Necessity may be the mother of invention, but isolation and boredom are proving to be close cousins. Cooking is serving as therapy. Quarantine recipe exchanges in the form of chain emails are flooding people’s inboxes as friends crave connection. These trends resemble little of the inventions from crises past: New recipes aren’t merely cheaper or more accessible substitutes for unavailable foods—they’re activities that help give cooks a sense of control and security during an uncontrollable time. For those who can afford it, culinary experimentation could become a practical hobby. As the food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson explained to me, “When you see something that looks cool and you’ve got some extra time on your hands, you’re more likely to attempt it.”
Still, for all the culinary development that may be happening, most dishes created in times of crises don’t last. Emergency-replacement ingredients have usually returned to their spots in the back of the pantry: In the U.S., aspic and gelatin-based meals that dominated the postwar ’50s faded off menus over time. After the Great Depression, variations of cake made without milk, egg, and butter—known as “wacky cake” or “Depression cake”—met the same fate. “If there is a limitation, there’s an inventiveness, there’s a creativity that is spurred by those limitations, but once you remove those limitations, people just don’t find it necessary,” Carlson pointed out to me. “Why would you eat, you know, this very limited cake?”
Food innovations that last tend to involve specific ingredients or methods of cooking rather than individual dishes; they’re more open to adaptation. Take artificial sweeteners, for instance, which became popular when sugar rations during World War I necessitated their use. They remained popular because they were devoid of calories—and as weight-loss diets became trendy, artificial sweeteners continued flying off shelves. They weren’t seen as a limitation, but as an asset. In a way, longevity happens by chance: It’s simply the right food served at the right time, when novelty can transition into the norm.
So what of the trends of today? Recipes like dalgona coffee, sourdough starters, and banana bread aren’t being associated with limitation or hardship, but with relieving stress and removing uncertainty. In that sense, maybe they’re meant to last. People will always seek comfort, even if life returns to pre-pandemic “normal.”
It’s still too early to tell what the pandemic’s long-term effects on food culture will be, as Carlson warned, but for now, these trends could signal a return to making things from scratch or even, she pointed out, “an emphasis away from processed food.” Rather than buying bread, people have found delight in baking it themselves. Rather than ordering a fancy coffee to be delivered, they’ve learned to enjoy whipping one up on their own.
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