Every day, Kelly Caiazzo sees another bad headline about the environment. They scream warnings about what lies ahead: Seismic blasting that will harm whales and dolphins. Rollback after rollback of long-standing environmental regulations.

“Even when I’m trying to take a rest day and take a deep breath, I’m still getting it because of social media,” said Caiazzo, 35, who was born in Gorham and now lives part-time in Scarborough. “It’s one headline after another about things that are going to make our country less safe from an environmental perspective.”

During the Kavanaugh hearings, South Berwick cookbook author Kathy Gunst baked a peach cake and sprinkled it with coconut she tinted pink in honor of women’s causes.

So, when the world around her feels like it’s spinning out of control, Caiazzo chops onion, garlic and other vegetables for a big pot of stew, taking comfort in that simple, repetitive action. Or she bakes a loaf of bread the way her mother taught her. “Kneading bread is one of the most calming and meditative things you can do,” she said.

We live in unusual times. The president is under investigation. Russia has been accused of meddling in our elections. The stock market has been on a roller coaster ride. Families are at each others’ throats, fighting about politics at the dinner table. And the existential threat of climate change feels overwhelming. No wonder Americans experienced a sharp increase in anxiety last year, according to a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, with 39 percent of us reporting feeling more anxious in 2018 than we did in 2017.

When times get tough, people turn to comfort foods.

(And you know the country is really stressed out when The Atlantic magazine publishes an entire story on “anxiety baking,” noting that millennials “seem to have turned to weekend baking as a salve for the ambient anxiety of being alive in 2018.” Comedian Stephen Colbert made fun of the trend last month on his late-night show.)

Mainers may be as anxious as anyone else to find relief in glutinous dough and steaming pots of chicken soup. Some are getting busy in the kitchen, cooking as a means to calm and comfort themselves, or they are signing up for bread-making classes. Others are going for more instant gratification, snapping up ready-made, comforting casseroles from retailers.

THE POTPIE INDEX

Pete Leavitt, owner of the Leavitt & Sons delis in Portland and Falmouth, tracks customer anxiety levels using what he calls “the potpie index.” Sales of his chicken potpies have always been steady. Then, suddenly, last year he saw a double-digit increase in demand. Normally, he’d attribute the increase to the arrival of winter – people usually crave more comfort foods when a blizzard is raging – but the increase has sustained itself year-round, even in summer. “We see a lot more people buying more than one,” Leavitt added. Sales of shepherd’s pie and mac-and-cheese have gone up, too, he said.

Kelly Caiazzo, a part-time resident of Scarborough, finds kneading bread dough calming.

Ali Waks-Adams, executive chef at the Brunswick Inn, put tapioca pudding on the menu one night not long ago, “and people went cuckoo bananas over it,” she said. “It’s such a nursery food. We sold out, and I had requests for more.”

In some cases, people are even considering ditching their careers for jobs in kitchens. Stacy Begin, owner of the Two Fat Cats bakeries in Portland and South Portland, says she’s noticed that over the last year, at least half of the applicants for the 60-70 baking jobs that open up in her stores annually are home bakers with no professional experience. They are paralegals, IT specialists, and health care professionals, all looking to make a career change. “We’ve always had home bakers apply for open positions,” Begin said, “but maybe one or two resumes. This trend is a really big increase.”

While some of these job changes may be simply reflect a desire to switch career paths, applicants at least hint that they also have a desire to decompress. Begin has noticed that all of the job applicants “describe baking as a ‘release.’ ”

Andrea Swanson, owner of Scattoloni Bakery in Portland, regularly offers baking classes. This year, she’s adding more classes that she feels are “stress relievers” – four on bread baking and another four “therapeutic” classes geared toward other kinds of doughs, like Danish and croissant doughs. “The amount of requests for this type of class is overwhelming,” she said.

When Swanson started teaching in 2015, she had two to five students per session. “By 2017, they went from that number to 12 to 16, like, overnight, I swear. It was crazy.”

Kelly Caiazzo’s peanut butter balls.

Swanson, like others interviewed for this story, notes that the popularity of PBS’s “The Great British Baking Show” may be playing a role, but fans of the show don’t account for all of the renewed interest in baking.

“Most of them want to do it as a hobby,” Swanson said of her new students, “but a lot of them, especially the bread ones, they’re into it as something to do at home to kind of decompress. They’ve tried bread machines, and it’s not the same thing.”

