'The Great British Bake Off' Can Win Any Culture War

Virginia Postrel

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is a place where heritage and culture stand proud, enriched but not diluted by the traditions of immigrants. Some of its denizens roam the world, exploring foreign cultures; others stick close to home; neither invites scorn.

An island of confident identity in a fractured and contentious world, it celebrates cosmopolitan curiosity and deep-rooted traditions, local custom and diverse origins. It is a big tent—quite literally.

I refer, of course, to “The Great British Bake Off” or, as it is known on American shores, “The Great British Baking Show.”(1)

A baking competition held in a giant white tent decked out with Union Jack bunting and a dozen kitchens’ worth of equipment, the program is an institution in the U.K. It has been credited with sparking a boom in home baking and raising standards in the shops. The 10th season aired this fall and, available on Netflix, the show has attracted passionate U.S. fans as well.(2) Earlier this month, Florida-based TV critic Andy Dehnart, who covers non-scripted programming on his site Reality Blurred, named it “the reality TV show of the decade.”

Set in the countryside, with establishing shots of sheep grazing, songbirds chirping and bees buzzing among the wildflowers, the program could be peddling nostalgia for village life in England’s green and pleasant land. The jokes are silly puns and double entendres, gentle and exceedingly British.

Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic emphasize its good nature as a respite from political conflict. A British critic calls it “a weekly therapy session. It is a last remnant of sanity in an increasingly crazy country; an oasis of niceness in a desert of vileness.”

The welcoming atmosphere is “so different from the picture Brexit painted, that the British want their nation back and that they want us out,” Chetna Makan, a 2014 contestant who moved to the U.K. from Mumbai, told the New York Times. With its polyglot mix of regional accents, class backgrounds and national origins, the show is not nostalgic. But it is still “The Great British Bake Off,” unabashedly so. And therein lies its cultural genius.

In the famous tent, we see a culture changing without losing coherence or rejecting the past. You can keep your nation, the show suggests, while adding new elements. The constant reinforcement of Britishness, from Union Jack cakes and Gran’s old recipes to Dr. Who references and Liverpool pride, is as essential to the program as cardamom and caster sugar. GBBO, as fans refer to it, rejects the choice between openness and national identity.

Each week’s show has a theme, with challenges that winnow the contestants down from 12 to a final three. The episode may spotlight a type of baking, such as bread or pastry; an ingredient or its absence, as in Spice Week or Vegan Week; or historical or national specialties, for example, Tudor Week or Danish Week.

Elaborating the theme, contestants bake three challenges, two of which they know beforehand. The dreaded “technical challenge” requires making something most have never baked before, and often have never heard of. They get ingredients and what is called, with British understatement (or is it British irony?), a “pared down" recipe. “Make the dough,” is a typical instruction.

Unlike most U.S. cooking competitions, with their professional chefs and substantial winner-take-all cash prizes, the show is in the great tradition of British amateurism, minus the aristocratic presumptions. Contestants bake because they love it, and, although everyone wants to win, they play fair and help each other out.

Bakers include retirees and full-time parents (male as well as female), and a wide range of professions, from builder to geography teacher, garden designer to veterinary surgeon, with the occasional student juggling exams. (The show shoots mostly on weekends.) The winner gets a glass cake platter and, along with the other finalists, a bouquet of flowers. That’s it.

Of course, success brings another valuable currency: public renown. Many finalists go on to at least semi-professional status, writing cookbooks and columns and appearing on TV. But career advancement seems a rare motivation, and coming in second doesn’t make you a loser.

One of the most beloved contestants, the charming young Liam Charles, finished fifth in 2017. He now hosts his own show and judges another. “Being in the tent” is an honor — and a memorable experience — in its own right.

Treating baking as a common venture where good ideas can come from anyone or anywhere, the show welcomes global citizens and the flavors they introduce. At the same time, it celebrates distinctively British baking and honors British history. The show’s inclusive spirit embraces local traditions and the people who made them. It’s as patriotic as it is cosmopolitan.

Maybe it takes an American (or an Indian immigrant) to recognize that Victoria sponge, Chelsea buns, sausage rolls, Battenberg cake, millionaire’s shortbread and parkin (which I had to Google) are culturally specific treats. Traditional British baking, it turns out, can be pretty yummy — or scrummy, as former judge Mary Berry would say.

“Before the bake-off, it was nearly impossible to find classic British sweets like Victoria sponge sandwiches, Eccles cakes and Bakewell tarts unless you or your granny made them at home,” writes New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark. The show has introduced a new generation to old-fashioned baking.

It also reminds viewers of how once-exotic ingredients became as British as Yorkshire pudding. When charged with making a ginger cake, Rahul Mandal, the eventual winner in 2018, explained that his mother back in India was surprised at the assignment. “In India we normally use ginger for savory things,” said the self-effacing research engineer. “The first time I had ginger cake,” he recalled, “was during a Bonfire Night celebration.”

For non-Brits, he’s referring to the Nov. 5 festivities marking the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament and kill the king. Ginger may not be British, but ginger cake certainly is.

A cooking contest alone can’t mend a society’s divisions, of course. But the success of this one suggests they may not be as deep as they seem. Food is, after all, one of the most powerful tribal markers, with dietary customs and taboos separating us from them. A hit show dedicated to the idea that specifically British baking can meld old and new, regional and national, local and foreign, without losing its distinctive identity is a powerful indicator of cultural health.

(1) Pillsbury, which owns the trademark Bake-Off in the U.S., runs an annual recipe contest with that name.

(2) This chart explains the complicated history of where which seasons originated and where they can now be seen.

To contact the author of this story: Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World," will be published in 2020.

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