The Great British Baking Show has captivated American audiences thanks to the endearing contestants, the spectacular culinary masterpieces, the cutting critiques of judge Paul Hollywood, and the witty banter of hosts Mel and Sue.
In each season, amateur bakers compete to win the title of best amateur baker in Great Britain. Each episode is unified by a common theme (bread, yeasted cakes, biscuits, etc.), and over the course of two days the bakers complete three “challenges,” all set on a British estate, in a large white tent outfitted with top-of-the-line kitchen stations.
The Great British Baking Show embodies the truth that parameters don’t necessitate suppression. Rather, they often provide a framework that spurs us to truth, beauty, and goodness instead of floundering in unrealized, undefined possibility.The signature challenge requires bakers to create an original recipe that they might make for their family and friends. The technical challenge requires them to create a specific baked good with only the basic recipe. The final challenge of the weekend, the showstopper challenge, calls on bakers to demonstrate their ingenuity, creativity, and skill. The “bakes” from each challenge are then judged by British bakers Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.
The show stands apart from other food shows because of the kind camaraderie of the contestants, the thoughtful critique of the product (instead of the bakers), and the lack of fabricated dramatics.
But amid the thrill of figuring out how to cut candied cherries for Mary Berry’s cherry cake and debates over how long to chill churros before frying, the show reveals an important truth of what it means to be human: the parameters set on our lives do not need to constrain us. Instead, they can empower us to pursue creative and even daring flourishing.
Is It Bread?
When Tom presents his bake for the chocolate bread signature challenge, Hollywood looks at it and asks: “Is it a loaf? I think it’s a load of Chelsea buns glued together.”
The show’s underlying assumption is that there are rules for what something is. A cake requires certain ratios of flour, liquid, fats, and eggs. Tempered chocolate should be glossy. A proper pie crust is firm and flaky (heaven forbid there be a soggy bottom!). There’s a right way to make something, and with every bake the judges call the bakers to submit to those standards.
The baking challenges of The Great British Baking Show are akin to writing prompts, the parameters provided to writers for specific pieces. Karen Swallow Prior observes that prompts are paradoxes because they are limitations that facilitate excellence and creativity.
“Following the set rules allows creativity to flourish in ways it never would or could with no restraints or limits. It’s the paradox of the prompt,” she writes. “One can fight against the rules of the prompt. One can also just follow them limply along. Or one can press into the limits until truth, goodness, and beauty are squeezed out and burst into the world.”
The show’s contestants give us a tangible picture of what it looks like to press into those limits with full enthusiasm. It’s not the bakers who simply follow the set rules to a tee who are rewarded. Nor is it the bakers who strive to create something for mere shock value and attention.
My favorite contestant is Richard, builder, husband, and father. As he bakes throughout season five, I love seeing how these facets of his identity shape his bakes. For bread week, he created a pesto pinwheel he makes for family dinners. In the biscuit episode, he constructs an elaborate 3-D pirate scene that utilizes his builder-like precision and attention to detail.
I also think of Nadiya who wins season six after creating the wedding cake she never had. The daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants to the United Kingdom, Nadiya married her husband in a traditional Bangladeshi wedding ceremony. When instructed to bake a three tiered cake for the showstopper finalé, Nadiya was inspired to make the wedding cake she would have chosen had she had a British wedding. She selected the English classic lemon drizzle for the cake and decorated it with her wedding jewels.
Nadiya’s cake won the judges’ favor, but it also represented the essence of the show. The bakers who let their unique strengths, stories, interests, and tastes shape their work in the great white tent and strive to create something beautiful to the eye and delectable to the mouth are the ones praised and celebrated, even if their bakes are not perfect.
Called to Flourish
In the ongoing conversation about gender, roles, and identity, The Great British Baking Show reminds us of an important truth. When we press into our unique identity as image bearers instead of fighting the limitations on our lives (whether that’s our careers, race, family roles, the places we live, our personalities, spiritual giftings, gender, or hobbies), we have an opportunity to flourish.
Our goal in life is not to measure up to a particular image of what the good life is, just as the goal of bakers is not simply to follow recipes. The bakers respond to the given guidelines and embrace their unique stories to create something beautiful in accordance with the judges’ instructions. And at the end of every episode, the diversity of bakes that come from this pursuit is beautiful and captivating.
The contestants’ baking skills certainly matter to the judges. Thus, we see the bakers tested on their knowledge and practice in the technical challenges. And the same is true for the Christian faith. All Christians are called to love God and their neighbors, practice hospitality, pursue justice, care for the orphans and widows, pray.
But how we obey those commands will not and should not look the same for everyone. Our particular ways of living out those commands will be informed by our unique identities as image bearers of God, the places we call home, our roles in life, our passions, our relationships. The bakers show us what it looks like to embrace our unique identities and give them shape.
For the season five finalé Showstopper Challenge, the judges simply instructed the final three contestants to create a pièce montée, “a kind of decorative confectionery centerpiece in an architectural or sculptural form. . . and made of such ingredients as confectioner’s paste, nougat, marzipan, and spun sugar.” One baker created his own village in chocolate, and the other bakers created two different types of windmills. All of the final products were certainly piéce montées, but each looked unique, incorporated different baking elements, and tasted distinct based on the baker’s vision for their bakes and their abilities, preferences, and life stories.
The Great British Baking Show embodies the truth that parameters don’t necessitate suppression. Rather, they often provide a framework that spurs us to truth, beauty, and goodness instead of floundering in unrealized, undefined possibility. As there are countless ways to make pièce montée, there are countless ways be a good parent, a biblical man or woman, a loving neighbor, a faithful spouse, a dependable co-worker, and a disciple of Jesus.
Just as the bakers used their prompts to stretch the limits of their creativity in the pursuit of crafting excellent bakes, may the different facets of our identities spur us to flourishing as image bearers of God.