Lessons on love from the Great British Baking Show

My husband and I have been watching The Great British Baking Show on Netflix on Sunday evenings. I’m not sure which season we’re on, but it’s definitely not the current one.

That’s part of the beauty of the show, though: It really doesn’t matter. Time kind of stops, and life is self-contained within that steamy, fragrant tent, where 12 amateurs bake their hearts out for as many weeks as they can last, before they are gently eliminated from the competition one by one.

The show is fascinating because it’s so unlike American cooking competition shows, which tend to be so, well, competitive.

I know that British people are just as likely as people anywhere else in the world to be petty, mean, vindictive, and cutthroat; but while they’re on the show, everything is slanted in another direction, and even as the pressure mounts — and the pressure can be surprisingly intense, for a show that centers around cookies and cakes! — they’re all encouraged to put the best of humanity on display.

The show is, in many ways, about human relationships, and that (along with some clever editing, a lovely setting, and some gorgeous camera work) is what keeps us coming back every week.

Here is what the show teaches you, if you’re open to it:

Don’t just look, but listen. One of the bakers had a habit of judging whether or not his baked goods were done by not only looking at and touching them, but listening to them.

He would pull his cake out of the oven and hold it up to his ear to listen to the sounds it made, and only then decide if it was done or not. The various sounds of liquids and gasses moving and escaping the cake at various stages of doneness can tell you more about the insides of the cake than you can guess by looking at or prodding the surface — if you know what to listen for.

And this is true of human relationships, as well. There are the most commonplace, surface cues to be learned about other people, but it’s best to be ready to receive more subtle hints about what’s really going on inside each other. Sometimes just being quiet and listening to the small sounds that escape can be very telling.

It’s rarely misplaced to be gentle and encouraging with each other. Some contestants came across as more sincere than others, but it is evidently at least expected, on this show, that they will try to hearten and motivate each other, and even to help each other out a bit, even as the competition got more fierce week to week.

The older I get, the more I realize how desperately we all need gentleness and encouragement. Even people who ought to know how good they are really need to hear how good they are, and how important it is not to give up. It really is a beautiful and holy thing to pause in your own labors and say something kind to someone else who is struggling.

But there comes a point when you just have to tell it like it is. Not nastily, but clearly and accurately. The judges aren’t cruel or (generally) needlessly abrasive, as they often are on American shows; but they certainly know their stuff, and they don’t mince words.

Sometimes it can be crushing for a baker to hear that what they’ve made simply doesn’t taste good, or that it’s raw or burnt or just made wrong; but sometimes it’s just true, and has to be said. You can see that the judges don’t relish hurting the bakers, but they also don’t shy away from doing their job of naming the truth. There comes a point in every person’s life when they are called upon to simply name the truth.

The contestants get plenty of chances to redeem themselves. The show is set up so that each contestant has three challenges to tackle per episode: a signature bake, a technical challenge, and a show-stopper, and once they’ve completed all three, one contestant is named star baker, and one is sent home.

It’s a little nebulous how the actual judging is done, but it’s clear that the judges take into account all three offerings they come up with, which require them to show all different kinds of skills; so everyone can have a bad start and still pull themselves together and redeem themselves before it’s too late. As long as they’re still there, it means they still have a chance. 

Most worthwhile things in life are like this, or ought to be. There are very few things that we really must get perfectly right in every way the first time, or that we have to get right every single time. But we also ought to be learning all the time from our mistakes and failures, because time does run out eventually.

They are amateurs, and that literally means they do it out of love for baking. They’re in it because it’s something they want to do, and the goal in baking is not to get ahead or get rich (although that might result!).

It’s fascinating to watch these folks willingly subject themselves to such a grueling process where they sweat and cry and agonize over their challenges, and to know that, yes, sometimes this is what it looks like when you love.

But they also sometimes remind themselves, in so many words, that baking is something they enjoy, and that they can return to doing it for the sheer pleasure they find in the process. Even when it doesn’t turn out perfect and maybe never will, there’s still something there that keeps bringing them back. Maybe they edited it out, but I’ve never seen a contestant say it wasn’t worth the pain, or that it went so poorly, they’re going to give it up.

