As Hunter students enter another month of distance learning, many students say that it has been difficult to reconcile themselves with the routine and events that are missing from their lives. For most, only the essentials remain: classes (now entirely online), maintenance of basic hygiene (which seems questionable), and food. For some, this last daily essential has slowly become their saving grace.
“I feel like Jessie Mueller in Waitress when I bake from scratch, and that is worth,” says Hunter senior Charlotte Athanasidy. Broadway aficionados will be familiar with her reference, but for those who are not so attuned to the happenings on the Great White Way, “Waitress” focuses on a pie prodigy who thinks through her problems in song, singing “sugar, butter, flour” as she bakes. For Athanasidy, however, baking doesn’t help her sort out romantic entanglements the way it does for the play’s lead — it serves a much larger purpose.
“I’m a gal who likes distraction when I’m stressed, and baking is a lovely distraction,” Athanasidy says of the hobby she has now picked up again. Indeed, living in unprecedented and uncertain times such as these has certainly had its effect on students. To Athanasidy, baking is a way to cope with the stress of our times; “When you’re having a stressful day but there’s a from-scratch semi-fresh cake in the fridge, it feels a little less stressful,” she says.
Athanasidy isn’t the only Hunter student turning to baking. Senior Chloe Carter-Daves is also feeling the call to bake.
“It’s something to focus on other than the news. It’s something I can feel proud of,” Carter-Daves says. “It’s an opportunity for my skills to build on one another and it makes me feel, even if just for an hour or two, like this quarantine is time well spent.” She maintains that, besides providing tasty treats, baking is helping her mental health, adding that “I think that cooking and baking is supportive for my overall mental state. It gives me goals and challenges and a sense of purpose when so many of the things that previously did that have been taken away because of the pandemic.”
There is, of course, something to be said for this phenomenon, especially among Hunter students — and it is, at least, a little bit humorous. Hunter has often been criticized for its lack of student life or sense of community. Not only is it a commuter school, but Hunter sees a diverse range of students, some who take classes at odd hours to maintain full-time jobs, some who are juggling two internships and some who are commuting a couple of hours to get to class — the list goes on and on. It is a student body that never sleeps learning in the city that never sleeps, sustaining itself on “grind culture,” overpriced coffee and chicken-over-rice. But now that New York itself has come to a shrieking halt, Hunter students have time and energy to focus their attention on an oft forgotten aspect of their lives: food.
Good food and the way to make it, plate it and pair it (with beverages of all kinds) has never been more accessible. YouTube channels for various amatuer chefs and food magazines have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, with the chefs from the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen becoming bona fide celebrities, their channel boasting 5.8 million followers. The simple goal of all of these food celebrities? To make good food and good cooking easy for anyone to access and attain. One would be hard-pressed to find a millennial or Gen Z-er without a couple of recipes or food-Instagram shots stored away neatly in their archives, often tapped away with the wistful hope that one day, they might have the precious time necessary to make sourdough from scratch.
Now, with many people staying inside their homes with no real end in sight, folks have taken that as a signal that this is now their time to fulfill their dreams of becoming master breadmakers. In fact, so many Americans feel called to fulfill their dreams of mastering baking and bread-making, that there has been an unprecedented demand for flour, comparable only to need seen during holidays.
Hunter graduate and adjunct professor Jenna Tipaldo has definitely felt that pain.
“We haven’t been able to find yeast in the past few weeks,” Tipaldo says. Nevertheless, she and her roommate have since managed to make a sourdough starter, so there is hope for those without yeast.
Tipaldo’s culinary pursuits, however, don’t end there.
“My roommate is vegan and I cook mostly vegan food, so we’ve been experimenting with new recipes together,” Tipaldo says. Experiments have included a vegan matzo ball soup, latkes and black bean burgers. The latkes ended up being a particularly perilous endeavor, as Tipaldo and her roommate realized they did not have the vegetable grater necessary to make their latkes, but took their chances with a spiralizer and it ended up with latkes that were worth the risk. For Tipaldo, however, culinary adventures have always been a part of her life, not just a side effect of recent events.
