The Excellence of the Everyday: A Celebration of The Great British Baking Show

Written by Ethan Russo.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

At this late day, The Great British Baking Show should need no introduction. It has conquered Britain, America, and indeed the world. And it’s no wonder, either; the show– known as the GBBO to its more devoted acolytes, due to its name in the UK, The Great British Bake Off– is impossibly charming. The premise is nothing short of picturesque: twelve everyday Britons with a penchant for baking are gathered on the lush green lawn of an English estate (in a special baking tent, of course) to compete for the title of best amateur baker in Britain. All of this is overseen by a pair of kooky comedian-hosts and a less kooky, but still lovable, pair of judges.

What distinguishes GBBO from other food competition programs is its unique kindness. There is no conniving, no backstabbing. The producers do not try to create a false sense of conflict or enmity. They simply let their charming bakers do their thing.

And what is their thing? Baking delicious cakes while being their normal, quirky selves. In their special baking tent, the contestants compete side by side, giving them room to do what normal people do: make friends, help each other when the need arises, engage in funny but occasionally baffling British banter. At the end of the day, the GBBO celebrates the bakers for what they are: normal people doing extraordinary baking.

Indeed, it is in the nature of this gentle celebration that the genius of the GBBO rests. Think, a moment, about an American cooking competition show–Masterchef, Top Chef, Iron Chef America, Chopped–and their crazy melodrama. In Iron Chef America, the iron chefs are put up on podiums, surrounded by swirling smoke and accompanied by overwrought music, as if they were some exalted Olympian gods. The strategy of these American competitions is all too clear: in order to make cooking seem important and worth watching, they must endow it with all the features of a grand struggle, not unlike what one might find in professional wrestling.

GBBO eschews all that. The contestants do not stand on swirling pillars, but rather stroll on foot into their tent. Playful pizzicato accompanies their baking rather than pounding drums. The effect of this simplicity is to show that baking, normally considered an everyday act, can be an extraordinary one, and can be so not because of some imposed drama, but because of what it is. We marvel at the culinary creations of the bakers because the creations themselves are worth our attention, not because of some dramatic edit. Without all that macho nonsense, the baking and the bakers are able to speak for themselves.

I use the term “macho” advisedly, because there is a gendered dimension to all this. Cooking and baking are domestic arts, and therefore are traditionally associated with women. When Chopped dresses up the art of cooking in a macho disguise, the show masculinizes the act. Cooking, the show seem to imply, can only have value, can only be watchable, when it is dressed up as a manly sports match. By letting the baking speak for itself, then, GBBO also liberates domestic achievement from male standards of success and worth. Baking is valuable, GBBO implies, not because it can be likened to sports or more violent contest, but in its own right.

We would all, perhaps, benefit from heeding GBBO’s example. In a world stratified by structures of power, much of the work we do is deemed worthless because it deviates from the standards of success which the structures establish. The GBBO, even in its limited way, shows us that we can reject these standards and should celebrate our ordinary excellence as we go about in our day-to-day life. That’s an example worth celebrating.

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