Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

A photograph of a cake. The cake is placed on the middle of a wooden table. It is covered with light pink frosting and adorned with a circle of quartered strawberries. Imperfections make it clear that the cake is homemade.

The Hidden Privilege of “The Great British Bake Off”

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A photograph of a cake. The cake is placed on the middle of a wooden table. It is covered with light pink frosting and adorned with a circle of quartered strawberries. Imperfections make it clear that the cake is homemade.
All photos by the author

An essay by Christopher Bartel (Appalachian State University)

The Great British Bake Off  (GBBO) is a show that I deeply love. But it is also one that unsettles me for its inherent classism.

GBBO is an annual contest to find the best amateur baker in Britain, originally produced by the BBC, now produced by Channel Four, using the now-standard reality television competition format where contestants are cut week by week to arrive at the eventual winner. There are two spin-off shows as well. Bake Off: The Professionals is open to bakers who run their own shops or work in very posh restaurants, most of whom are classically trained. Junior Bake Off is open to children ranging in ages from 9 to 15. (And, yes, there is a Great American Baking Show, but it’s not nearly as popular as the British productions.)

GBBO is an excellent piece of cozy telly. Coziness is kind of in right now. There are cozy video games (e.g. Stardew Valley, Unpacking), cozy novels (Becky Chamber’s Monk and Robot series), and cozy murder mysteries (Midsomer Murders, Agatha Raisin). What makes these things “cozy”? One theory of the aesthetics of coziness comes from video game designer Daniel Cook. He suggests that a video game is cozy when it meets three requirements: there is an abundance of resources, the player-character is assured safety from any serious consequences, and there is a general quality of “softness”—its “gentle and comforting stimulus” signals to the player that “they are in a low stress environment full of abundance and safety.” GBBO fits this account of coziness nicely.

GBBO is about abundance. One line that is often repeated on GBBO is the idea that baking is about luxury, it should be special. The contestants are not being asked to make basic staples. They are making choux pastry and Swiss buttercream. Additionally, the bakers appear to have access to ample ingredients. There is no need to compete for ingredients or any other resources, unlike many other competitive cooking shows that are designed to produce conflict by making opponents compete for limited ingredients, or advantages, or the opportunity to sabotage their rivals (think Cutthroat Kitchen, Sugar Rush, Cook at All Costs).

For safety, it is the viewers of GBBO who are safe in the sense that they rarely need to confront the messy reality of the contestants’ lives. If your favorite contestant gets eliminated from the show, then there are no dire real-world consequences to think about. It is sad to see them go, but—no worries!—they will cheerfully keep on baking at home. Compare that to other reality contests. When a show offers big cash prizes, you inevitably hear stories from the contestants about how they need to win that money to pay for maw-maw’s heart replacement surgery. If I lose, then maw-maw dies! My pastry has a soggy bottom?! Oh, no! Poor maw-maw! All the winner of GBBO gets is a nice bouquet of flowers, a decorative cake tray, and the satisfaction of a job well done. Viewers of GBBO never have to think about dying maw-maws.

Softness, too, is apparent in a number of ways—the gentle piano music, the cheery baking tent, and the general friendliness of the contestants. The contestants seem to genuinely like each other. Most other elimination contests are full of humorless jerks who may as well have “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win” tattooed across their foreheads. That doesn’t happen on GBBO. Either the production team carefully edits out those moments of crass competitiveness or they don’t select those contestants in the first place.

GBBO is cozy and comforting. It shows us a world where you can eat luxuriously. And—crucially—this is a world that is within your reach! It is ostensibly a celebration of home baking and GBBO demonstrates to viewers what is possible for an amateur home baker. You too could bake like this because all the tools and skills are within your reach. How delightful.

A photograph of a pumpkin mini bundt cake positioned in the bottom left corner. The pale yellow bundt is placed on a porcelain plate with a blue floral pattern. The bundt is topped with white icing sugar. In the top right corner of the image, someone is eating another bundt.

This is the part of the show that has always rubbed me wrong. It is worth thinking further about what abundance means here. The ingredients, skills, and tools needed to bake like the contestants of GBBO are within your reach if you can afford it. There is a real economic barrier to baking like the contestants of GBBO.