“I have dietary restrictions so I’ve cooked most of my meals in the past few years,” Tipaldo says, old hat at the cooking and baking adventures some might be embarking on for the first time. However, with the extra time on her hands, Tipaldo has also found a way to incorporate her fondness for the plants that she grows into her cooking.
“There’s something special about eating food you’ve grown, feeling connected to the earth,” Tipaldo says of the basil, cilantro, chives and other spices that she grows. “I’ve really turned to gardening as a source of comfort through all of this craziness.”
Indeed, students’ new pastimes of cooking and baking have been small comforts, redirecting their energies to something with a tangible and delicious outcome. Not only have students themselves found comfort within the kneading of dough and sizzle of a pan, but so have the folks sharing their space during this lockdown.
“It’s also an activity my sister and I like to do together and something that makes the whole house happy so that is a big plus,” Athanasidy added in the midst of discussing frosting innovations she’d recently experimented with (for those curious, brown sugar and cream cheese frosting has been a recent hit in the Athanasidy household). Of course, this comes as no surprise, but it is heartwarming to think that when so much of the world that people are used to has fallen away, food still serves to bring them together. Often, we are used to a big celebratory meal or feast to signify a special occasion, or the use baked goods to show a token of affection. A plate of cookies means love that is measured in the precious time it takes to make them. These things still hold true in our uncertain times today.
“Baking is also a nice opportunity to provide a bit of comfort and luxury for my roommates,” Carter-Daves says. “It’s less about exchanging bakes or switching off baking responsibilities; it’s more like someone will bake something and leave it in the kitchen and whoever wants food is welcome to help themselves.” Instead of there being any sense of obligation or pretense, a concoction of “sugar, butter, flour” can be a small reminder of good things in scary times. Perhaps Carter-Daves herself says it best: “Baking is fun, but baking for others is even more fun.”
Wonderfully enough, Hunter’s community is also finding that they don’t need to be physically making each other food in order to maintain that sense of fun and love.
“I’ve gotten great recipes from friends and family,” Tipaldo says of the practice. “Exchanging recipes is a touching way to stay connected when we can’t physically share a meal.”
The practice takes on a more meaningful tone when considering the various spring holidays that have recently passed. With most people unable to celebrate with extended family, sharing recipes so that everyone may have a taste of home and tradition provides a bit of light and a sense of togetherness, even while being far apart.
Of course, Hunter’s students and faculty are not the only ones becoming at-home Master Chefs and star bakers. As Twitter user @matchu_chutrain put it, “Half of us are gonna come out of this quarantine as amazing cooks and the other half is gonna come out with a drinking problem. There is no in between.” So, the question remains if the kitchens at home will stay open once the rest of the world opens up as well.
“I cooked a lot before this because my dietary restrictions make it hard not to, but I hope to try to cook more often once this ends,” Tiplado says. With a flourishing garden of herbs and more recipes under her belt, it would be tough not to. Others who did not have the need for it before are hoping to keep up their recent culinary exploits as well.
“It’s something I’ve loved doing for years and years but my free time has waned,” Carter-Daves admits. “I hope that once I graduate and I have fewer things on my plate that I can make more of an effort to become an accomplished baker.” So far, she seems set on accomplishing that goal during quarantine; a few days after speaking with The Envoy, she perfected a caramel apple galette.
Others still are a bit more realistic.
“Well, some days my quarantine-bake is a package of break-apart chocolate chip cookies!” Athanasidy readily confesses, though she does add that she hopes to find time for it in later days as well.
Of course, finding solace in these uncertain times through cooking, baking and sharing the breads of one’s labor doesn’t have to translate into a project that extends past this lockdown, just as the routines we follow in this lockdown likely won’t extend past this time either. However, if Hunter students can find some sort of joy, comfort, sense of accomplishment or even sheer distraction through the rhythmic kneading of dough, careful assembly of ingredients and whisking together recipes passed down for generations, perhaps that is reason enough to celebrate.