Dr Alysa Levene

Oxford Mail:

Reader in history at Oxford Brookes University

Hands up if you’re eagerly awaiting the start of tonight’s episode of the new season of The Great British Bake Off?

It’s a series I’m always keen to watch: the dramas and tears; the anxious vigils in front of the oven doors; the oh-so-cutting remarks from Paul Hollywood and the face-savingly kind ones from Mary Berry; the antics of Mel and Sue.

Oh, and the cakes and bakes themselves of course.

I’ve always enjoyed 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.

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.

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 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, the cutesy, kitschy and of-the-moment utensils and pastel-coloured mixers.

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.

I’d even venture a step further and suggest that this is linked in people’s minds to the privations and pulling together of the 1940s and early 1950s – a period recent and important enough to be part of our sense of shared communal history.

Bake Off has managed to capture this sense of nostalgia and community, with the updated values of modern technology, shiny consumer goods, male contestants, and a multi-cultural set of recipes and flavours.

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.

You could even go so far as to say that choosing to bake may actually be part of a new form of post-feminist femininity, or, indeed, masculinity.

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.

So that’s why I think we love 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.

* The Great British Bake Off returns on BBC1 at 8pm.