What is it that makes baking such a soothing, evocative pastime?
There’s something ritualistic about baking. Laying out the ingredients (running to the corner shop to pick up the one thing you forgot), weighing the quantities, working everything together, putting it in the oven, taking it out of the oven (discovering a wobbly centre and putting it back in again), letting it cool, and serving it up (with the assurance that ‘looks aren’t everything’). For many, it’s a comforting, mindful, evocative ritual, our senses sparked by tastes, scents, and the sights – so much so that even wonky sponge cakes and forlorn flapjacks have a place in many of our hearts.
So, what it is that makes baking such an effective mindfulness tool, and how can we harness this to support our mental health? With help from a counsellor, and the people who have explored this connection for themselves, we’re asking the rising question: what happens when you add baking into the wellbeing mix?
At the start of lockdown, demand for baking ingredients sored and, according to a forecast by Packaged Facts – a market research organisation – there’s no sign of interest drying up.
Noting this rise in home baking, counsellor Kirsty Taylor is not surprised that so many are able to find comfort in the mixing bowl.
“Baking allows us to control something, which is especially useful for those who live with depression or anxiety, and might feel a sense of numbness, negativity, or a lack of control in their life,” she explains. “It can allow our minds the space to calm down when we feel anxious, and divert thoughts away from negative places. Essentially, it allows us to get out of our own head for a little while.”
It’s a phenomenon that a wealth of research supports, including a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, which saw young adults take part in creative activities – including baking – and which found that they reported feeling happier and more creative in the days that followed.
“There are many real-life stories of mothers who use baking to work through postnatal depression,” Kirsty continues. “And people prone to anxiety who use baking to calm their minds, people with depression who experience real joy from creating something that bolsters their self-esteem and allows them to connect with others, and those grieving the loss of a loved one, who gain respite, and space to breathe, while losing themselves in a recipe.”
Local guys making pies
In multiple locations across the north-east of England, local men are gathering to make the most of the benefits Kirsty lays out. The Men’s Pie Club – part of Food Nation, a social enterprise supported by the Movember Foundation – brings together men to bake pies and, importantly, to share what’s on their minds.
“We came up with Men’s Pie Club in response to the increasing need for social connections, particularly among men who are at greater risk of becoming socially isolated,” says founder Jamie Sadler. “We like to say we’re ‘local guys, making pies’, as that gives new members an indication of what to expect. If we were to use fancy terms, we’d say it’s about tackling isolation and improving social connectedness. And it is, but it’s also just about baking pies and making friends.”
Weekly clubs are run by a coordinator (also known by their formal title, ‘lead pie man’), and all the ingredients and equipment are provided, so members are able to turn up and get stuck in.
“Our aim is to cultivate a supportive peer network of men with cooking, eating, and socialising at the core,” Jamie continues. “Men tell us that the Men’s Pie Club format allows them to relax and get over the initial nervousness of attending a club for the first time. It gives our members a reason to get out and about, to meet local guys in their area, to feel part of something.”
That sense of connection is an important part of the power of baking, and we all have our own set of ‘food memories’ – something that becomes particularly prominent following bereavement.
Alexandra Locker lost her dad suddenly when she was 18 years old, and then her mum to cancer when she was 25.
“I always found the act of calmly following a recipe very meditative and soothing to grief,” she says. “There is a stage of grief, perhaps when you’ve been given leave from school, university or your job due to a recent loss – when you cannot fathom summoning the energy to shower or leave the house. It was on those days that I would pick up a cookery book, and select a simple loaf cake.”
Her experiences led her to enrol at Ballymaloe Cookery School, County Cork, Ireland, and while she was there Alexandra founded The Grief Kitchen – a grief community hosted on Instagram, where she shares her experiences and invites others to do the same.
“I turned to Instagram for a sense of daily purpose, and told myself I would cook one recipe every day and post it. I took special pleasure in making dishes my parents had cooked for me as a child. It made me feel close to them, and I realised there must be so many people out there who connect food and memories of loved ones.”
From all across the world, people started following The Grief Kitchen, sharing their stories of food and loved ones.
“I love hearing stories about somebody’s loved one who was a terrible chef, but relentlessly cooked a dish their family were too polite to critique. Or how a couple always took a slice of quiche from their favourite deli on picnics for years on end. What their mother made them eat when they were sick, and how they, in turn, now make it for their children,” Alexandra shares. “Grief is love, and the stories people tell from that place are not dark, scary, or depressing – they’re beautiful.”
The icing on the cake
It doesn’t matter if it’s a set of cupcakes made from a packet, or a multi-tiered extravaganza, a general rule in life is that hardly anything is just what it appears to be on the surface. With baking, there’s so much more to the hobby than creating sustenance – even more than cooking up a treat. It’s a way to express yourself, to switch off – or to switch on. With a bake you can say, ‘congratulations’, ‘sorry’, or ‘I love you’. The opportunities are there for the taking, so perhaps it’s time to marinate on that one.
To connect with a counsellor like Kirsty to discuss how baking could support your own wellbeing, visit counselling-directory.org.uk