10 Things I've Learned from the Great British Baking Show

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Who doesn't love the Great British Baking Show? Not only is it persistently positive and mostly void of interpersonal drama, but it also inspires and celebrates home bakers. I've walked away from each season with new baking knowledge and skills that have greatly improved my bread, cakes, and fancy desserts. I once even attempted an apricot galette - which is basically a rustic French pie. And it was delicious. To celebrate my love for baking and to express gratitude for the only show that can successfully see me through pre-bedtime anxiety attacks, I give you, in no particular order of importance, the 10 things I've learned from the Great British Baking Show.

  1. It is the most wonderful experience in the world to let people surprise you with their hidden talents. Every season has had a contestant whose daytime occupation seemed in opposition to their baking hobby. These people, including a general contractor, an engineer, a prison warden, and a pediatrician I personally would assume to be too busy or completely disinterested in baking. And yet, those same people were skilled enough in baking to make it on the show, some of them even to the finals with their amazing bakes. You can't judge a person on their looks or their occupation. A lot of times their skills and talents overlap and play off one another in ways that directly contribute to their success. So, if you are one of those people who swing the giant balls that demolish buildings AND you love creating intricate little caramel decorations for your petite fours - freaking go for it! You're amazing.
  2. There is not always a right or wrong way to do something. A lot of bakers on the show make something in the way that their families or they personally enjoy eating. Though these bakes may not meet the judges' standards, it is easy to tell that a lot of passion, time, and consideration for their loved ones goes in to the creations we see on the show. There is absolutely nothing wrong with baking something with love. Sure, it may not make you THE Greatest British Baker, but it certainly makes you a great one nonetheless.
  3. I will never forget the time in season 1 that Ian threw his baked Alaska in the trash because he felt it wouldn't win the challenge. Even though the rest of his bakes were very good, because he had nothing to show for his efforts the judges had to send him home that week. It broke my heart to see him leave! But I learned an important lesson from watching. It is always better to try and fail than to not try at all. All the judges wanted to see was his best effort, but they never got to because he hid it away before they could judge him. That knowledge alone has encouraged me in my own creative pursuits. Keep trying, don't trash it, and give it your best.
  4. Apparent in the case of Ian's baked Alaska and a lot of other contestant's bakes is this surprising fact: It does not have to be beautiful to be good. So many creations have won challenges on merits of texture, flavor, finish, and the pure luck of just once being better than the rest. There have been beautifully decorated cakes, perfectly colored breads, and inventive chocolate delivery systems (looking at you, Season 3 Ian) that did not win challenges. On the flip side, there have been some downright ugly looking bakes that surprised everyone, sometimes even winning Star Baker! So, I think its important to remember that presentation is not always everything - its whats inside that counts.
  5. There is a good chance that someone will be better than you, even at your best thing. Don't let this discourage you! Try to see this as a learning opportunity. Your only job is to believe in yourself and give whatever it is it your very best anyway. Leave the comparison to the judges.
  6. Sometimes the difference between Star Baker and just another person in the tent is the willingness to accept and take criticisms to heart. Sometimes watching Paul Hollywood judge technical challenges makes me feel SO bad for the bakers. But what I do know is that the audience doesn't get to see is the time the judges make to teach and constructively critique the bakers so they can succeed in future challenges. Flexibility and the willingness to learn makes you a better baker (or artist, or writer, or parent, or.... you get the point).
  7. Paul Hollywood is infamous for his harsh critiques and high standards. Its no wonder contestants shiver and sometimes crack under his scrutiny. There have even been times where Paul just outright tells bakers that he doesn't think their bakes will be very good. One of my favorite PH quotes comes from season 2 when Paul didn't believe in Beca's chocolate orange cake and straight up told her so. In the end, it turned out beautifully. One of the most glorious moments in my television-watching life was hearing Paul say, "I annoyingly really like that." So when someone doesn't believe you, maybe even especially when its Paul Hollywood, don't let it stop you. Try anyway and surprise us all.
  8. Who you are is important and makes you special. I love watching contestants flavor their bakes and fillings with spices, meats, and fruits from their family's countries and childhoods. It makes the show interesting and above all, I can see in their eyes the excitement they have for sharing a piece of themselves with the judges. When something is meaningful to you, share it. It blesses everyone to take part in the simple joys of life. 
  9. Practice practice practice and then practice some more. You don't get good at anything unless you've tried and failed and tried again. Take notes. Experiment. Study. Ask for advice. Then practice again. I have a cinnamon roll recipe I've used for years and only recently have I started experimenting with different fillings. All that practice has paid off - it is by far and wide the best thing I can bake, and people are always excited when I do.
  10. Its okay to cry. I have seen so many tears on this show and it always touches me. These people love being in the tent and they want every opportunity to keep trying. Its okay to be disappointed, afraid, nervous, heartbroken, and devastated. Even over miniature meringue pavlovas. Its okay to let the things that are important to you be important to you. And simply because I can't choose one to eliminate from the 10...
  11. The experience is its own reward. There is no money prize for the winner of the Great British Baker title. They go home with a lovely bouquet and an etched glass cake stand.  I think this minimalist prize really drives home the real purpose of the show - to just simply be there and try your best. And that is a good approach not just on TV, but to life.

