The Rev. Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013), Episcopal priest, author and bread baker described the blessed remedies coming from a velvety slice of humble home-baked bread.
“Not only is the body nourished and the palate pleased, the mind is intrigued by the triumph of ingenuity over scarcity — by the making of slight materials into a considerable matter. A man can do worse than to be poor. He can miss altogether the sight of the greatness of small things,” he wrote in his book, “The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).
Maybe the one tiny blessing of the quarantine coupled with insufferably unpredictable Texas weather is that people are shifting priorities to singularly satisfying delights — “the greatness of small things.”