On the surface, our kitchen resembled an Instagram-worthy image of a quarantine well spent. Covered in flour and still in my pajamas, I kneaded dough while my mother and sister slowly made their way through a two-thousand-piece puzzle. Yet beneath the delicate peace roiled the anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic. My early “quarantine hobby,” much like the majority of America, was to learn how to make a good loaf of bread. While I never learned how to make a gorgeous ciabatta, I did bake the same recipe for chocolate almond tahini cookies five times, and I ate fried rice for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner. I was scrabbling for security, predictability, and solace in any way that I could. What was it that made these practices so comforting?
Humans have a complex and deeply social relationship with food. We consume nutrients to survive as we also imbue food with moral, ritual, and emotional meaning. Our diverse backgrounds and geographies inform the foods that bring us comfort, and we revert to those familiar items during times of stress. What foods are considered “good” are borne of a melting pot of personal preference, cultural experience, contemporary food trends, and availability.
“Comfort foods” are considered to be those that are “prepared in a traditional style [and] having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal,” and are chosen in response to “life course events, personal and social factors”(Marty et al. 2021, “Definition of Comfort Food” n.d.). Comfort is also reciprocal with health. To be “comforted,” or “comfortable” implies a sense of consolation and safety; a body free of distress.
At the same time, comfort foods involve diverse flavors and forms that suggest “comfort” is anything but one dimensional. The emergence of mutual aid and solidarity practices during the pandemic reflects shared interests to comfort others. Yet, the ways outreaches of comfort and relational care are imagined, given, or received are complex. Demonstrations range from picking up items at a food bank to bringing a mac-and-cheese dish to a family who experienced a loss, hosting Zoom dinners, or making a cup of tea for your partner at the end of a long day.
For many after the pandemic broke out, baking became a soothing, cost-saving, and prodigiously visual activity. Countless photos of bread, attractively sliced to reveal the “crumb” (side view of a bread’s consistency or laciness), fill Instagram and Facebook. “Distractibaking,” a portmanteau of ‘distraction’ and ‘baking,’ involves “creating baked goods that are somewhere in the broader range of approachable comfort food, but purposefully time-consuming to create, to keep the bakers busy and distracted from the somewhat boring day-to-day life during the pandemic” (Ocklenburg 2020). Sharing images of baked goods via social media, email chains, or neighborhood forums “gives respect and recognition among one’s peers as it communicates how much one is still in control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation” (Ocklenburg 2020). Gifting baked goods to loved ones and community members can further act as a stand-in for the physical contact and quality time we are currently unable to use to strengthen our relational bonds.
Practices of breadmaking, such as tending to one’s sourdough yeast starter, reveal a “transnational fascination with yeast [that] nurtures a middle-class urban neo-tribalism of sharing and craft, which redefines the contours between the public and private spheres” (Berger and Monterescu 2020). Likewise, posting food images on social media can be a creative means of portraying a casual and in-control appearance during uncertain times and massive job loss.
Social displays of food projects have the potential to create distress, even as they uplift and distract us. As one survey respondent explained, he “felt like people might have a lower opinion of him if he did not follow the trend [of baking and posting images online]” (Ocklenburg 2020). Another study of eating habits found that “food consumption and meal patterns (the type of food, eating out of control, snacks between meals, number of main meals) were more unhealthy during [quarantine and lockdown periods]” (Ammar et al. 2020). Individuals who noted an increase in the importance of weight control increased the nutritional quality of their diet, while those who marked an increase in the importance of mood decreased the nutritional quality of their diet (Marty et al. 2021). While consuming comfort foods may improve one’s mental health, these same foods may be detrimental to long-term physical health.
Interestingly, a focus on the benefits of comfort foods as a “soft medicine” has opened the door for many to explore alternate modes of health and healing. Anxiety is a common response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which aside from “causing distress in [its] own right… [has] the potential to adversely impact immune functioning” (Rajkumar 2020). Immune response is a key factor in virus transmission, symptom experience, and recovery. Research has shown that “stress, anxiety, and depression are associated with increased susceptibility to viral upper respiratory infections” (Rajkumar 2020), factors that could be mitigated through the use of food-based medicines and their interaction with psychoneuroimmune pathways (Rajkumar 2020).
According to the “meaning response model” entailed in medicines such as Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Unani, Naturopathy, and Homeopathy, “an individual’s response to any given treatment depends not only on its pharmacological properties, but on the meaning they ascribe to this treatment” (Rajkumar 2020). While “hard” models of medical treatment such as pharmaceutical drugs tend to singularize care to the biochemical effects of a drug in the body, the meaning response model centers experiential, cultural, and emotional factors like “comfort,” “familiarity,” or “meaning” in how patients approach, receive, and react to care.
Appreciating what care means during a pandemic – including the emergence of novel forms of healing and aid – requires a more capacious approach to comfort. The pandemic has deeply altered the relationship people have to their food, body, health, and safety. As we hunker down in our homes, we turn to our favorite snacks and meals to get us through. Food offers us a means of reaching outside our bubbles and connecting to loved ones via Zoom parties, the exchange of tried-and-true recipes, or making the same lasagna at the same time with friends online (Nosrat 2020). In a world where so much is outside of our control, where we are separated from our families and social support systems, we still need to eat – for enjoyment and exchange of meaning as much as for survival. Assessing our emotional and cultural responses to food, our interactions with food online, and the implications of these choices for mental health, are all ways we can glean new things about pandemic health, now and well into the future.
Ammar, Achraf, Michael Brach, Khaled Trabelsi, Hamdi Chtourou, Omar Boukhris, Liwa Masmoudi, Bassem Bouaziz, et al. 2020. “Effects of COVID-19 Home Confinement on Eating Behaviour and Physical Activity: Results of the ECLB-COVID19 International Online Survey.” Nutrients 12 (6). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061583.
Berger, Noa, and Daniel Monterescu. 2020. “Bad Virus, Good Microbes: The Global Domestication of Yeast Cultures and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Gastronomica 20 (3): 8–10. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2020.20.3.8.
“Definition of Comfort Food.” n.d. Accessed December 5, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comfort+food.
Kohrt, B.A., K. Ottman, C. Panter-Brick, M. Konner, and V. Patel. 2020. “Why We Heal: The Evolution of Psychological Healing and Implications for Global Mental Health.” Clinical Psychology Review 82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101920.
Marty, L., B. de Lauzon-Guillain, M. Labesse, and S. Nicklaus. 2021. “Food Choice Motives and the Nutritional Quality of Diet during the COVID-19 Lockdown in France.” Appetite 157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2020.105005.
Nosrat, Samin. 2020. “Samin Nosrat Wants Us to Make Lasagna Together.” The New York Times. April 27, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/dining/samin-nosrat-lasagna.html.
Ocklenburg, Sebastian. 2020. “Distractibaking: A Note on the Psychology of Baking in Times of the COVID-19 Crisis.” Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies 20 (2).
Rajkumar, Ravi Philip. 2020. “Ayurveda and COVID-19: Where Psychoneuroimmunology and the Meaning Response Meet.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 87: 8–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2020.04.056.
Solomon, Harris. 2016. Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. North Carolina, United States: Duke University Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/middlebury/detail.action?docID=4514978.