I don’t know when it began, but at some point during the pandemic I became somewhat panicked whenever the household cookie supply started to run low. I may have even cut out, once or twice, for a stealth run to Whole Foods for those chunky, brown-butter-and-chocolate-chip cookies that come four to a container or, as I like to call it, the minimum daily requirement for baked goods.
I’m not saying these trips were wise. In fact, I’d say they were decidedly dumb. I’m not even saying that I necessarily eat four large brown-butter-and-chocolate-chip cookies a day. I’m just saying that I would like to eat four large brown-butter-and-chocolate-chip cookies a day during our exile from the main streets of life. My habit has become so acute that whenever my wife goes to the grocery store, she asks, “Need any cookies?”
Need is so subjective.
Stress eating is nothing new, but it seems the pandemic has leveled the playing field: We’re all stressed now. Job insecurity. Reduced income. Protracted phone calls to the unemployment office. Isolation from friends and loved ones. Fear of contracting a virus that has killed at least 167,000 Americans, and counting. The unknown duration of this event. There is so much that may be pushing our cortisol levels into the red zone, which in turn pushes us into the baked goods aisle at the supermarket.
Or it is just me? I mean, there has been plenty of coverage of the “quarantine 15” – sort of like the “freshman 15” but without the keg parties – and I can only assume sweets have played a significant role in America’s pandemic weight gain, including my own. It’s a good thing I can wear sweatpants all the time, otherwise I’d be blowing my clothing budget.
When I asked friends and followers on social media about their struggles with sweets during the pandemic, I received many sympathetic responses from those who find themselves on the losing side of a battle with Kit Kat bars, Smarties, ice cream, Lindt chocolates, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, sour gummies and Nutella straight from the jar. “TastyKake-itis,” one friend wrote on my Facebook wall. “No known cure.”
“I don’t stress eat, but my willpower sucks. So if the sweets are on the counter, I eat them,” wrote my friend Daniel Korn. “My wife, however, stress bakes. In other times we just give them away, but now we’re eating them. Covid-19 is a weight measurement, I think.”
Jenna Huntsberger is the founder and chief executive of Whisked!, a Maryland-based bakery with distribution from New Jersey to southern Virginia. She was finishing the build-out of her new facility in Capitol Heights, Md., when the pandemic hit this spring. To make matters worse, she suffered a herniated disc around the same time. Her stress levels, as you might guess, were through the roof.
“I’m, like, freaking out. I can’t move. I had to work from home, lying on the floor on a yoga mat because that was the only position I could be in without being in horrible pain,” Huntsberger tells me. “So I just dealt with that by eating a ton of Easter candy because it was just all I could do to get through this really horrible, horrible, stressful time.”
She has no regrets about power-eating sweets during this period.
“It’s just something to take your mind off it, and it’s very comforting to eat a bunch of sweets that are very familiar when everything outside of you is completely out of control,” she says. “It gives you something to look forward to, and it feels indulgent when you have no other outlet for your stress.”
Then again, Huntsberger stopped bingeing on sugar by June, a familiar theme to some of my friends during the pandemic: They gobbled down junk for a while but eventually found better ways to cope with their stress. Exercise. Long walks. A phone call with a friend.
The thing is, I too used to be more disciplined. I used to run miles a day in my youth. I used to keep my cravings in check as an adult: limited sweets, small portions at meals, no alcohol during the week. (Sure, vegetables were never strong in my game, but we all have our flaws.) My younger sister, Judith Lawson, was the “cookie monster” in the family, so dubbed by our father. I was the cross-country runner.
“Oh, yes, I loved cookies,” texts my sis when I bring up the topic. “Nowadays, I do not keep them in the house so I do not eat them. But at the start of all this, Kaitlyn [DeVeydt, her daughter and my beloved niece] found a low-sugar oatmeal cookie that we ate a lot of.” I should note that the flourless peanut butter oatmeal cookies was only “low-sugar” because of Kaitlyn’s baking improv skills, in which she substituted six teaspoons of light brown sugar for the six tablespoons demanded in the recipe. Smart cookie, that Kaitlyn.
My sister’s cookie binge, like Huntsberger’s Easter candy crush, was brief. It would seem that my family’s Cookie Monster title has been passed on to me.
I’m not ashamed of it, either. I think it’s my time to indulge my sweet tooth. But truth be told, my cookie consumption is not tied to stress, at least not wholly tied to stress. Mostly, it’s a little daily reward for staying the course, for remaining inside and away from those people I miss: friends, colleagues, loved ones in other cities and other neighborhoods. There is a fair amount of deprivation in our lives, both large and small.
Sometimes a cookie can make it feel little bit better, or little less worse, if only for a few bites.
Tim Carman is a food writer for The Washington Post.