Baking and eating to feel better: a bread story.

It is a tumultuous day when I decide to bake bread because to do so makes me happy, only to realize during kneading that I probably used spoiled yeast and it is 99% likely that my bread won’t turn out. But, in the spirit of blind optimism, I pretend that it will anyway. Even when it doesn’t rise well and takes a million years for a second proof, I still go for it. All hope rests on that little mass of doughiness becoming glorious bread.

Of course, said hope is crushed when it becomes evident that the doughy mass was never intending on being edible. In the face of such predictable and disastrous results, I am horrified. Truly, my bread destined for #selfcare has committed betrayal in its refusal to defy baking principles. Indignant, I too refuse to acknowledge the faulty logic of expecting dead yeast to work the wonders of yeast that, well, isn’t dead.

It is amazing what five minutes of “stepping away” can do to one’s resolve. To move on from such tragedy, I mourn the loss of what could have been, curse the wasting of ingredients, and cast the horrid yeast into the trash. I make a far less ambitious dinner of leftovers and eat little packaged dessert things that look questionable, but nonetheless turn out to be delicious (still not sure what they were). But, with a full stomach, I feel less traumatized by the ordeal and my perspective on the whole thing has become strangely optimistic. I contemplate getting new yeast and trying again.

Anyway, this melodrama (ugh, what a word) happened recently.

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When I am emotionally freaking out and need a way to channel anxiety, I nearly always gravitate towards baking, if time allows. It feels both gleefully indulgent and consoling to make something special, and to eat it just for the hell of it. Baking is, in my view, one of life’s greatest therapies.

As noted above, however, it can be turbulent. I have mused at this stress that I so willingly embrace when I am trying to self-soothe. My best ruminating guess is that I bake because I can occupy myself with a task that simultaneously lets my mind wander. It lets me think, undisturbed, because I am also occupied. There is, of course, the added prospect of eating something lovely, which then makes the idea of baking far too attractive to pass up. I once, in the throws of just wanting to bake and drink coffee all day, made the mistake of saying that I didn’t want to buy a croissant. I wanted to make a croissant. A mere eleven hours later, voila, croissants. Such is the cruelty of catharsis.

Baking is, by nature, full of trial and error. The chemistry of it all can be so dang finicky. As much as there is opportunity for joy, there is equal opportunity for devastation (it is amazing how my emotional state largely predicts how things are going to go). A few hours’ work can yield a beautifully risen, golden-crusted loaf, with its steaming butt-slice just begging to be eaten (what my family has always called the end of loaves) — or the work can bring forth catastrophe, and the primary task shifts to not scaring the neighbors with loud cursing at an under-proofed and pasty rock.

Clearly, for me to commit to making a loaf of bread is to take a risk and enter vulnerable territory. It requires patience, something I lack, and emotional restraint in the face of opposition, something I also lack. When what I make turns out, the success fills me with pleasure and contentment. And in the case that it definitely and quite marvelously does not turn out, it gives me a chance to maturely express my frustration, or to totally lose it with relatively no harm done (except to the poor bread, which is thankfully an inanimate object). Either way, the experience inevitably becomes a provocateur for emotional release.

Recently, when I was fresh off of ruining yet another loaf and reading news articles (another self-soother that can become fraught), I came across one that talked about building resilience in adolescent girls. It referenced a study stating that those who participate in athletics are more likely to be resilient later on, as they are given a relative “safe space” that allows for failures and re-attempts before becoming an adult. The article mentioned that other interests, including cooking, can provide a similar effect. I’m interpreting this to mean that while a failed bread attempt is certainly a heartbreak, the experience also gives me the chance to learn precisely what not to do. I keep baking because I am drawn to the hope of succeeding next time.

To keep things in perspective, I know I am talking about the highs and lows of baking bread, which are most certainly privileged first world problems. But I think that is partly the point, to have a constructed “safe” environment for feelings to surface, so that we can objectively see them for what they are. I think it’s the same thing that all of those self-help journals are trying to get you to do.

Now.

At the risk of sounding like baking has always been my catharsis, I want to be very clear that it has not. I love the idea of baking as a hobby to build resilience, and I do enjoy the thought of that giving purpose to my baking scaries. But just like so many other things related to food, food as a coping mechanism has been distorted by wellness culture and healthism. Especially in relation to how eating in response to emotions will apparently only lead to food hedonism and poor health.