Oh, love. Oh, baking.


A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on October 25, 2022.

Some great TV and books we’re enjoying lately

Lots of variety here! 

Here’s what we’re reading: 

Our current read-aloud book for the little kids (ages 6 and 10) is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

I haven’t ever seen the movie, but have heard that the movie and book are both good, but quite different. I’m enjoying the book a lot. It’s weird and entertaining, and reads aloud very well. It’s easy to get the tone of voice right in dialogue without having to read ahead, and there is plenty of variety in the sentence structure, which I always appreciate when reading aloud. It gives some clues to the characters’ interior lives, without overexplaining; and the storytelling is so deft, it helps you accept some really outlandish situations without blinking.  My only quibble is that the chapters are different lengths, which can be frustrating when we only have a certain amount of time allotted to read. 

Also reading Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners to the middle kids (ages 12, 14, 16, and 17).

I wouldn’t say they’re enjoying it, exactly, but I chose it so at least we would have some kind of common vocabulary, and then if they want to disagree with me (or if I want to disagree with West, which I’m not ruling out), at least we could have somewhere to start. I don’t know. The world has gotten very strange very quickly and I have no idea what to do about it. I know there are issues with Christopher West, but it’s pretty solid so far, and the kids have moved from snarky to reluctantly interested. I just don’t want them to grow up thinking that the Church’s main teaching is “Adam and Eve, sex bad, be careful, marriage, the end.” 

This is what we are doing, by the way, rather than the parish whole-family religious education program. (We also send them to Dead Theologian’s Society, but we’ve been skipping because it includes a meal, and it omicron time.) Between covid and who knows what else, our parish stopped doing individual religious education classes and started this thing where I guess the whole family goes in together, and then you have to go home and teach your own kids anyway? Which sounds like the worst of both worlds. So we’re just doing this, and also:

Damien is reading St. Patrick’s Summer by Marigold Hunt to the younger kids (Benny did her first confession, first communion, and confirmation last year, but Corrie hasn’t done any of that yet).

I read this to the older kids when they were younger and remember liking it a lot — it’s a catechism told through a story, where a couple of 20th century kids meet St. Patrick and some other spiritual figures — but Damien says the content is good, but he’s finding the style hard to read. I think we were homeschooling when we read it, and probably just had a wider tolerance for weird books. Anyway, I recommend it for people who are looking for a solid catechism but maybe don’t want to go the Baltimore Catechism route for whatever reason. It has really good stuff about doctrine, like the trinity, etc., that many adults probably missed learning. I remember it as being fairly winsome in tone, definitely not preachy, but surprisingly natural in the way it conveyed doctrine through dialogue. 

On my own, I’m reading Piranesi by Susanna Clark, which I got for Christmas, and I’m enjoying immensely.

It’s wonderful to read a book that’s been written so deliberately. I’m constantly astonished at how carelessly so many popular books are written. Like, the story is interesting and the characters are fine, but the author doesn’t seem to have gone to any trouble over the writing itself? Even though they are an author?? I don’t think we should put up with this. 

Anyway, Piranesi is wonderfully engaging and fascinating and I have no idea whatsoever what is going to happen, and I can’t wait to find out. 

Also reading Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken is always worth reading. Never writes down to kids, but knows what kinds of things are important to kids. This is not actually one of my favorites — there are too many characters, and I’m finding the action a tiny bit confusing — but it’s got lots of adventure, appealing characters, pathos, comedy, an excellent sense of place, and a bit of social conscience, all of which are Aiken trademarks. 

This one is about a young lonely teenage boy growing up lonely in a decrepit mansion as the ward of a titan of industry. He longs for a friend and is dismayed to find himself instead put in charge of a little French girl. The two of them get swept up in an intrigue in the streets of the Industrial Revolution slums of the hellish city of Blastburn. The book includes a lot of peril and the death of children, so may not be appropriate for sensitive young readers. 

