Throughout the lockdown, I was still working full time at home. Actually, my colleagues and I have never worked so bloody hard, or been under so much pressure. I have been reminded that one’s colleagues aren’t just people you work with – they are as necessary as friends and family for mental wellbeing and supportiveness. The opposite can also be true, of course. But mine are great. Really great. And while working from home can have its benefits in terms of eliminating commuting and saving a few bob on petrol, I’ve really missed the physical presence of my colleagues. Zoom, Teams and Skype have helped fill some of that gap left by isolation, but not all of it.
So, in between bouts of peering into a screen of stacked faces resembling a badly dressed episode of Blankety Blank, developing eye strain and an RSI of the wrists, I’ve managed to combine my essential breaks with a spot of cooking.
This is done mostly just for me as I live alone with only my dog for company, but also for a few people I’ve been keeping an eye on in lockdown. Friends who’ve relied on me and others to do their shopping. I’ve always thought that the gifts of food reach places in our minds and emotions that other gifts simply cannot. They pleasantly remind us of what it is to be ‘human’ in a community of inter-dependent individuals that really do need each other. Leaving aside maslovian motivations for a moment, food’s symbolic factor is penetrating and universal. It says ‘I care’ like nothing else. And it might sound a bit fanciful, but if you are what you eat, then that care becomes part of you too.
For me, baking is the perfect mode of edible emotional expression. It’s in the genes. My maternal grandmother was a professional baker, and I only ever had industrially produced cakes at friends’ houses and a school. She made the family’s wedding and Christmas cakes – even our Easter eggs were hand-crafted in copper moulds. So, even from an early age, I knew that to have access to the same quality of food as my grandmother’s, I’d have to learn the art of baking. There’s something about the skilled and tactile process of baking that I find quite mesmerising. It has the same appeal as alchemy – an almost magical, creative art and science. You can taste the care in a homemade cake that is glaringly absent in its industrial cousins. The brilliance of the Great British Bake-off was that its producers identified the enormous dormant desire to invest food with that same care again.
And when I became ill myself during the lockdown, friends started coming to my house, leaving food on the doorstep, and at one point, my front door became like a shrine to soup and pastries. I’m still incredibly moved by that.