All-Consuming Fear

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

What I Want My Daughter To Know About Elsa

Saturday, January 11, 2020

*Spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen the movie by now its your own fault.*

On the drive to pick up her brother from school, I heard my daughter sigh from the backseat of the van.

"What's up babe?" I asked.
"Mom! I am so mad! I made a wish when I made my bear at Build-A-Bear and it never came true!" She said.
"What did you wish for?" I asked.
"I wished to be Elsa. Every time I get in the bath I test out to see if I have ice powers, but nothing ever happens."
I held back a giggle, trying to recover my daughter's faith in magic and wishes. "Wishes don't always work, and that's okay. Maybe it didn't work because the world already has an Elsa, and what it still needs is you."

The conversation soon moved on to another topic, but its stuck with me since.

Both my daughter and I have joined the world in a mutual love for Frozen II and Elsa. Since seeing it in theaters over a month ago, my mind has replayed its songs and scenes over again so I can squeeze every bit of joy and meaning from them. I have read every article, blog post, and Instagram caption I have come across about Frozen II (this one being a particular favorite), but this conversation with my young daughter highlighted something I hadn't realized before - she and I walked away from the story and characters of Frozen II with two very different treasures.

This makes sense, given there is a 20 year age difference between us. Part of me is thrilled knowing that the enchantment of story, the possibility of magical ice powers, and the potential of being the "chosen one" (or the "fifth element", whatever you want to call it) is still very real to her. The other part of me houses my desire for her to see beneath the glittering facade of magic powers to what is really at the heart of her favorite heroine. "There are so many things to love about Elsa," I want to tell her. "Her ice powers are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg."

Elsa Is Prudent

Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, it is obvious that Elsa has learned much from her adventures in the first Frozen. The castle gates are open. Elsa has integrated herself into both a family unit (charades, anyone?) and the larger society, which is apparent just by observing the attitudes of the Arendelle citizens - seeing Elsa is totally normal for them. Even though she feels restless and is not completely at peace, she recognizes and appreciates the important role that community and connection play in her life. Her simple lines in the song Some Things Never Change, "I'm not sure I want things to change at all," and in the song Into the Unknown, "Everyone I've ever loved is here within these walls / I've had my adventure / I don't need something new / I'm afraid of what I'm risking if I follow you into the unknown." showcases two things: 1. Elsa's purposeful and measurable efforts and success in finding a place in which she feels a sense of belonging, and 2. her wisdom in being unwilling to abandon the goodness she's found at the first call to adventure. From this alone I feel we can clearly see that Elsa is capable of learning from her experiences and consciously chooses to follow a growth trajectory.

Elsa is Intuitive

Elsa is a tad bit more lucky than the rest of us who best recognize intuition as a soft inner knowing. Her intuition literally called to her in an audible and unmistakable way, via a "voice" singing a haunting lullaby from a far-off, unseen somewhere. From the moment she first heard the call, she leaned in to hear what it was trying to tell her. Through the day and night the call followed her - which follows the pattern of intuition in life off-screen, too - and because she both recognized its voice and allowed herself to be open to it, she was able to give voice to her deep and forbidden desire to follow her heart wherever it took her. Her acceptance of her intuition is easily apparent as she softly sings, 

What do you want? 'Cause you've been keeping me awake
Are you here to distract me so I make a big mistake?
Or are you someone out there who's a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down I'm not where I meant to be?
Everyday's a little harder as I feel my power grow
Don't you know there's part of me that longs to go
Into the unknown?

As she continues to follow her inner guide, her confidence grows. She becomes more sure of herself and of her path and purpose. The story is propelled almost by her certainty alone. It is her trust in her intuition that awakens the Nature Spirits, that helps her recall her father's bedtime story of the Enchanted Forest as more truth than tale, and brings her into alignment with a purpose greater than that of Queen of Arendelle.

