Competitive Baking

Do you care about the Great British Bake Off? If you don’t, feel free to ignore this post. It is highly inconsequential and mostly about smug backwards-reading prognostication. If you do care – if you’ve been watching and gasping, squealing, oohing and ahhing, then you’ve probably cultivated your own favourites. And I hope, if you’re like me, your favourites are still going strong after passing yesterday’s quarter-final.

It’s not sensible that I should actually like the programme as I do. I had a long, slow disengagement with TV that started when I was still in high school. By the time I had graduated, all I watched was the news, CFL football, and reruns of Northern Exposure on A&E. When I got my own place in the second year of my undergraduate degree, my roommate and I agreed that cooking and playing music were much more important than the screen, and I’ve been without a TV ever since. My wife, fortunately, shared this sensibility.

Despite not watching it, I’ve been pretty comfortable in scorning it, in a lofty, high-culture sort of way. And my biggest sneers have been reserved for reality TV, though since the “reality” of such TV has been so thoroughly debunked, broadcasters have had to come up with alternate categories such as “factual entertainment.” More fabricated than factual, if you ask me, and the competition shows brought out the worst, it seemed. These instant-singer-sensation shows really pissed me off, as an aspiring songwriter and performer. But I could treat it as water off a duck’s back: know it for what it is, accept it for the profit-generating mechanism the broken industry requires, and know that it is inconsequential for what I want to do.

Then we moved to Britain. Then we discovered the BBC iPlayer. Then we relaxed after working, parenting, and studying by choosing quality from among the dross and watching it more or less on our time rather than the canalised settings of terrestrial television.

That usually meant good dramas and travel programmes (Julia Bradbury walking through Germany? Hello!) But it also came to mean the Bake Off. First for my wife, and slowly, at first indulgently, for me as well. We like baking, and it has a personable charm and genuine warmth which sets it apart from other competition shows. [PS Just last week, someone told me I looked just like… somebody. She couldn’t remember who. Then she got it: this guy from Masterchef. Well no wonder I couldn’t help her!] A friend from Canada was in Cardiff earlier this month for a conference, and over a drink, I was telling him about the programme, and I could just see his incredulity over the rim of his pint glass. I didn’t even have the heart to tell him it was the most watched programme in Britain after England’s World Cup loss to Uruguay.

That’s all by the by – the blether to set up what I really wanted to blog about. Part of the game, when you watch at home, is to try to guess early who’s going to make it: who’s going home that episode, who’s getting tipped for Star Baker, and the long game of who’s going the distance.

Early on in this series, my wife and I thought we had it sussed: Ian, Tamal, and Flora would be the final three. Ian had a crazy inventiveness (and he ended up being Star Baker thrice running). Flora, conversely, had a posh “just-so” quality to her – elegant bakes that are a classical treat to look at. And she seemed unflappable, despite being so young. Tamal had precision and creativity with flavour, not to mention consistently gorgeous presentation ideas. (He’s my pick overall, which puts me in strange and rather sticky company. When Paul Hollywood mentioned that he’d been knocking on the door of Star Baker several times before gaining it last week, I wanted to throw something at the laptop. But of course, whatever I see on the screen and however it’s edited, I’m not tasting the bakes themselves, so I can’t really question their judgements.)

These were our picks for the final. Whilst I have a professional interest in seeing Nadiya do well, I didn’t think she really had the stuff. I didn’t think she’d last – she didn’t seem as in control of it.

But what a change as we approach the semi-final: Flora has teetered on the edge whilst Nadiya has shown burgeoning confidence, such that she’s now been crowned Star Baker twice and Flora? Not at all. What will happen next week? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

At any rate – and here’s where the smug comes in – we feel vindicated in our early picks. We’ve been just about proved right, and the complication will be interesting in how it plays out. Or we’ll be wrong in a different way and one of the lads will go home before the final. I hope it won’t be Tamal. I don’t think I could take the outpouring of gooey grief that would follow.

5 thoughts on “Competitive Baking

  1. I confess I did not pick out Ian in the first week. To me, he seemed a bit of an also-ran. Now, I think this year’s competition is mostly about him. (Tamal and his alleged hotness hold little interest for me as I’m old enough to be his mother).

    Having said that, I am also starting to wonder whether social (and mainstream) media’s fixation with Ian and his middle-classness is partly explained by an unwillingness to discuss the impact of a very likeable Muslim woman enjoying a terrific run in Great British Bake Off. To me, this is the great unexplored story of GBBO 2015.

