Over the past few months, the best place to trace America’s deepening pandemic anxieties has been the shelves of grocery and big-box stores. The first common household goods to disappear were disinfectants: hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, Lysol. Bottled water and toilet paper were snatched up once companies started advising workers to stay home. Next up were rice and dried pasta, followed by video-game consoles, microphones used to record podcasts, and at-home pedicure supplies.
Amid these disappearances, one of the most persistent has been that of an extremely common, shelf-stable product that has no obvious link to cleanliness or quarantine at all: flour. At first, flour hung around on shelves while people bought up dried beans and canned tomatoes. Then, several weeks ago, while America watched as unsold vegetables were plowed back into the soil and fretted over the earliest outbreaks among midwestern meatpackers, one flour company quietly saw its sales skyrocket 2,000 percent. Flour was nowhere to be found in stores, and it soon disappeared from the internet. Quickly, evidence that a person had bought and used flour became proof of her irredeemable profligacy to people who love to get mad online, who grew frustrated by the baking projects of those who had found flour when they hadn’t. Home bakers were accused of flour privilege. Never had emotions run so high about milled wheat.
For most other products vaporized by pandemic demand, supplies are bouncing back. Manufacturers are catching up, or the spike is subsiding. But scooping up a bag of flour still often depends on dumb luck, even as packaged bread and other flour-based processed foods remain abundant. It doesn’t take much detective work to figure out where it’s all going: Facebook has been flooded with photos of homemade focaccias, pancakes, and banana breads. On Twitter, people are on their third or fourth wave of backlash to sourdough as a concept. Americans are baking a ton, and the nation’s flour supply has fallen victim to our newfound hobby.
The story of the missing flour seems to be different from reports of hoarding, black markets, or panic buying that have caused other persistent shortages during the pandemic. Faced with the quick collapse of the country’s robust convenience economy, which has adapted to feeding people millions of sandwich-bread slices, burger buns, croissants, and pizza crusts every day, Americans have been forced to confront a fundamental bargain that the food system had made on their behalf: The broad availability of prepared and processed foods means that a lot of people have no idea what they’re doing in the kitchen. Now millions of people are hurtling backward into an existence where frequent breadmaking feels like an elemental part of American life.
For flour manufacturers, the deluge has come in two separate waves. In mid-March, flour shelves thinned out, but mostly didn’t empty, as people were stocking up on all kinds of staples they’d need to stay home for a few weeks of regular cooking. “It was very similar to what you’d see during a hurricane, except it was happening all over the United States,” says Brent Minner, a marketing director for Hometown Food Company, which owns the White Lily, Pillsbury, Arrowhead Mills, and Martha White brands of flour. The real flour rush began in late March, as it became clear that states’ initial stay-at-home orders would likely be extended. Minner says market-wide demand shot up more than 160 percent, with no signs of abating: “We are making the flour as fast as we possibly can and shipping it to our customers, and it’s flying off the shelves as soon as it gets there.”
This sudden demand has thrown a wrench into the flour distribution process. In America’s industrialized-food supply chain, getting ingredients to the people who want them depends on far more than availability of the food itself. Supplies of wheat have actually remained abundant for flour brands, because less is being sent to restaurants and industrial bakeries. But brands are competing with one another to source the paper bags that consumer flour is packed in, as well as the trucks and drivers necessary to move it around the country. Bags of flour are big and bulky, and are allotted relatively little space on store shelves. And there’s the matter of making the flour—factories can ramp up their production only so much and still keep employees safe.
Milling is an industry used to very predictable consumer patterns. The people who buy the largest amount of flour are mostly avid hobbyists, reliable in their yearly baking needs. For occasional bakers, the busiest time is always around the holidays. By spring, sales and production have slowed, so the quarantine spike hit an unprepared market. And not only has the pandemic changed how much flour people want to buy, but also which types. White Lily is known primarily for its self-rising flour, which is commonly used by southern chefs to make biscuits, but the brand’s much less popular bread flour has seen the biggest sales jump.
Until March, advising people that bread-making is an essential life skill would have sounded to many like being told to learn how to churn their own butter or raise their own barn. But the pandemic-inspired rush to baking is a good reminder that many Americans’ arm-length relationship with their kitchen is a recent phenomenon. Forty years ago, it was far less common for U.S. grocery stores to have a bakery heaving with fresh loaves of sourdough and customizable birthday cakes. If the coronavirus had hit in 1985, fewer people likely would have had to buy a new sack of flour and package of yeast to make sandwich bread, because those ingredients already would have been sitting in their pantry.
