In times of crisis, some offer words; some suture wounds. Stephanie Leichtle-Chalklen of Kuluntu Bakery is offering free bread. As she looked around at the painful decisions surfacing inside culinary industry, the home-business baker says she felt distraught and grateful.
“I’m just thankful in this time that I don’t have a storefront and I don’t have to make these decisions,” she said.
Leichtle-Chalken has deliberately shrunk her business to just levain loaves, rather than the roster of cooking classes and menu of tarts. “I have the capacity to bake these loaves of bread,” though, she thought. And so she would.
Leichtle-Chalklen posted on Instagram on March 18 and sent out a Loaf of the Week email, saying she would bequeath a free loaf of her country sourdough to “any high risk folks (i.e., elderly or immunosuppressed)” and anyone financially affected by the city-mandated ban on dine-in service and other closures. Which is to say, the culinary community. “If you are or know anybody that is, please email me,” the post requested.
Her response is marked by another experience of duress.
When Leichtle-Chalken and her husband lived in Cape Town, South Africa in 2018, there was a grave water shortage. They arrived in January of 2018. The water crisis was well underway, with a Day Zero—the day when water would be cut in taps and people would have to queue to collect water from central distribution points—set for May. There were signs everywhere, and behaviors were shifting slightly. It was still a ways off.
“After we were there for maybe a month and things started to get bad,” the date for shut-off was moved up to April. “It got really drastic. It was very much, ‘We all need to do this,’” she says. Meaning sacrifice, alter behavior, think of others. In March, farmers in the lush Stellenbausch wine and agricultural region near Cape Town donated water from a private reservoir—enough to push back the date by a few weeks. “And then the rainy season came,” just in time, Leichtle-Chalklen says. “Right when we left was when the rainy season came,” she says.
But the lesson is deeper. “The habits just changed. People just realized how bad it could be.”
It was a good rainy season. And the dams filled. “I do feel profoundly impacted by that experience in a way that I think about often,” Leichtle-Chalklen says, however.
“It didn’t start changing until everybody was doing it. That’s why I feel very strongly about collective action.” (The word “kuluntu” means “community” in South African isiXhosa, and she describes hers as “a business that is built on communal gatherings.”)
“It was scary, because we didn’t know how far it was going to go.” Uncertain times build awareness of how easy it is to take things for granted.
“I say all this because I believe that with strong collective action from every single person, we can overcome this,” she writes as a conclusion to her Instagram post.
Meanwhile, she’ll be offering free loaves for as long as coronavirus is impacting her community. And a side outcome: she’s seeing people express interest in baking classes. “They’re pulling out their starters from the back of the fridge,” she says.
It makes her hopeful. It makes everything feel more human.