Tamal Ray is an anesthesiologist and was a finalist on Season 6 of “The Great British Bake Off.”
My epiphany of how quickly things were changing didn’t come with the first news reports of a novel virus in Wuhan, nor from my conversations with colleagues at the hospital where I work as an anesthesiologist. It happened in the baking aisle of my local supermarket.
I had gone to pick up a few things for dinner several weeks ago — just before all those stories of stockpiling, before people realized how dearly important toilet paper was to them. This store normally did such meager business that I wondered how they paid rent each month. But that day, the place was heaving, a long queue snaking forward to each till.
The shelves were picked clean of fruit and vegetables, and there wasn’t a single loaf of bread or six-pack of mini-apple pies left. No matter. I strode to the baking aisle, sure that after years of baking at home, a spot of panic-buying wouldn’t affect me. I could make as many biscuits and boules and puff-pastry pies as my oven would allow. But my confidence crumbled like an overmixed cake when I saw the section as barren as the rest of the store. Even the ground almonds, previously the province of macaron lovers and the gluten-free, were gone. I didn’t have weeks to prepare for the coronavirus. It was here, it was changing our lives, and I wasn’t going to be the only one baking through it.
It seems the whole globe has ignited their ovens. Pictures of cakes and pies have sprung up all over social media, alongside accounts of beginning bakers’ first forays into sourdough. People the world over are keeping their bodies and minds occupied through the simple act of making something. For many, baking has become the perfect cure for the boredom that comes from having been grounded by your government. Stuck at home all day, idle hands need something to do, so what better time for all those rainy-day projects?
Doing my own home baking and seeing everyone else’s has become an essential distraction for me. Because, while most people’s work, school and social lives have ground to a halt, for a hospital worker such as myself, things have gotten rather busier. Our schedules have been redrawn as we shift from caring for patients undergoing routine surgery to massively expanding our intensive-care capacity. We’re consumed by a cacophony of daily updates with grim statistics, graphs of runaway exponential curves and predictions of deaths in the tens of thousands.
But then I come home, change from what I wore to the hospital and don my apron. And I bake, because baking is about more than just filling idle time for those with too much of it. I bake because, in a time of unprecedented upheaval, it is uniquely comforting. Perhaps it’s that reassuring and familiar cadence of a recipe: Add one cup of flour, half a cup of milk, stir until the world melts away and you forget your troubles. Or being able to see a clear beginning and end when everything in the rest of our lives seem so uncertain; the structure of a recipe provides order to those cut off from their usual routine.
Best yet, through baking we relive our connections with the people we’re now separated from. I make a crumble and remember my sister teaching me to rub the cold butter and flour with my fingertips. I think of my niece and nephew squabbling over whose turn it is to stir the batter and lick the bowl. Video calls have been a godsend in this pandemic, but memory needs more to be nourished.
Every day at the hospital brings more patients with the telltale coughs, aches, breathlessness. I wonder how many more we will admit — how many we can admit — and, as colleagues start to fall ill, I wonder whether any of them will feel unwell enough to become our patients. How would I handle seeing co-workers become sick, seeing friends put on ventilators? I’m reminded daily of the many things out of my control: concerns over whether our PPE stocks will last, anger at the paucity of national testing. The only thing I can do in the face of a global disaster is focus on the patients in front of me and keep myself and my colleagues safe.
But in my kitchen, my quiet corner of the world, I still have control. I’ll knead the dough like I have done a hundred times before. I’ll stir the mix and pour the batter. I’ll watch bread rise and savor that familiar, delicious aroma as it crackles, fresh from the oven. And I’ll remember that here, in this moment, things still seem small and personal and manageable.