A Year into the Pandemic, Are Our New Cooking Habits Here to Stay?
When you look back on your long year of pandemic cooking, will you remember the beans? The bread? The burnout?
Whatever your signature quarantine dish, experts say this year almost certainly represents a culinary aberration — a time when we cooked more, and differently, before reverting to many of our old habits.
Google searches for “sourdough” have already nosedived since last April. Few of us still mess with shelf-stable milk. And dalgona coffee, once the proud centerpiece of the budding home barista’s repertoire, has fallen to matcha, Coke coffee, or — most likely — whatever local coffee shop has since reopened.
Call it further evidence of a phenomenon that food historians and sociologists know well: Significant, durable changes to the way people eat typically take generations. And while it may have felt, in the first, frantic throes of the pandemic, like cooking and eating would change forever — “the pandemic is forcing us all to become better cooks,” one representative headline read — there’s little evidence those early predictions ever came to fruition. Even on the fundamental question of whether people will cook at home more once this is all over, many experts say they doubt it.
“Food habits just don’t change that quickly,” said Harvey Levenstein, an emeritus professor of history at McMaster University in Ontario who has written several books on American eating.
Instead, home cooking goes through temporary fads and phases, much like fashion does. And in the search and social media data on pandemic cooking, you can discern the hazy outline of several distinct pandemic food moments, as fleeting as they were ubiquitous.
There was, for instance, that first, panicked scarcity phase when supermarkets seemed an unsafe place to venture and stores rationed flour and canned goods. The recipe app Yummly saw a surge in searches for substitutions last year: home cooks looking for desserts without milk and butter, or soup recipes made from frozen vegetables. On Google, the phrase “how to make coffee” spiked to record highs last April, along with terms like “powdered milk,” “MRE” and “grocery store.” A self-published cookbook called The Joy of Pandemic Cooking, released last March, promised easy recipes for “the panic-shopper and culinary novice” newly responsible for feeding himself. Unsurprisingly, its author told me sales dropped off a few weeks into the pandemic.
We also saw the rise of the pandemic project baker — the home cook striving for comfort, as the food studies scholar Muzna Rahman put it, by “access[ing] the sustaining pleasures of the domestic.” In the United States, Google searches for sourdough, peanut butter, milk, cloud and sandwich bread all spiked around the first week of last April, as did searches for brioche, challah, pita, naan, and focaccia. On TikTok, banana bread ranked among the year’s top recipes — as did “pancake cereal,” a stunt breakfast seemingly designed just to waste a few aimless, quarantined hours. By August, the fad had been all but forgotten.
As the months passed, a messy assemblage of smaller, less unified cooking phenomena also flared up and flamed out: a greater-than-average interest in some seasonal vegetables like zucchini, and a brief summer rage for dill pickles. For much of the past year, the most popular recipes on both major cooking sites and Google skewed toward the classic and the easy: pot roast, beans and rice, baked chicken — what Google data editor Simon Rogers calls “the hearty basics” of pandemic food.
No fads are universal, cautioned Joslyn Brenton, a sociologist at Ithaca College who studies home cooking. According to Brenton, low-income and working-class people, who tended to cook at home even before the pandemic, likely didn’t fuss over fruit tarts for cottagecore ‘grams or splurge on pasta attachments for their KitchenAids. There’s also some geographic variability to how people cooked last year, Rogers said: meatloaf across the southeast, for instance, in a nation of banana bread.
Twelve months in, however, most American cooks are united in the sense that so much cooking has gotten old. In December, trend forecasters at Pinterest predicted bored cooks would soon trade banana bread and shepherd’s pie for more ambitious projects, like restaurant-style plating, beignets and “art bread.” That same month, a report on U.S. cooking trends by the market research firm Mintel found that only a quarter of cooks still felt “enthusiastic” about the task. This time next year, the report concluded, Americans will have “returned entirely to [their] pre-lockdown habits” — namely, cooking only six or seven meals at home each week and eating the balance at restaurants.
None of this surprises Brenton, who has found that the popular discourse around home cooking often assumes, and expects, way too much of working women. It’s hard to make a one-pot pasta, let alone a sourdough loaf, when you’re spending eight or nine hours in an office again. Modern food culture is also rooted in restaurants, said Ashley Rose Young, a food historian at the Smithsonian Institute, and that sort of norm doesn’t change in a year or two. Even several years of rationing during the World Wars didn’t prompt Americans to kick red meat or sugar long-term.
“The desire for normalcy is very powerful,” Young said. “So I think we’re going to see a pretty dramatic return to the public culture of food after the pandemic.”
One possible exception, both Young and Brenton allow, is grocery shopping. The rapid expansion of online shopping and delivery over the past year dovetails with a 70-year trend toward convenience shopping that began with the supermarket in the 1950s. Even when the pandemic is over, many people will continue to shop online for delivery or curbside pickup, Young said. Sure enough, Google searches for both Instacart and Amazon Fresh remain elevated above their pre-pandemic levels.
Personally, I see the change in my own cooking, even as someone who always made dinner at home five or six nights a week. I approached the first days of lockdown with the unsmiling pragmatism of someone prepared to outlast a long siege. But while I still buy most of my groceries online now — and my husband, never a baker, still makes sourdough most weeks — we long ago abandoned our canned fish and DIY pickles and homefront self-sufficiency.
Now we too desire that “return to normal,” even if we’re unsure what it looks like just yet. We still don’t know when we’ll both be vaccinated, or which of our favorite restaurants will hold out until then. But recently, tired of my own small, sauce-splattered kitchen, I did turn to Google with a new question: How long after I get my second vaccine can I safely go out to eat with friends?