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Reading between the lines in a crisis

The New Yorker published Good Bread last week. It’s an account of the author Bill Buford’s move to Lyon, and his friendship with one of the city’s bakers: a man called Bob. Over 7,000 words or so, the story provides a window into the world of making bread, and its universal importance in culture and family.

It could not have been published at a better time, because people in lockdown have been making bread. Lots of it. For some reason, and with no orchestration, it has seemed like the natural thing to do. We are physically & socially isolated from each other, yet many, unprompted, have taken to the dough.

Good Bread, The New Yorker (April 2020)

The obvious explanations are time and scarcity: for those of us lucky enough to be able to work at home*, the lack of a commute leaves more time in the day. From a pragmatic point of view, scare stories about stockpiling (read: supply chain blips) lead us to consider making more from scratch. There is also a concern for safety, and baking at home offers the security of knowing exactly who’s touched your food.

But looking further beneath the surface could tell us something more meaningful about people’s response to lockdown.

The need to produce

We are innately creative beings, and making bread is one of our most basic forms of production. The creation of sustenance from a few simple, ancient ingredients is about as universal as it gets. The desire to produce is wrapped up with creativity: the line between proving your worth and expressing yourself is particularly blurry in contemporary society. For some 3 billion people worldwide, lockdown has stalled our usual outlets of productivity. But the need is still there – a sudden step change in the cadence of life means we are hit by productivity inertia. We need somewhere new to channel this force. Baking bread offers people the chance to be busy; to be useful.

The need to control

Sat alongside the need to produce is also the need to have control. Following a recipe, with defined processes, materials, and outcomes, is a welcome source of control and certainty. There are spheres of influence in people’s lives: things we can control directly, things we can influence, and outside forces which seem to happen to us. The rhythmic act of baking is in the first category, and right now people are recoiling against the mass uncertainty of a pandemic. We know that we can do little individually to alter its course. But bread is under our control, each day, in the kitchen. We can define things in empirical terms of hours, grams, degrees, size, and know that we will be rewarded.

The need to nurture

As highly social creatures cut off from one another, it is harder to show that we care. Zoom calls are no replacement for a face-to-face conversation, a hug, or a trip to the pub. Many have retreated back to their family home or find themselves with their flatmates for the majority of the day. This is, no doubt, a tense situation to be in – especially in the context of the UK’s housing crisis. To show that we care, and to nurture, are reflexively human acts – particularly now, when many are unsure, frightened, or frustrated. Sharing a loaf of bread is a both a real, and a symbolic act of care. The comfort offered by a loaf of bread can feel like coming in from the rain or sitting by a warm fire. Baking bread for someone is an immensely kind and heartfelt gesture.

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The need to interact

We are not used to observing the world as spectators, yet lockdown necessitates this. Normally, we would be close to one another, truly in the world as feels most natural and gratifying. But now, we are experiencing both emotional and physical sensory deprivation – and rightly, it feels totally unnatural. Like the need to produce, the need to have an active sensory relationship with the world is innate. This could explain ‘why bread?’ in particular. The process of mixing, kneading, and rolling dough is incredibly tactile and physically reciprocal. For the ever-popular sourdough, this is only heightened by maintaining and ‘feeding’ the starter. The act of breadmaking is a highly sensual refuge from the deprivation of being kept indoors.

What might this mean?

Above the need to alleviate boredom or validate safety, bread baking is charged with symbolism. In Christianity, bread symbolises remembrance, restoration, and the radical equality of all people. Access to bread is a fundamental human right: consider the ultimate symbolic societal injustic of Jean Valjean being imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  But bread also acts as a reassuring constant. For the Marthas of Atwood’s Gilead, baking the daily loaf of bread is a regular drumbeat of certainty amid chaos and severity. It symbolises fundamental goodness in a wholly repressive society.

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This all reveals something much deeper about how people cope with mass uncertainty.

Many have leapt to declare the new rules of life under lockdown, but nothing about the above is new. Quite the opposite, in fact. Our response to an entirely novel, uncertain world context has been to fall back towards ancient emotional refuges. We want to produce, to feel in control, to care for one another, to interact, and ultimately to feel as though none of this affects us alone. Beneath the noise of the trends is a very predictable progression of behaviours in response to great uncertainty.

Why care?

Looking at the world this way isn’t just interesting for millers and bakers. For those who depend on understanding how & why people make decisions, this seemingly-innocuous trend offers a system to think more deeply about the crisis.

This is how, and why, we use semiotics. Interpreting outward signs, symbols, and trends helps us to uncover the deeper meaning at play in people’s lives. It lets us identify what to pay attention to in the noise of culture. Engaging with the world semiotically can help radically reframe our view from ‘what are people doing now?’ to ‘how might people respond tomorrow?’

Cultural Insight is always important for brands; even in periods of stability it’s the difference between being meaningful and being left behind. But this crisis may present the opportunity to bring about significant structural change – in politics, economics, and culture. Getting to the root of how people really feel about that – and knowing what to do about it – is exactly why Cultural Insight exists.

Charlie Hyde, Human & Cultural Practice

*A note here: this comes from the perspective of someone working comfortably at home. Baking – for those who work in cafes, restaurants, and the broader hospitality sector – is work, and many of these people are temporarily out of it. Healthcare professionals, cleaners, drivers, and all those who truly keep the country running may have neither the time nor the energy: their experience will of course be different. The crisis has exposed many pre-existing inequalities and fractures in our society: we will be saying more about this in the weeks ahead.


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