Lessons from “The Great British Bake Off”

I binge watch cooking shows.

Instead of reading intellect-stimulating tomes such as Homer’s The Iliad (who amongst you can say that you have???), lately I’ve been spending my precious time on earth transfixed by Paul Hollywood’s piercing blue eyes, calmed by Mary Berry’s soothing voice, cheering on the indomitable bakers of “The Great British Bake Off.”

The successes, and many failures, of the contestants spur me on in my own quest for perfection in the kitchen. I ask myself, “What would Paul Hollywood say?” when my chocolate orange cake lurches to the left and sags a bit in the middle. Would Mary Berry smile that tiny grin of hers, giving me hope that soggy bottoms won’t plague my pastry?

Thanks to “The Great British Bake Off,” I’ve indeed picked up a multitude of pointers for the kitchen.

But there’s another side to this rather addictive show.

Think about the contestants for a minute. Many of them are – yes – immigrants. Or children of immigrants. Nadiya Hussain, daughter of Muslim immigrants from Bengal, won the final in 2015. In season 4, Selasi Gbormittah, from Ghana, baked alongside Rav Bansal, who called upon his Punjabi background when flavoring his bakes.

The lesson that these bakers teach anyone watching is that 1) people bring their culture into the kitchen and 2) that culture ends up affecting what goes into the pot (and, eventually, mouths). Some aspects of culinary fusion remain, because people like the new flavors that they’re eating. And some parts get tossed out. Think Mary Berry and her reaction to chiles, to cite but one example.

Granted, the culinary framework for “The Great British Bake Off” rests on French and British cooking – pies, pastry, cakes, breads both quick and yeasty, etc. Those cuisines tend to dominate traditional American cooking as well.

So although contestants from other culinary cultures add spices and ingredients of their natal cuisines, the end products resemble Western European baked goods. But I see in those pinches of spice and twists of dough the ageless evolution of the kitchen. Claims to the contrary, the truth is that no one group owns a cuisine, no one group “invented” a cuisine.

It’s easy to imagine the trade routes of the past, night falling, cooking pots sputtering on the fire, novel aromas wafting through the air, hunger pangs clawing at empty stomachs, and salivary glands bursting with saliva, triggered by the promise of sustenance.

That’s the biggest lesson I take away from watching “The Great British Bake Off”

Chocolate Cake (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


One thought on “Lessons from “The Great British Bake Off”

  1. Love the cooking shows! I see the same thing on cupcake wars. You’d be surprised at how much of a person’s identity can be baked into a cupcake. This was a very interesting article.

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