The Great British Bake Off: The love language of food

It is high time for another OxStu review of the Great British Bake Off. Previous articles have included witty commentaries of individual episodes, and an analysis of the new format when the show switched to Channel 4. Never before, though, has there been a “love letter” of sorts to Bake Off. Which is somewhat ironic, as this programme literally has its eliminated contestants write a note of kisses and farewells to its loyal viewers as they depart. 

This is just one in a long line of Bake Off traditions that make the show feel “cosy”. Their newest presenter, Alison Hammond, has been a fantastic addition to the line-up. Her cheerful voiceovers and playful banter with the contestants make for great viewing, but also harks back to that nostalgic BBC charm, when Bake Off was probably better known for its rustic creations and household names like Mary Berry. The show has held onto that authenticity, whilst growing more and more ambitious through its weekly themes and challenges in recent years. 

Part of its charm is that its stars were never setting out to be just that. Some of the show’s most memorable and beloved contestants have been the everyman – or woman – simply doing what they love. Nadiya Hussain, Rahul Mandal, Liam Charles, Kim-Joy Hewlett, Jürgen Krauss; all genuinely good and kind and enthusiastic people who have gone on to make a living doing what they love. Isn’t that the dream, after all? Maybe not for E&M students, but the rest of us still stand a chance. 

Part of its charm is that its stars were never setting out to be just that.

A 2020 review of the show and its accompanying Christmas special by Yomi Adegoke stated that after such a tumultuous year, “a spin-off contest that doesn’t really count feels like the right, tolerable level of excitement.” Whilst the sentiment is appreciated, I would have to disagree – there is no such thing as a “tolerable” level of excitement when it comes to the Bake Off. The gravity-defying showstoppers and time-pressured challenges which never seem quite long enough add a crucial element of danger. The signature, which used to be an opportunity for bakers to showcase their personal and homely touches to the bake, is reaching greater heights as the weeks go by, with faux-Wagon Wheels, botanical buns, and towering vertical layer cakes already this series. 

It’s that thrill I want to linger on, as the show has seemingly cracked the perfect formula of combining familiarity and a tone of homely congeniality, with daring new challenges and the ever-growing pressure of elimination. This mechanism holds far more weight than in other reality shows, where contestants cycle in and out within thirty minutes and are only given airtime when doing or saying something they’ll likely later regret. For the most part, Bake Off does well at giving each baker their time to shine, with every contestant receiving feedback on all three challenges each week. We get to know and love them all; so the possibility of going home is a real one, and it stings. 

The show does so well at amping up the stakes that a baking competition – which in itself, could be stale – still regularly pulls in almost 8 million viewers over a 7-day period, despite being on its fourteenth series in a long run of television. Yet this phenomenon is not limited just to the Bake Off. Food more broadly can provide joy and even adventure in unexpected ways.

One of our first instincts when returning from a holiday abroad is to comment on what we ate. Perhaps this is because the food in Britain is on par with our weather, politics, economy, and student journalism, but it surely also has something to do with the raw excitement of trying something new. This summer, in preparation for my stint as an editor of this very section, I determined to go out and try some restaurants and dishes that I didn’t get to in first year; if nothing else, so I could have some half-decent recommendations for my portion of our Freshers’ Guide. And it was genuinely refreshing to discover so many new cuisines. Having tried pig’s trotters, something that would have daunted me a year ago, I can safely say that they are delicious, and I’m rather glad to have branched out. 

…there is no such thing as a “tolerable” level of excitement when it comes to the Bake Off.

One of TV’s greatest fictional characters – Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn 99 – proudly proclaims: “I have zero interest in food. If it were feasible, my diet would consist entirely of flavourless beige smoothies containing all the nutrients required by the human animal.” It is why the cold open of him eating a “marshed mallow” for the first time and giggling like a child is so entertaining, but also quite impactful. Holt may not ever be a foodie, but throughout the show’s eight-season run he experiments with cooking for his husband and opening himself up to the compelling culinary world. Similarly, Sex Education’s Michael Groff, a broken man in his failing marriage, rediscovers how to love and communicate through food. These arcs show nuance and compassion that you can be hard-pressed to find nowadays in the genre.

Even writing this article has presented a challenge (albeit smaller) of this kind, as my usual ATS order today was out of stock. Instead of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry with salad on olive bread, it had to be on spinach. It might sound trivial, and perhaps evident of the totally insulating nature of the Oxford bubble to real-world problems, but it was surprisingly good to try something new. I’ve been to ATS dozens of times, and have always ordered the exact same sandwich. But perhaps switching it up isn’t a bad shout. 

Food can be both comforting and bold. It can be any number of fusions of these at the same time. Part of the reason why Bake Off works so well is that it combines its well-known sense of cosiness and familiarity with the excitement of new challenges, eliminations, and victors each week. And part of it is that it’s just genuinely good television. The only show, even, that can convince me to ditch Tuesgays and instead snuggle up some biscuits and tea. So, cheers, to the Bake Off. I wouldn’t trade the double entendres for the world.

Image credit: Migle via Flickr.

Image description: A batch of sorrel muffins on a wooden countertop with white cloth.