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Cooking our way to a new normal

It seems so surreal now. The hours-long queues to get into the supermarkets.

The neighbourhood WhatsApp groups announcing the arrival of bags of flour in the local shop. Our favourite restaurants shutting overnight. 

But it turns out humans are more adaptable than we believed. What seemed unthinkable in February turned into an accepted reality by April, and now seems like a bad dream. 

For many, the pandemic and lockdown underlined existing economic disparities. For low-income households where food was already scarce, it became more so. Others with health problems who were forced to shield found themselves losing what little independence they had, having to make-do with government food boxes of corned beef and sliced white bread. 

But while overwhelmingly coronavirus and lockdown brought misery, despair and despondency, there were glimmers of hope. 

As frustrating as they were, the scarcity of core ingredients such as eggs, flour and yeast demonstrated a keenness for people around the country to go back to basics. To get baking, fermenting and preserving. We didn’t just spend lockdown baking bread – we chose a bread notorious for its labour-intensity because we now had the time and didn’t have yeast; sourdough. 

Rather than looking at yet another week locked in our homes, time was now a marker for when our starter might be ready, or when our kimchi would be palatable. I rediscovered a love for cooking that I hadn’t enjoyed since being pregnant with my daughter, now two-and-a-half.

Dishes I’d wanted to make for years, I now had the time and inclination to cook. My crispy pork belly was perfected. I had the 12 hours needed to simmer soup for Tonkotsu ramen until it became cloudy with emulsified fat. I pulled out the pasta machine and worked to get the right bounce in my noodles. I made sourdough, fermented cabbage for sauerkraut, baked cookies and made gallons of stock.  

Ramen
Lockdown had a huge impact on food habits, from access to cooking.

And I wasn’t the only one. Google searches for ‘sourdough recipes’ surged more than 10-fold over lockdown compared with any time in the last five years, while ‘fermenting’ was searched for at least twice as much than at any other point in that period.   

Four times as many people looked up ‘how to make pizza’, reflecting a boom in home-cooked ‘fakeaways’ to satisfy cravings while our favourite takeaways were shuttered.  

They were unusual times, but have they led to lasting change? Fewer people are baking bread than they were mid-lockdown, but the numbers searching for baking recipes are still higher now than they were before lockdown.  

And independent food businesses appear busier than pre-lockdown. At The Butchery, my local butcher who only deals in whole carcass native breeds, manager Dan told me many of their new customers over lockdown had become regulars. They may have turned to them out of desperation when their usual bigger stores ran out, but they found better quality here and they have stayed. The same trends can be seen in vegetable box schemes. 

Inevitably, this new knowledge won’t be forgotten in a hurry. We have become a nation more adventurous in the kitchen, with a new inclination to cook more from scratch and an appreciation that the large-scale food systems we once took for granted aren’t as reliable as we thought. 

Lockdown wasn’t the best time for such realisations, but I’m glad they were made. 

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Melissa Thompson

Melissa Thompson is a food columnist, recipe writer and campaigner. She can be found at @fowlmouthsfood on Instagram.

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