Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: ‘Pandemic Privilige’ is a true rarity

It’s Week Ten of The Quarantine and I am obsessed with bread. I apologize in advance to anyone who doesn’t tolerate gluten, you may not enjoy this column. Back when things were regular, when a trip to buy groceries didn’t feel life threatening, I wasn’t much of a bread baker. I mean, I could knock out a pretty decent challah on a Friday afternoon, but for the most part I was perfectly happy to buy bread that someone else baked.
But I always admired people who could keep a sourdough starter alive, people who understood the basics of no-knead, hot-oven bread making. I had made a few attempts, but with lackluster results. My friend Cindy once gifted me some sourdough starter, with two pages of handwritten instructions for how to keep it alive and how to bake the delicious loaves that she seemed to be able to create effortlessly. I regret to admit that the jar of starter languished, unfed, in the back of my refrigerator for YEARS. It even had a neighbor in that unseen corner of the icebox, a second jar of starter, given to me by another friend and expert baker. I recently added the slimy contents of both of these jars to our backyard compost pile, while swearing that should anyone else ever trust me enough to give me a sourdough starter, I would be a standup, non-neglectful dough parent.
Welcome to the new me. I feed my starter as often as I feed my cats. And I bake bread every day. I bake so much bread that I give loaves to my neighbors on a regular schedule. I show my golden, round loaves off to my students and friends on social media. Yes, I am an annoying bread showoff! And I am not alone. Across the country, as homebound Americans weather the months of physical distancing, baking has become a source of physical and emotional nourishment for people of all ages. So many people are baking that yeast and flour are in short supply. Last month I shipped ten pounds of flour to my aunt and uncle in Brooklyn. 
So far, we are super lucky here in Vermont. Not only is our rate of infection from COVID-19 the lowest in the whole United States, but we are still able to purchase flour, yeast, and other baking supplies. I am baking so much that I just picked up my SECOND 50-pound bag of King Arthur flour from the co-op! In some parts of the country, flour is available, but baking yeast is not. So the upsurge in interest in sourdough baking, in which the bread is leavened with starter instead of commercial yeast makes perfect sense.
People working from home have a lot more ability to take on kitchen projects, even ones that last many hours, than we used to. And some of us have a tremendous amount of what can rightly be called Pandemic Privilege. What is Pandemic Privilege? It’s having a safe home to live in, where we don’t fear physical or emotional violence. It’s having money to buy food, and enough of a financial cushion to be able to afford two or three weeks of groceries all at once. It’s having enough space inside our house, that we can go into a separate room when our family is annoying us. It’s having a place outside the house, a yard or garden, a lovely place to take a walk and breathe fresh air. It’s having Wi-Fi, to be able to work remotely, or complete our schoolwork online. I have all of these things and more. I have Pandemic Privilege.
I also have Pandemic Anxiety that wakes me up in the middle of the night. I worry about my aunts and uncles in New York City. I worry about the hundreds of thousands of people in jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible. I worry about women experiencing physical and emotional abuse, in homes they can’t leave. I worry about Black Americans who are 13% of the population, yet make up 27% of deaths from COVID-19.
I wish I could make something useful out of my fear for the future, out of my rage at the injustice playing out in our country and in our own community, where elementary school teachers worry every day about whether their students are getting enough to eat. I wish I could transform my grief into something like compost, that dark, rich, magical substance that nourishes our garden plants. I wish it was safe for all of us to gather together in a circle, to hold hands, and sing together, to send up a giant prayer for healing and safety.
Right now I am putting all of those wishes into the bowl with the sourdough starter, the water, flour, and salt. I am making bread for my neighbors. 
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com.

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