Millennials’ supposed aversion to daily cooking and lack of kitchen competency is well-worn fodder for concern trolling, but the generation’s actual relationship to food prep appears to be more complicated. Surveys concluding that people in their 20s and 30s cook less usually measure day-to-day meal preparation, which doesn’t tell the whole story. Young Americans’ long work hours might mean they’re less likely to come home every night in time to roast a chicken instead of ordering takeout, but many of them seem to have turned to weekend baking as a salve for the ambient anxiety of being alive in 2018. There’s a good reason for that: Baking actually can be really relaxing.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s annual poll, 40 percent of Americans report feeling more anxious in 2018 than they did in 2017, which saw a 36 percent increase over 2016. “We’re at a time when people who aren’t used to any self-care practices are having to develop them for the first time in their lives,” Kat Kinsman, a food journalist who’s written a book on her struggles with anxiety, told me. “People are afraid to spend money, and they’re feeling like shit. Baking is cheap, it’s easy, and it’s visceral.”
That combination of attributes brought Kinsman back to baking while in grad school for metalworking, years after she had taken it up as a quiet, nerdy kid in order to offer treats to friends. As an adult, she was broke, stressed out, and in need of something pleasant to do with her hands to contrast what she did in her classes. “You’re digging your hands into something pliable, and with an immediate result to it,” Kinsman said. “Everything else seemed so distant and painful, in a way, and this was something I could whip out and there it was. Instant gratification.” Even when she was too stressed out to eat the result herself, she’d bring her cookies and cakes into school. (Apparently the stress eaters in her program also profited.)
Folu Akinkuotu, a 28-year-old who lives in Boston and works in e-commerce—and someone whose impressive off-hours baking exploits I follow on social media—also started baking more in college as a way to make friends during her freshman year. Now she does it as a foil to the ephemerality of her professional life. “It’s nice to be able to bake and know that I’m creating something that has a beginning and an end and people can enjoy it,” she says. “A lot of people have jobs that traffic in ideas or theoretical things, so it’s nice to make physical things.”
At the beginning of 2018, Akinkuotu took things a step further, challenging herself to make one elaborate cake per month until the end of the year. “I wanted to give myself some structure, because I don’t have a ton of that in my life,” she says. “There’s work, but being a young person who lives alone, my time is always my own, pretty much. It’s nice to have a deadline.”