FLOUR POWER

Hannah Curtis, a Falmouth therapist, works with a lot of what she calls “purpose-driven professionals” – competent people who are focused on doing good works and being of service to others. That particular group, she said, has become “more anxious and more frustrated” over the past few years and “are feeling more powerless in their professional and personal lives.”

“A lot of people talk about some frustrations they’ve been having at work or in political discussions, where the rules feel like they’ve changed,” Curtis said. “It doesn’t seem like it matters than you’ve done certain things or built your competence – you’ve gone to high school and gotten good grades, you’ve gone to college – those things don’t feel like they’re as respected or as powerful as they have been in the past.”

“Worse than that,” Curtis continued, “you’re noticing people in leadership positions who seem less competent, less ethical than you are, and I think that’s really frustrating to people. And big problems are going unsolved, whether in their personal life or globally.”

Curtis often prescribes baking as a coping mechanism for these patients to deal with their anxiety. “In baking, there are still rules we can count on,” she said. “If I do it right, and I do it in the right order, I’m going to get the right result.”

On top of that, baking is a pleasurable, tactile experience and – if you feed people what you bake – can be a great social connector, Curtis said.

Peter Leavitt ladles out chicken potpie filling at Leavitt & Sons Deli in Portland on Monday, Leavitt says he’s seen a hike in what he calls “the potpie index” – a double-digit increase in demand for the comfort-food classic.

For South Berwick food writer and cookbook author Kathy Gunst, the urge to bake started during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh. Gunst, 62, found herself glued to the radio coverage and “devastated by the entire process.”

“I felt the world spinning out of control for women,” she recalled. “I felt like I was witnessing evidence that in 2018, we still were not considered seriously. … I was listening to the U.S. government grill a woman and tell her ‘No, this did not happen.’ It just felt unreal to me.”

Gunst has never considered herself a great baker. She’s written 15 cookbooks, none of them about baking. But as the Kavanaugh coverage wore on, she found that baking was the only thing that grounded her.

Gunst baked every day while she listened to the hearings. She started with an apple-pear crostada. Then she made a peach cake with frozen peaches from her garden and sprinkled it with coconut deliberately tinted pink in honor of women’s causes. She worked her way through chocolate chip cookies with sea salt, banana bread, pumpkin pudding with gingersnap crust, and an almond cake with apples. One day she made a pie and a cake.

A take-out container of Leavitt’s chicken potpie awaits its lid.

“People would come into my house and say ‘What is going on here?’ ” Gunst recalled. “And I would say ‘I’m trying to stay sane. That’s what’s going on here.’ ” Gunst posted photos of her creations on Instagram, paired with the hashtag #ragebaking – an angrier version of anxiety baking. She posed a photo of her herb cheese biscuits and red, white and blueberry bars with a copy of the book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger” by Rebecca Traister.

In between mixing ingredients and opening and closing the oven, Gunst engaged in more traditional forms of protest, writing letters and making multiple calls to Sen. Susan Collins’ office.

Online, other women told her they were doing the same thing, or planned to try #ragebaking themselves. She gave a lot of her baked goods away – the UPS man got half a crostada – because the baking, she said, was less about eating the finished product than about shifting her focus to something she could believe in that would give her results. She needed “the transformation and precision of baking.”

“If I add the right amount of flour to butter to water to fruit, I’m going to get a beautiful result,” Gunst said. And if she doesn’t follow the rules? She’ll end up with a mess, which will only remind her what a mess the world is in.

Gunst and a friend, Katherine Alford, a former vice president at the Food Network, are now shopping around a cookbook based on their #ragebaking exploits.

A BIG SIDE DISH OF CALM

Swanson, for one, can identify with Gunst. She says she, too, became “obsessed” with the Kavanaugh hearings. “Just being able to be in my kitchen and bake bread, it saved my life,” she said.

Anxiety baking and cooking comforting, savory dishes are not just about coping, however. For Caiazzo, who is a vegan, they can be practical ways to address larger issues such as plastic pollution and climate change. She bakes snacks for her children, for example, so she doesn’t have to buy packaged cookies or muffins.

“Even though I can’t control the world at large, I can have a major impact on taking responsibility for my own personal impact and actions,” she said.

And Caiazzo gets a big side dish of calm. The repetitive chop, chop, chopping of making a comforting, meatless stew for her family has a meditative quality that helps her relax.

“If you have a glass of wine in your hand,” she said, “so much the better.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

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