Dr Alysa Levene explains why we love The Great British Bake Off

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Dr Alysa Levene

As a new series of The Great British Bake Off begins tonight, Dr Alysa Levene, Reader in History at Oxford Brookes University, writes for the Oxford Mail on the nation’s love of cake.

Hands up if you’re eagerly awaiting the start of the next series of The Great British Bake-Off?

I’ve always enjoyed the Bake Off but my interest in it has grown in the last year or two while I’ve been writing a book about the history of cakes. 

The show sums up so much of why many of us have fond feelings about cake, you see. It’s not just the high sugar and fat load which make it the quintessential comfort food (though that certainly helps). It’s also the fact that cake is a familiar object to everyone; we each attach meanings to it which make us nostalgic and happy – even if we don’t like baking or eat a lot of cakes. 

For most people, cake means childhood in some form, whether that’s a particular birthday cake forever captured in the family album, or learning to bake with an older relative. Cake is a leveller for children; often baked or bought for them, and served up at events at which they get special privileges.

But I think that the appeal of the Bake-Off is built on a deeper sense of nostalgia than the personal one, and I think it has a very distinctively British flavour too. Just look at the village-fete-style marquee where the filming is done, the rural setting (enhanced by quick shots of usually dripping wet sheep and sharp-eyed squirrels), the cutesy, kitschy and of-the-moment utensils and pastel-coloured mixers – originally the iconic but pricey KitchenAid; since 2015 a cheaper Kenwood, which garnered a lot of comment from the Twitterati. Add in the very fact of baking from scratch, and you have a potent expression of a past age where people had the time and knowledge to bake.

For most people, cake means childhood in some form, whether that’s a particular birthday cake forever captured in the family album, or learning to bake with an older relative. Cake is a leveller for children; often baked or bought for them, and served up at events at which they get special privileges.

Dr Alysa Levene, Reader in History, Oxford Brookes University

One of the things which troubled me as I was writing the book though, was how can we square this idealised nostalgia with the real privations and restrictions of this supposedly rosy bygone era? And in particular, how should we feel about the gender roles it implies? Second-wave feminists, after all, fought very hard to break free of lives confined by domesticity and baking to please others.

The key to making sense of this, of course, is that today anyone who bakes - men or women - do so by choice. There may be circles where there is pressure to provide home-made cupcakes for children’s birthdays, but on the whole, women are no longer expected to spend time in the kitchen producing beautiful baked goods for friends and family if they don’t want to. Baking – like knitting and sewing which are also resurgent pastimes – are ways to express creativity and companionship.

And as to the idealised image of the 1950s; well yes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that things weren’t all rosy, especially in post-war Europe, and especially, perhaps, for women. But again, it makes more sense if we think about the positive values which are being extracted from that time: a celebration of community solidarity, and the gradual shedding of the restrictions of wartime – which included, of course, the ending of rationing and the re-emergence onto the market of butter, eggs, and sugar. 

So that’s why I think we love the Bake-Off. We love its nostalgia, which has been cleverly updated for the modern age. We love the stories it tells us and the vicarious sweetness it offers. But one thing never changes: the sense of competition among bakers, which has accompanied village fetes and county fairs for centuries.

Dr Alysa Levene is the author of Cake: The short, surprising history of our favourite bakes. This article was first published in the Oxford Mail on Wednesday 24 August and the full version can be read online