    You can read my own musings about the current series at

    • I wonder whether the (multiple) media fixation on Ian is also down to his early triple crown. The Bake Off is so luvvy, and they (not just the presenters, but much of the audience) always hate to send people away. We’d rather all just stay on and do well. So when Ian gets accolades three weeks in a row, he becomes an object of both fascination and critique. I don’t know whether boosting the fixation on Nadiya’s religious identification is necessary – part of normalising Muslims in Britain is precisely to ask when it’s really needful to mention the Muslim-ness. She’s there, she’s in the tent, and she’s baking like mad. This is as much exploration as I think a programme like GBBO requires. Whether the Great British Nigel Farage wishes desperately for a phone number he could call each week to try and vote her out of the tent is pleasantly irrelevant. What I don’t think is happening is that she is being ignored. Of course, everyone’s Twitter feeds reflect their inclinations, but I see lots of excited and supportive posts around her week on week. They often have more to do with her legion of facial expressions, but she’s getting picked up plenty. (She won me over completely with the soda-themed cheesecakes: brilliant concept, clever forward planning, and elegant execution.)

      Thanks for commenting, and for sharing your own blog. For those who don’t follow the rugby, it’s nice to have something to get all het up about.

  2. Thanks for replying. I agree that Nadiya is great, but I’m not sure that I agree that simply accepting her presence in the tent ‘is as much exploration as a programme like GBBO needs’. With a programme as huge as GBBO, everything – what’s said as well as what’s not said – is potentially significant. Perhaps I over-think it, but on my own blog, I have written quite a lot about what it tells us about the current state of British social aspiration.

    It may well be very different for younger people, but as an average-boring white British middle-aged woman, even one living in a multi-cultural English conurbation, I don’t know any Muslim women – this is despite the fact that Muslim families live on my street. I’m not going to get into who is to blame for this state of affairs, but the upshot of it is that for information about Muslim women, I am, like many people in my age-group, mostly reliant on media narratives which may be neither friendly nor fair.

    The presence of a talented and funny Muslim woman in the tent – and crucially, one whom many viewers can easily relate to – provides a refreshing counter-narrative to all that; additionally, it comes at the end of a summer when the news agenda has been dominated by fear of and argument about mass, migration, much of it Muslim.

    But while we are happy to dissect Ian’s middle-classness, discussion about Nadiya is limited to her impressive gallery of facial expressions. Is this healthy? We all know there are other issues here, but even alluding to them seems at best patronising and at worst, outright racist. If I say Nadiya has changed my views, I’m kind of admitting that in the past, I held less charitable views. Of course I don’t want to do that – but maybe it would be better if I did. I also have no clue as to how the wider British Bangladeshi community is reacting to her success.

    For the record, much as I love Nadiya, I thought the fillings she chose for her eclairs in last week’s show-stopper sounded revolting. I suspect that sampling the peppermint one was a bit like eating toothpaste.

    • Thanks so much for your honest and really interesting response. I think it shows something I always tell others (and myself) as a scholar of the media: we tend to think that our Twitter feed is more or less what Twitter looks like, that the conversations on our Facebook wall are more or less what Facebook talks about or (key here) how Facebook behaves. And it’s just not. It reflects our interests and tastes. So I haven’t seen the fixation on Ian’s middle-class-ness to such an extent, and I have seen supportive comments of Nadiya’s religion and, overall, the diversity of the people in the tent. This is not surprising, because I research Muslims and the media in Britain. The people I follow, the conversations I gravitate to all support this.

      What I am forgetting is that other people’s media spaces look different. So I’m glad that you’ve encountered Nadiya as a “refreshing counter-narrative”, and it makes sense that you’d be curious to have that developed more. Some of the people I work with might groan to have her Muslimness hyped too much – it’s the fine line between offering alternatives and having a token positive example up one’s sleeve to fend off critics: “What do you mean, TV makes all Muslims look like terrorists? Look at that woman from the Bake Off!”

      To that end, I don’t think it’s the BBC or the Bake Off’s responsibility to make much of a deal about it. I wouldn’t want cut-away shots of Nadiya praying with her family or something like that, because it’s not really germane to her baking. What other media do – the storylines they focus on in their commentary – it’s rather up to them, but you’re right that it could be explored more.

      As such, you’ll have seen this, I presume? Which was at least picked up by the Guardian Ask and ye shall receive, I suppose. (And I would be well-tempted to try bubble-gum eclairs, though I know they would have a plastic taste. The mint is a bridge too far, as were the electric looks of the icing. On a related note, though, what a trap for Baker Paul to have his banana critiqued as too mild in flavour and then get hit with a hammer when he brought in the banana essence!)

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Thanks for signposting two very interesting articles. I was also delighted to note that my clairvoyant streak continues. After I predicted Ian’s Roadkill Pie, I see Tamal has a pair of lucky socks – I speculated that it was ‘lucky pants’, but hey, close enough 🙂

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