Lately we’ve been watching:

The Book of Boba Fett on Disney+

I’ve been hearing a lot of belly-aching about this show, and the arguments against never strike me as critiques of the actual work, but more that the show didn’t fulfill the particular desires that happened to reside in that particular viewer’s psyche. It’s possible I just have the right combination of fondness for Star Wars and ignorance of the lore minutiae, but I’m finding it to be the most entertaining thing I’ve watched in ages. I do think it stands up on its own as a cinematic spectacle and on its own narrative integrity. It’s not groundbreaking, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s well-known that the original Star Wars trilogy was a space western. The Mandalorian and now Boba Fett really bring that out of the realm of suggestion and right up to the surface. It may as well be a John Ford movie, just transplanted. I just about lost my mind when the train showed up in episode 2. So beautifully shot, and thrilling! People said it was boring, and I just don’t understand what they were watching. It’s exciting! It’s beautiful! It has monsters! And trains! And a good-bad man that you come to understand more and more as the show goes on. I’ll watch that story again, why not. It doesn’t hurt that my kids keep shrieking with joy as little obscure references and inside jokes keep turning up (and going over my head).

One essay complained about the exploitation of the story of the Tusken Raiders. It said that, while previous Star Wars movies were clearly written by the victors, portraying the tribe as witless savages, Boba Fett gives them the space to be revealed as a true culture with a backstory and a grievance which explains why they’re so aggressive — but then it obliterates them offscreen once they perform the service of giving Boba Fett some character development. And that’s true! But I’m not sure why it’s a problem! This is the kind of thing that happens all the time in a John Ford western, and I think people just need to watch more of them. Start with The Searchers and relax your ass.  

We’re also watching I, Claudius again. The 1976 BBC series based on the historical novels by Robert Graves.

I did read the book a long time ago, but I really don’t remember it, so I can’t say how faithful the series is, but it has won numerous awards. It’s rather dated and very British in some ways, but once you get going, it’s gripping. I mean how could it not be! It’s told from the point of view of the emperor Claudius at the end of his life, putting together his autobiography and his horrible family history. Lots of poisoning, orgies, and intrigue, betrayal, heartbreak, oracles, and people deciding just how many compromises they can stand to make. I’m not great at following all the ins and outs of the politics, but it doesn’t really matter. You just have to understand which people will do anything for power, and see everyone else eventually get squished. Lots of great acting, spectacular costumes, so sad and funny and terrifying. (Tony Soprano’s mother Livia is clearly a nod to the uber-ambitious wife of emperor Augustus.) I recall it has some very grim and gory stuff further on with Caligula, so viewer beware.

We’re watching this series on disc, but you can stream it in a few places (nowhere free currently, unfortunately).

And, for something totally different, we’re watching The Great British Baking Show, season 9, on Netflix.

We’re only about three or four episodes in, so please don’t tell me who wins! We finished up the previous season, and it was just delightful. Stressful! Always surprisingly stressful. But overall a lovely show, structured very differently from any American reality show. 

It starts out with 12 amateur (but extremely good) bakers who have to produce a series of pastries and other baked goods. Sometimes they have a chance to practice and develop their recipe ahead of time; sometimes the assignment is a complete surprise, they’ve never heard of it, and the recipes are vague and unhelpful. Sometimes they have to make a dozen, identical pieces of some relatively simple sweet; sometimes they’re expected to produce outlandish, elaborate edible projects like chandeliers or childhood toys that you can really play with. One baker is eliminated each week, so you really get to know them over the course of the show, and they each bring in their own traditions, ethnic backgrounds, aesthetic preferences, and neurosis. They do a great job of choosing a variety of contestants with different strengths and weaknesses and different kinds of appeal. They encourage and sometimes even help each other, and although the judges are sometimes stern and the pressure is intense, this isn’t a cruel show. We save it for Sundays, because it’s so pleasant and I don’t want to wear it out. 

They include short bits where the judges horse around with each other and do stupid little gimmicky jokes, and these are lame, but not too intrusive, and they focus mainly on the bakers and the baking. It’s all done outdoors under a giant tent, and the setting is breathtakingly lovely. (And yes, one of the hosts is the guy who plays Richmond on The IT Crowd.)

Listening to:

I’m not listening to anything! I have nothing. I’m listening to the dog making glorping noises with his stupid loose face and I’m going to lose my mind. What are you listening to?