Consider the amount of time required of these contestants. To master the techniques on GBBO, you would have to spend hundreds of hours practicing to get to a level where you could apply. Think about the croissant. It is made with lots of butter and flour. To make the pastry crisp and flaky, you have to roll out the dough, add a layer of butter, fold it, and then cool it. By repeating this process many times, you build up layer after layer of thin, flaky, buttery pastry. It’s not hard to do, but it’s not fast either. The cooling time always takes longer than you’d think. (And then you have to clean the dishes! Many baking tins have to be handwashed, taking even more time.) Even for those bakers who make it onto the show, time becomes an economic issue. The contestants on GBBO have the opportunity to practice their bakes at home during the week. But some are working full-time jobs and balancing childcare. Some people have the time to spend hours out of their day making luxurious treats. Those are people who don’t worry about paying their rent or watching the kids. Those people have luxury time.

And then there are the requisite materials. To bake all the things you see on GBBO, you would need a stand mixer, hand mixer, hand blender, whisk, pastry knife, baking scale, many bowls, and very many baking tins (round, square, loaf, Bundt, springform, etc.). You really ought to have a convection oven because turning a cake mid-bake runs the risk of collapse, but that adds some dollars to the price tag. And if you want to make bread, more equipment! A dough hook for your stand mixer, a bench knife, bannetons, a lame, a proving bag, maybe a baguette tray, and definitely more baking tins. Also, because the secret to baking good bread is steam, that ideally means buying a steam-injection oven. Sharp makes one for around $2,500, but you could go nuts and get a Thermador for $10,000. If you can’t afford that, then get ready to battle with your oven to get enough steam in there. On GBBO, the contestants have access to a Neff Slide&Hide Oven (which I covet). Prices for these range from £1,669 to £2,190 (they’re not even available in the USA!). You see, no one really makes “bargain” steam ovens.

And those are just the tools. In addition, you of course need ingredients: butter, eggs, sugar, and truckloads of flour to practice on. The contestants are not paid for being on the show, though they are given a modest stipend so they can practice their bakes at home. But the stipend apparently doesn’t go very far. If you need to practice your bake multiple times at home, the cost of ingredients can get surprisingly expensive. For a show that is about abundance, the reality is that contestants who can afford all those materials and spare all that time have more opportunities to practice. What the viewer sees are happy contestants who have access to everything they need competing under the same time constraints. What the viewer doesn’t see is that some contestants are more privileged than others, which affords them an abundance of opportunities to practice. It appears that coziness is quite expensive.

But it doesn’t have to be. My own background in baking is very simple, formed by cultural and economic forces. My parents grew up in the 1950s, during a time when convenience overwhelmed American diets. We have no family recipes. The only thing my mother baked were whoopie pies. I thought they were magical, so she taught me how to make them. From there, she introduced me to box cake mix. After that, I was on my own.

A photograph of a whoopie pie recipe written on a slightly aged notebook page. The title "Whoopie Pies" is written in the first line, with a star drawn on each side. The following lines detail the ingredients and method.

When I was in college, money was very tight. But if I had an extra five bucks and wanted something special and cozy, I would make chocolate chip cookies following the recipe on the package. The only kitchen tools I had were a large bowl and a fork. So, I creamed my butter and sugar with my fork until my elbow ached. But that was fine, because in one hour I had chocolate chip cookies! I made them and they were mine.

The notion of an amateur British baker conjures up certain images. Someone who does home baking, skilled in making cakes, scones, Yorkshire pudding, maybe a nice crumble. Occasionally, they might make something special for the kids, like a sticky toffee pudding or a Battenberg cake. Amateur home bakers might have some cherished family recipe that they learned while sitting on grandma’s knee. A good baker might look for places to showcase their baking, like the local village fête, where they make more cakes, scones, butterfly buns for the kids, maybe some Bakewell tarts.

Granted, you’ll see a lot of these items on GBBO. But you will also see a lot of stuff that does not correspond to what an amateur baker would actually bake at home. Think of the number of times on the show when Paul and Prue ask a contestant, “Have you tried this at home?” and the contestant says no. They are making something that they have never baked at home. Because the show isn’t really about home baking. It is really about amateur patisserie.

