Not so long ago — but when you sit to stew on it, more like a couple lifetimes — everyone you knew was baking. In the depths of quarantine, with not much else to do at the end of the day but wile away the hours, baking sourdough bread, elaborately icing cakes, decorating cookies, or laminating pastries (if you were really dedicated) was a pretty good way to make the clock hands move faster. For hours, you could focus on the sweet task in front of you, and at the end — whaddayaknow — there would be a nice little reward.
Though it was a trope long before the pandemic began, an interesting side effect of many people discovering baking in recent history was the idea that the hobby could cure, or at the very least forestall, the pandemic-induced or exacerbated depression lurking in so many of our minds. In the earliest days of quarantine, the luckiest among us could pretend this was a jaunty little sleepover: What homesteading projects could we take on and talk about together? How could this help us process these collective big feelings? Would baking this loaf of sourdough make us angry, sad, happy, or blissfully ignorant of the mess all around us? Grocery stores had flour and yeast shortages as baking became the prescription for all that ailed us emotionally. But a few years later, in reflection, it’s time to ask: Did it work?
No one has searched more for the answer to this question than Tanya Bush. In November 2020, Bush — a freelance baker, writer, and grad student — began the Instagram account @will.this.make.me.happy, where she chronicles her regular dessert-making, asking whether or not her “anti-depressant confections” will make her happy. When she began the account, “it was the heyday of the stress-baking article, those pop-y prescriptions that appeared each week with claims that baking banana bread might alleviate existential dread and malaise,” Bush recalled over email. “I’d been making sweets as a distraction, but so far it hadn’t had much efficacy. I decided to document my quest for a pastry-cure as an experiment on Instagram.” Bush was looking for a place to complain, as she put it, as well as a place where she could find some camaraderie among bakers who were probing the same question.
The format of each Instagram post is always the same: a disembodied hand holds up an elegant baked good against a pastel striped background. They all look delicious: a banoffee tart with dulce de leche, toasted black sesame ice cream on a wafer cone, brown butter raspberry financiers with pistachio glaze. One would think any anxious person would at least find emotional respite from these baked treats. But, most often for Bush, the answer to the question “will this make me happy?” is no.
“No. Raspberry lemon panna cotta in the shape of a brownstone did not keep my anxiety from corroding any facade of normalcy.”