I believed for a long time that wanting to make something to channel my emotional stress (and to eat it as well) was a maladaptive coping mechanism. One that would make me an ‘emotional eater,’ and make me gain weight (thus ‘ruining’ my health). The fact that I even had the desire to bake or eat something made me a bad human whose only way of processing emotions was to numb them with food. Of course, it is not difficult to find information about how eating for any other reason than hunger makes one an ‘emotional eater.’ Not just from random people lacking credentials, but from leading reputable associations. The overarching message we are told is that eating because we want to is a dysfunctional, hedonistic, and shameful behavior.

And yet, dear friends, there is a natural biological connection between food and our sense of pleasure. Carbohydrates in particular are fantastic at boosting our mood because of how they impact our hormones. Our culture teaches that this is bad, that food should not be rewarding, and that the individual who eats for pleasure is the poster-child for reckless health (but only if they are in a larger body, of course). Essentially, we are told that how our bodies’ biochemistry naturally functions is fundamentally wrong. But if food did not positively impact our mood, we would not seek it out. Meaning our bodies wouldn’t have energy, meaning we would eventually die. (Perhaps I’m too into continuing the melodramatic tone today, but you get my point). Regardless, feeling guilty for wanting to eat something in the absence of physical hunger is a distortion of a perfectly natural desire. Food is really good at making us feel better, because we have been wired to respond to it in a positive way.

To eat for pleasure is yes, to eat for an emotional reward. But this is not synonymous with being an ‘out-of-control-emotional-eater.’ It might feel that way, because of the social message that there is something wrong with the individual seeking emotional comfort from food. Well, there isn’t. It is your body seeking a source of pleasure, or energy, or both. It is a sign that your body is alive.

I am saddened when I hear people express the desire for something because they had a rough day, or wanting to eat something just because they can, only to say resignedly that they “can’t.” Or that they guiltily made or bought something and then restricted in some way to get ‘back in control.’ It is as if every eating occasion must be socially sanctioned, and to eat for emotional comfort or pleasure is immoral. And we certainly are not allowed to guiltlessly fulfill our desires for food with the actual food that we want. Responding to a desire for food with restraint is prized, while satisfying a want is to succumb to temptation.

I am not saying that to eat every time something doesn’t go your way will magically make you feel better. I am saying that the emotional benefit from eating something that sounds good to you is nothing to feel guilty about. It is not a maladaptive coping mechanism that makes you a heathen. It makes you a human who is tuned in to one way to help you get a little bit of pleasure and enjoyment. Of course the source of the emotion will still be there, and no amount of food will process your feelings for you. But it can’t always be resolved in the moment where you just need something to improve your mood, or calm you down. Maybe that is when a craving strikes, and maybe that is when the choice is made to satiate it. Without shame, and with plenty of pleasure.

I’m also not here to tell you that you must make everything from scratch to truly enjoy it, or that making your own bread is more self-care-y than buying it. Both are a privilege, anyhow. Sometimes you just want the joy of biting into a delicious good, but baking doesn’t always guarantee that that is what you will get (at least in my case). Hence why the convenience of bakeries is truly a gift from above.

I needed time to recover from my last attempt before making the loaf pictured below. (Meaning I bought bread from a nearby bakery.) Anyway, this bread wasn’t perfect, nor was it the most delicious bread I’ve ever eaten by far (the bakery bread was better). But I loved it. It was the first decent loaf I’ve made since moving to Korea, in my little fan oven. I ate the butt-slice first.

Basically, this is me monologuing a self-validation on why I like baking and eating because sometimes I just want to feel better, and that is fine. And that the only reason I struggle(d) with this is because we are told everywhere that eating when upset is wrong. Because I hold a good bit of privilege, I don’t want to even pretend to know the impact that such messaging has had on people in marginalized bodies. I want to acknowledge that I only have my perception of the relative difficulty of ignoring such messaging. My hope is that whoever reads this realizes that they are not in the wrong.

So, dear friend, allow yourself to eat something when you are emotional, if you want to. It isn’t an out-of-control response to do so. Nor does it make you immoral. You don’t need to look for a reason to want something, make something, or buy something. If that is what you would like, that is reason enough.

xox Alyssa

P.s. This post was a bit tangental on ‘emotional eating’ and that is a pretty loaded topic, so perhaps I’ll ramble on that later. Especially in the context of restriction and under-eating — something that is promoted in diet culture and especially to those in larger bodies. Such a post, however, would certainly require references and a more coherent thought process :). If hearing ‘emotional eating’ makes you feel all sorts of things, this article and this podcast are good places to get some soundbites of solid information.

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