It always struck me as odd that an amateur baking show is so beholden to patisserie baking, the kind of high-end pastries that you typically expect of a professional kitchen. A high mark of praise is when Prue says something like, “I can just picture this in a patisserie window in Paris!” That is certainly a nice compliment, but why are amateur home bakers expected to produce high-end French patisserie? Do they really expect home bakers to cook like that at home? Do other home bakers do sugar work and make biscuit sculptures? Who uses their spare time to make dozens of identical petit fours?!

GBBO has run for fourteen seasons now. Each week has a theme, which might be a category of baking (cakes, biscuit, bread), or a type of ingredient (chocolate, botanicals, unusual flours), or something for an event (Halloween, Mardi Gras, wedding cake). One trend that started very early (Season 2) is that the week of the semi-final is patisserie. Positioning patisserie as the challenge that bakers must pass to get into the final suggests a few things: certainly, that this is hard and that only the best bakers can handle it; but also, that the test of a really good home baker is their patisserie.

GBBO projects an overall vibe of cozy home baking. But really it is about luxury baking—high-end patisserie baking that requires not only skill, but also an abundance of money, time, and privilege. The bakers who can only afford to cream their butter with a fork are priced out of competing.

A photograph of seed bread. This light brown bread is placed on a board with the end cut off, showcasing the interior. The interior appears fluffy and contains seeds. The cracked surface of the bread is adorned fully with seeds.

With all this in mind, think again about the lack of prize money. The concept of the amateur has played an important role in the history of gaming and sports, but it is one that is rooted in classism. This is most clearly observed in the Olympic Games. At its inception in the late 19th century, competitors were not allowed to accept money for their sport, not ever. The stated aim of this rule was to keep the Olympics “pure” from the taint of money. The real effect of this rule was that the “amateur” athletes competing in the Olympics were high class and well moneyed—millionaire athletes. It wasn’t until 1986 that the International Olympic Committee dropped the amateur-athletics rule. When this rule was dropped, some complained that it would have a detrimental effect on the Olympic Games. But undoubtedly, the rule change had a positive impact on many athletes who could now support themselves from their sport by taking sponsorship deals, playing on professional teams, and accepting prize money.

The contestants of the GBBO are also amateurs. They bake for the love of baking. Granted, many contestants have gone on to have TV careers and write cookbooks—Nadiya Hussain, Liam Charles, Kim-Joy Hewlett—but this is not a direct result of their performance in the contest (Liam was knocked out in the eighth week of his season). Their well-deserved careers are the result of their charming on-screen presence. Still, many who go on the show, even those who ultimately win the competition, don’t go on to monetize their appearance on the show. GBBO is about amateur contestants being held to a standard that can only be achieved by those with an abundance of resources and who ultimately collect no money for winning—it is basically the pre-1986 Olympics all over again.

These days, I have a wider range of recipes under my belt. I really like my sourdough bread, which I bake in a Dutch oven to solve the steam problem. My starter is three years old now and seems to have hit its stride. I also make nice Sicilian-style pizza dough. Other family favorites are my blueberry muffins, amaretto almond cake, and an apple walnut coffee cake. I still haven’t got the hang of baguettes (not enough steam in my oven). And I never bother with Italian or Swiss buttercream. But if you want a nice buttercream that isn’t too sweet, try making this Ermine icing.

Nigella Lawson says that so few people bake these days that, even if you make something simple, non-bakers will think you are a god. She’s right. When I bake things for friends who don’t bake, they’ll exclaim that I should open a bakery. No thanks, I don’t want to turn my hobby into a job. Sometimes they even say that I should go on The Great British Bake Off. I appreciate the compliment, but fuck that. I’m not making petit fours. That’s impressive—sure—but I wouldn’t call it cozy. My baking is what Prue would call “rustic,” not special enough for a patisserie. But that’s fine. My baking today is a long way from chocolate chip cookies mixed with a fork.


Christopher Bartel is a Professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University and an Adjunct Research Fellow at Charles Sturt University. His research interests primarily lie within aesthetics and ethics, with a special focus on video games, music, and technology. He is the author of Video Games, Violence, and the Ethics of Fantasy: Killing Time (Bloomsbury 2020) and Aesthetics and Video Games (Bloomsbury forthcoming).

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