Last word
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Use your loaf

Domesticity used to be considered boring. This year, it’s become trendy. But has the fetishisation of household chores gone too far? The Financial Times columnist  Emma Jacobs chews over the issue. 

A couple of years ago, my partner received an ugly gift: a small jar filled with stinking, beige gloop. He was utterly delighted. Where I saw ugliness cluttering the kitchen, he saw potential. For inside that jar was a sourdough starter, a mix of flour and water that ferments, creating natural yeast to make bread.

 

Over the months he nurtured it with love and attention, earning him the nickname Sourdough Dad. Of course, our family teasing had to be gentle. The starter was revolting but the loaves were delicious and we happily scoffed them fresh from the oven, butter dribbling down our arms.

 

This year, the laugh was on us. As the pandemic swept the world and people retreated to their homes, breadmaking became the new black. Throngs took to kneading and proving their loaves, sparking a run on flour and yeast. 

 

I even joined in and became Baker Mum, rearranging a phone call with a contact so I could nip out to the local shop and score the last of their bread flour with a baggie of yeast. I felt a sense of achievement in mastering a new skill. It was therapeutic: a small window when I wasn’t checking my emails or trying to write, while explaining ratios to my eight-year-old. Outside the front door, the world was in chaos. But inside was a tiny part of life I could control. 

Lockdown was necessarily all about home. Friends went into overdrive: cooking ambitious recipes, learning needlecraft, gardening – and making sure their best efforts were proudly displayed on social media. A furloughed friend even took up whittling. It gave shape to his days and stopped him fretting about the threat of redundancy. 

One night a friend called, on the brink of quitting her job, torn between home-schooling and the pressures of work. Perhaps she should bake cakes full-time instead? I felt a tightness in my chest

Out went busyness; in came the slow lane. No more rushing to drop kids at school, commuting, zipping to the office, only to do the same thing again in reverse. 

 

As Carl Honoré wrote in his book, In Praise of Slow: “Sometimes it takes a wake-up call, doesn’t it, to alert us to the fact that we’re hurrying through our lives instead of actually living them; that we’re living the fast life instead of the good life... For many people, that wake-up call takes the form of an illness.”

 

The pandemic certainly triggered reflection, despite workloads increasing for many, as employers struggled to keep companies afloat and parents juggled sales targets with teaching offspring trigonometry. As lockdown eased, many people tried to retain some of 

that slowness.

 

Yet things were changing, even before coronavirus struck. The Great British Bake-Off was watched by millions across the world and cake tin sales went through the roof. It seemed that as job progression became less dependable, so mastering the home and oneself through cooking, gardening and fitness increased. Performative domesticity became a new form of status. Once people bragged about making partner, now they could wax lyrical about the mushrooms they had foraged.

 

But the pandemic took this idealisation of home and hearth to a new level – with sometimes troubling ramifications. One night a friend called, on the brink of quitting her job, torn between home-schooling and the pressures of work. Perhaps she should bake cakes full-time instead? I felt a tightness in my chest. Such domesticity felt suffocating, the world too small. 

 

The next morning, despite a sense of internal unease, I set about my planned project for the day – bagel-making. I’d seen friends’ creations. How hard could it be? Harder than you might think, is the answer. Mine were disgusting. I threw them in the bin and bought some instead.

 

It was an epiphany. If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the pandemic, it is that life’s too precious to be wasted making bagels. Domesticity is not the future – at least for those of us who have a choice n

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