Extremely exciting coronavirus update: I BOUGHT YEAST! Can you believe it? Me, an unassuming, regular person who spends her days doing normal, regular-person things—I am in possession of one of the most valuable substances on Earth. As I write this, yeast is worth its weight in diamonds, gold, and solar panels combined. Yeast is the cool but homely high school girl in the movies who no one pays attention to, until one day she takes off her glasses and puts on a tank top, or in this case, a deadly virus strikes, and suddenly everyone is all, I MUST HAVE HER. And obviously yeast is flattered, but she’s also like, hello? I’ve been here leavening your baked goods for a solid 5,000 years. Maybe this is a lesson in appreciating what’s been in front of you all along? And she’s absolutely right. We’ve been fools, yeast. You are an enduring beauty, deserving of our mindful appreciation. Also, will you go to the (virtual) prom with us?
Once upon a time, the ability to leaven bread truly was miraculous. Imagine casually cruising around in ancient Egypt, minding your own food-related business, when suddenly people went from eating weird grainy crackers and slightly boring flatbreads, to luxuriating in the wonders of a soft, pillowy loaf. Think of the life-altering shift that represented! It might be true that the Egyptians didn’t immediately understand the exact mechanism that caused their dough to rise, first viewing it as an honest-to-various animal-headed gods miracle, but can you blame them? It never stopped being a miracle, really, albeit a scientific one, but we stopped noticing it. We’ve been taking it for granted for centuries, except, for the most part, during times like this—times when we’re in crisis, when we are re-awakened to all the quiet little feats that make our daily lives hum. I would prefer if our societal life lessons didn’t come with a huge dose of death and suffering, but this reawakening of gratitude for simple things is refreshing.
And it’s not just yeast, obviously. All-purpose flour is like pixie dust from heaven. I would sell a limb for a whole 5lb chicken. An anxiety-free trip to the grocery store seems like an almost impossible dream. For many, there’s also a deepening appreciation of our privilege, recognition that the ability to walk into a store and buy a chicken isn’t just out of reach now, but 365 days a year, every year, for millions of people–people who live and work a lot closer than a lot of us regularly acknowledge. Not coincidentally, these are the same people who are being disproportionately impacted by this novel virus. Hiding behind my wry statement that “I would prefer if our societal life lessons didn’t come with a huge dose of death and suffering”, lies the truth that widespread death is for the most part not happening in neighborhoods like mine, it is not ravaging comfortable suburbs. In communities in our country and around the globe, there’s a lot more at stake than the ability to turn out a crusty baguette, much more on the mind than a surge of thankfulness.
It’s interesting, though, that bread is the thing that so many of us have turned to for comfort, because it’s a simple, elemental food. Crises make us aware of simple, elemental truths. Food—access to food– is a gift. The presence and service of the unsung people who are still going to work every day, not because they want to but because they must—the delivery drivers and mail carriers, the farmworkers, the foodservice employees, the public transportation workers—is a gift, and it comes at a profound cost. It’s wonderful to feel a revived gratitude for those gifts, but the thing I’m going to try to do more of, to do better, is to express that gratitude through action. First of all, I am going to kiss the 1lb bag of yeast I was lucky enough to find (after I spray it down with a diluted bleach solution). But next, maybe while I’m kneading it with flour and water into something that hopefully resembles a functional, edible dough (did I mention I’ve never baked bread before?), I’m going to think of meaningful and consistent ways to get my principles out of my head and into the world, namely ways that benefit the people and communities that are facing much tougher times that I am right now. And then, finally, I’m going to eat that bread (possibly the entire loaf, since I’m being honest here) like it’s the most beautiful, miraculous hunk of food I’ve ever seen in my whole entire life.