Baking didn’t decline over the past few decades because people hated making cookies or got no satisfaction from creating a perfectly airy pan of focaccia. Instead, the structures of everyday life changed. As women flooded into the workforce in the ’70s and ’80s, the country’s home cooks and bakers had less time for the duties normally ascribed to them. Rather than shifting to other people in the family, those responsibilities shifted to grocery stores and restaurants. “The gap between men’s and women’s housework has fallen quite a bit in the last couple of decades,” says Joanna Pepin, a researcher at the University of Texas who studies domestic inequality. “Mostly that’s because women are doing a lot less housework, and then no one’s doing it.”
The changes this wrought were as philosophical as they were practical. Many working- and middle-class moms found themselves frustrated, stuck between full-time work and full-time housework, and that affected how they raised their children. Some moms purposefully didn’t teach their daughters how to cook. “Our parents were probably afraid to raise us to be in the kitchen,” says Deb Perelman, the founder of Smitten Kitchen and the author of multiple cookbooks. “They wanted us to do other things and not be stuck cooking for a family for the rest of our lives.” (Perelman started her recipe blog in 2006 when she realized that she didn’t know how to make many of the things she wanted to be able to cook at home.)
This trade-off has helped further unshackle a generation of women from lives filled with little more than compulsory cooking and cleaning. But the pandemic has highlighted just how unwilling American culture has been to adapt to the dual-income household, which is now as much of a basic financial necessity for most families as it is a practice of modern gender parity. Without easy access to the restaurants, fast-food chains, and massive grocery stores that sprang up to buttress the untenable lifestyle of always-working American families, staying out of the kitchen is no longer an easy option for anyone. Stuck inside and in need of both inexpensive activities and three meals a day, lots of people have begun to realize that they just don’t know how to do very many things for themselves.
But along with the illusion of self-sufficiency, the normally plentiful reasons to not try making pie crust or English muffins have vanished. Dough that needs to proof or chill for a few hours? No problem; you’ll be around. Tend to let leftovers languish in your fridge while you buy lunch at work and go out to dinner a few nights a week? Suddenly, your meal plan just got a lot more predictable. Go ahead and cook.
In the weeks since Perelman and her family began sheltering in place in their New York City apartment, she’s noticed some distinct changes in what readers want from her, and in what they’re cooking. “White bread was something that I’ve made over the years a bunch of times just on my own, but I would never publish it,” she told me. “Could you imagine publishing a recipe for white bread? But now everyone wants the white-bread recipe.” In the first several weeks, people kept tagging her Instagram handle in their banana-bread attempts, a trend for which Perelman has developed a theory. “I think everyone who’s making banana bread got grocery delivery, and the groceries come on refrigerated trucks, which ruins bananas,” she said. “And then you have five yucky bananas at once.”
The yucky truck bananas are a rookie mistake, but course-correcting for those errors is among the rewards of being a reasonably experienced home baker. At a time when going to the grocery store is risky and it may not even contain everything you need for a particular dish, building basic proficiency to make flour tortillas or loaves of whole-wheat bread is a deeply sensible impulse, even if you turn the process into an Instagram story. And baking is a comforting activity for many people. It requires both physical and mental focus. Kids can be enlisted to help. Flour is its own sort of jigsaw puzzle (a product that has also disappeared from many stores during lockdown), but instead of an image of a grand castle or pastoral countryside at the end, you get to eat some cinnamon rolls.
It’s too early to know whether Americans forced to develop their cooking and baking skills will keep going once more restaurants reopen and returning to the grocery store for just one or two things feels less indulgent. But for the people who sell flour, one of the pandemic’s by-products might just be a solution to their biggest long-term problem: convincing people to give baking a shot. “The hardest thing to do is get people to make biscuits once,” Minner, of Hometown Food, says. “It’s a skill that they maybe always have wanted to pick up but just didn’t have the time to do it, because they weren’t at home long enough.” If there’s one thing millions of Americans aren’t lacking right now, it’s time in their homes. Now if they could just get a bag of flour.