The psychology of flour during the coronavirus pandemic

The question is, “What is everyone doing with all that flour?”

Flour, illustrative (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/VEGANBAKING.NET)
Flour, illustrative
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/VEGANBAKING.NET)
Among the most puzzling phenomena and “side effects” of the COVID-19 outbreak is the sudden rush on flour in the supermarkets. Every day we hear and read stories about small, independent flour companies that woke up one morning to a new reality. With restaurants and hotels closed down, the flour industry was facing the same grim economic reality as everyone else, as sales forecasts plummeted.
Suddenly, almost overnight, the situation flipped. With people facing an extended lockdown, there was a run on the supermarkets as people started stocking up on dry goods, and one of the products they most made a beeline for was the flour. Within a few days flour stocks were severely depleted and the milling companies has to shift into emergency high gear to keep up with the demand. As one independent miller puts it, “We have been milling our heads off!” Even now, with an easing of restrictions, the huge demand for flour continues and the milling industry is one of the few that is currently booming (along with the latex glove and face mask industries).
You would think that anyone faced with the prospect of indefinite lockdown would stock up with lots of canned goods, pasta, toiletries etc. and they did, but sales of those items did not match the unprecedented sales of flour. Those other industries never had to go into emergency production to keep up with the demand, like the flour industry.
A simple, logical answer to this is that before COVID-19, end consumer flour sales were never that high. Few people baked at home due to high pressured, demanding, modern lifestyles. Instead, they let other people bake for them and purchased ready-baked items. The majority of flour sales were industrial: the bakeries, restaurants, hotels, etc. Suddenly, with the increased demand of end consumer flour sales the flour mills were caught unprepared.
The question is, “What is everyone doing with all that flour?” The obvious answer is – they are baking with it, bread, cakes, cookies, etc. People who had never baked before in their lives suddenly started baking. People who until then were leading hectic, high-pressure lifestyles, suddenly found themselves cooped up at home with their family and nothing to do, so they started baking! Why baking? Why would people faced with lockdown opt to make a run specifically on the flour, rather than, say, the DVD store or the bookstore, in the knowledge that they would need to fill their time with some activity?
I am sure sociologists and psychologists will be pondering this question for years to come, but meanwhile, I would like to propose a theory to explain this unexpected phenomenon.
THE FACT that flour and baking were so high up on everyone’s subliminal agenda is that they touch on something basic in the human psyche. Encoded into our primitive brain is an instinct for survival and when this kicks in, it overrides our cognitive brain. All the rudiments of modern society fall away and assume second place to the prime motivator, the need for food. To the primitive brain, “food” is not the vanilla cream chocolate cookies that we have become so fond of and addicted to in recent years, it is the food of survival that has been imprinted in our genetically evolving DNA for millennia: flour and bread. The run on the flour signaled a primordial instinct to survive, because it is hardcoded into each and every one of us.
Flour is grounding. It strips away all the illusory conceptions we have surrounded ourselves with and returns us to what is real and essential. Having a stock of flour in the pantry is a kind of psychological insurance that whatever may come, we always have the age-old mainstay to rely on. But it is more than that.
There was no shortage of activities to occupy our time during the lockdown – the internet was still up and running, the TV still worked, the garden was still beckoning. Why, of all the activities available did so many people choose baking, many who had never baked before?
The reason is that we didn’t realize how lacking our lives are without baking. When faced with a crisis of apocalyptic proportions, so many people were unconsciously drawn to it because baking is comforting. It conjures up the feeling that we are in control again, we have the power to make our own food and despite everything else, at least we will not go hungry. It evokes comforting images of childhood, reminding us of a time when life was a little calmer, when people made time for the really important things in life, not the myriad illusory perceptions we have surrounded ourselves in our modern day and age.
When this crisis is behind us, the real question will be – what have we learned from it? Hopefully we will take the good things and continue to make them part of our lives.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (www.saidels.com), that specializes in baking and teaching how to bake healthy, traditional Jewish bread. He also manages the Showbread Institute (www.showbreadinstitute.org) which researches the biblical showbread.


Tags food culinary