Not long ago, my niece Mary introduced me to “The Great British Baking Show.” There are four seasons on Netflix, so I guess it’s been around a while. I know I’d heard of it before, but I’d never been all that interested. I wasn’t convinced that the world needed another cooking competition. I was wrong. I’m hooked. I love it a lot.
The show is simply so good-natured that it restores my faith in humanity.
It’s a competition, yes, but it manages to avoid ever feeling mean-spirited or cutthroat. None of the contestants are professional bakers. They are builders and teachers and dentists, people from all walks of life, who bake simply because they love to. They encourage and admire each other. They help each other out under the mounting pressures of insufficiently risen dough, or curdled custard, or over-baked crusts.
Things can get stressful for the participants, and it’s surprisingly nail-biting as a viewer, but still the stakes can be held lightly — the grand prize is a cake-stand and a bouquet. So even though winning is quite an acknowledgment and honor, nobody is in it for material reward. Not that there would be anything wrong with a high-dollar grand prize, but the absence of such allows it all a breeziness that might not be available if it seemed like futures were on the line.
They all have charming accents. The hosts are fun. The judges — Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (!!!) — are kind. Everyone appears to be really nice, but not too sweet — kind of like a perfect crème patisserie. Most of them seem like people I’d enjoy hanging out with.
The element of the show that has me thinking this week is what is called the “Technical Challenge.” Each episode has three parts, and the dreaded “technical” is part two. This is where the contestants are given a difficult recipe that includes only the barest instructions. It may say to make a particular type of pastry, but doesn’t specify how. Or to bake something, but without saying at what temperature. Or it may instruct one to let a dough rise but not for how long… and then it turns out that the trick was to let it rise in the refrigerator or else it will over-prove and ruin everything! It tests contestants’ general knowledge and skill.
What occurs to me is that we are faced with challenges like this every day — not necessarily in baking, but in everything we’re up to. We’re given tasks, or we set goals for ourselves. We probably have some understanding about some of what we think it’s going to take to succeed, but never do we have all the information. Often, in truth, once we get going we discover that we had even less knowledge than we thought we did. Indeed, much of the time it can start to feel like we’re all totally winging it — winging life! Doing the best we know how to do, encountering cavernous gaps in our preparedness…
So we improvise, trying to fill in the blanks with whatever limited experience we do have, making up the rest in order to proceed. And here’s the thing: we’re always meeting these gaps, creating our experience, and generating opportunities either out of our innate spiritual magnificence or out of our unhealed past.
Both, ultimately, are part of the recipe. Our spiritual magnificence is the boundless pantry from which we are ever able to draw whatever we need, the affirmative response to every soulful yearning. And each encounter with our unhealed past is an opportunity for authenticity, growth, and completion. Really, it can turn out delicious either way.
Jesus prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread…” It behooves us to have faith that yes, it is given, the ingredients are all already here. And it’s important to recognize all the ways that we’re assembling those ingredients, kneading them together, rising and proving and mixing and baking them ourselves. We’re baking our lives. And ultimately, we find that we are the baked goods.
As Mary Berry sometimes says when she’s delighted with someone’s confection, “Scrummy!”