A few weeks ago, Carrie Jordan Barad tried to make her own sourdough starter from scratch. Unfortunately, her would-be starter got moldy (a common sourdough mishap), so she posted on the neighborhood social media network NextDoor to see if anyone had some to share.
A generous fellow Longmont resident saw her post and offered up some sourdough starter. Since then, Jordan Barad has been making several loaves a week. Because she often has excess bread, she’s been sharing it with neighbors and friends — she’ll put a fresh loaf in a pot and leave it on their doorstep.
“We’ve already started creating a lot deeper relationships with our neighbors,” said Jordan Barad, a full-time mom to a 7-month-old girl. “They are so generous with us that it feels really good to have something to offer them in reciprocity.”
If you feel like your Instagram feed is suddenly full of artfully staged pictures of crusty bread rounds and holey cross-sections of sourdough, you’re not imagining things.
Across Colorado, baking bread at home has become a wildly popular hobby during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s more than just the act of baking: Bread is helping to foster a sense of community during an otherwise lonely time. Total strangers are offering up their sourdough starters, neighbors are splitting huge bags of flour and friends are trading yeast for flour and other coveted pandemic supplies.
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“One of the things this pandemic is teaching us is to slow down and think local and bring back those ancestral skills that we’ve lost,” said Jordan Barad. “People don’t bake their own bread anymore and people don’t grow their own food anymore and we need to be doing those things to stay resilient.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, grocery stores sold out of household and kitchen staples, like toilet paper, eggs, beans, pasta and bread. Now, faced with a national meat shortage, stores are limiting the number of meat items customers can buy at one time.
All this has prompted many Coloradans to reevaluate how and where they get their food. People are responding in different ways — planting vegetable gardens, getting backyard chickens, foraging, shopping at roadside farm stands and baking bread from scratch.
“In a time where we have so little control over so many things, bread is a way for people to get a little control over things in their life again,” said Chelly Klann, who teaches cooking and baking classes under the name The Good Food Project.
In addition to wanting to be more self-sufficient, perhaps the biggest reason people are getting into bread-making is that they simply have more time on their hands.
Having a sourdough starter is a lot like having a pet, Klann said — it requires constant attention or it will die.
“Bread has a mind of its own and it can’t be rushed — it’s done when it wants to be done,” said Klann. “It’s really got its own timetable and it’s such a metaphor for our lives.”
Bakeries are responding to this sudden interest in bread-baking in whatever ways they can, nimbly transforming into mercantiles, virtual classrooms and community resource centers.
Denver’s Rebel Bread usually operates as a wholesale bakery, supplying bread and pastries to local coffee shops, but all of that business dried up when the on-premise dining shutdown took effect. The bakery quickly pivoted to home bread delivery and also began selling flour. Free sourdough starter became one of its most popular items, and the bakery began hosting its bread-making classes online.
With a bit more time on his hands, head baker Zach Martinucci also revived a pre-pandemic dream of his: to host a week-long camp all about bread. For a week in mid-April, 20 bakers logged onto Zoom every day for 30 minutes or a few hours, depending on the day, and learned how to make sourdough from start to finish — with Martinucci as their virtual teacher.
“It was the best version of (a cooking class) — me being in their homes as much as I could, while at the same time being an entirely personal process,” he said. “There was zero opportunity for cooking show magic. Anything they made at the end came out of their own kitchen and their own hands. It was entirely their own doing.”
Martinucci speculates that people have always been interested in baking bread, but they’ve also viewed it as a lengthy, somewhat finicky process. Now, though, they have the mental capacity to take on a more complex project.
“A slow hobby actually feels really appealing right now,” he said. “If I’m going to start a hobby in quarantine, I want it to at least last the week.”
Moxie Bread Co., which has locations in Louisville and North Boulder, has become more of a bodega than a bakery during the pandemic.
Founder Andy Clark, who’s been baking for more than 25 years, said he’s never seen this much interest in bread-making before. Moxie has always given away its sourdough starter for free, but has seen a huge increase in requests.
His staff is now focused primarily on milling and bagging various types of flour to sell to home-bakers. Clark has also added links to bread-baking resources and guides on the Moxie website.
Baking bread is just one of the many beautiful things happening while “the world is on its knees,” he said.
“Baking requires time and focus, but the rewards are so deep and rich and beautiful,” said Clark.
And while, in theory, sharing his ingredients and recipes could result in a drop in bakery sales, Clark isn’t too worried about that. After all, baking bread is a long, time-consuming process that can take years to truly master. People will continue buying bread, he said, even though they know how to bake their own.
“A lot of people covet recipes and processes,” he said. “There’s a lot of competitive energy out there, and there are a lot of people who want to keep their secret recipes secret. We don’t feel that way; we share recipes all the time. We encourage people to do it all the time.”
Boulder home-baker Susan Wadle has also been sharing her bread-making tips and tricks with friends, family members and neighbors. It’s helped her connect with her 18-year-old grandson in California, for example, and her friends, who are all splitting a 50-pound bag of flour she ordered.
Last week, she made a challah recipe that produced four large loaves, which meant she had extra bread to share around.
“It’s really lovely,” she said. “We have friends who have been so generous and gracious and helpful to us in terms of running errands so we don’t have to, so my bread is a way of giving back and it feels really good.”
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