Elsa is Reliant

If there was one takeaway from the first Frozen, its that disconnection never ends well. So instead of pushing those closest to her away when she realizes she must go to the Enchanted Forest, Elsa welcomes their company. Even though her first concern is their safety, she realizes that this is a journey she can't take alone. She doesn't walk herself to her destination; she allows Christoff to take her there. She takes as many people with her as are willing to go until they are unable to go any further. Elsa understands that her story is part of a greater story of past, present, and future, and therefore excludes no one who is willing to do the work with her. She welcomes every effort, every explanation, every piece of wisdom that comes her way because she recognizes she does not have all the answers.

Elsa is Tenacious

She has only one goal through the entire film: find answers. Who is calling to her? Why? What is the full story of the past? What happened to her parents? What is her purpose? Elsa is relentless in her pursuit of knowledge. Eventually, she finds herself at a place where she innately knows she must travel to alone. For the first time in forever (see what I did there?) Elsa is alone on a dark, rocky beach because she knows that this particular part of her journey is meant just for her. She's sent everyone else away under the guise of "keeping them safe," but I think it really comes down to the fact that there are some journeys in life that must be taken alone. On a journey of self-discovery, at some point the worry of others becomes a hindrance. Anna could not have survived the tempestuous sea Elsa had to cross or faced the Nokk and come out victorious. Anna had nothing waiting for her in Ahtohallan. Elsa intuitively knew this and therefore had to make a tough decision she knew would hurt her sister. Tenacity means being capable of holding tightly to something; Elsa refused to let go of her calling, no matter what.

Elsa is Vulnerable

Even though Into the Unknown is Frozen II's signature song, Show Yourself  is what makes Elsa's character arc complete and brings an underlying sense of wholeness to the film. Show Yourself  is vulnerability in song form. Lets just look at the lyrics.

"I have always been a fortress, cold secrets deep inside. You have secrets too, but you don't have to hide."
"I have always been so different, normal rules did not apply. Is this the day, are you the way I finally find out why?"  

This would be incredibly hard to admit for anyone. The ache to belong is a strong and innate human need and Elsa is not immune. For her to find companionship, even if it comes in the form of an explanation from the divine is an incredible gift. The song continues,

"Here I am. I've come so far. You are the answer I've waited for all of my life. Show yourself - let me see who you are."

This is a beautiful act of vulnerability to say, "I'm here. This is all I have. I've waited for so long and given everything to be here right now. Is this enough? Am I enough?" Have you ever had that experience in your own life? Where your need to be seen and accepted was so strong you'd give anything and everything to hear the simple words, "You are loved?"

Then Elsa has a subtle realization about who exactly it is she's been waiting for. Her path forward is clear - all she needs is to embrace it. As she does, the audience is gifted with one of the most beautiful lines of song:

"Show yourself. Step in to your power. Grow yourself into something new. You are the one you've been waiting for all of your life. Oh, show yourself. "

The message is:

Wait no longer.
Everything you'll ever need
is already inside you.

I can't listen to Show Yourself without openly weeping every.single.time. And whenever I hear my daughter sing it? It is unadulterated peace, wonder, and awe.

Elsa is Humble

Elsa is largely absent from the film from the point of her transformation until almost the very end. When she does reappear, she carries herself with a sense of quiet peace. Anna ultimately was the one who put into action the necessary steps to heal the Enchanted Forest and liberate the Nature Spirits and it is Elsa who helps her realize this. Elsa never rubs her powers, her transformation, or her new title of "The Fifth Element" in her sister's face. Instead, she reminds Anna with one simple sentence how necessary their sisterhood is: "Mother had two daughters. We did this together." Elsa steps down from the Arendelle throne knowing that Anna was the best fit for that role. She moves away from a life of castle comforts (not that she ever really felt comfortable there anyway) and into the Enchanted Forest. Elsa is not caught up in titles, royalty, roles, and authority. Her humility stems from her acceptance and realization of something much greater. Her power comes from her deep and resilient connection to her heart and soul self.

Elsa is so much more than ice powers, magic dresses, and a new horse. These are things she has, and they ultimately come to her because of who she is. So the next time my daughter tells me she wants to be like Elsa, I will do my best to show her what magic is really all about.

Women's Work

Thursday, January 9, 2020

 I am barefoot in the kitchen

doing women's work
when my daughter looks up
from her kindergarten homework
and asks,
purple crayon resting in hand,

"Is it better to be fancy
or to be strong?"
Fancy is another word for 
pretty, or

I ask her if she'd rather sit on a couch in a dress
or perform a dance and headstands
when guests come to visit.

"Handstands," she answers,
her smile showing all her teeth
except the two she lost last month.
Her purple crayon returns 
to her bright yellow homework page
to circle sight words.

I want to grab her face in my hands,
feel the softness of her full cheeks in my palms,
pull her close to me and plead
that she remember beauty fades,
to always choose strength over
a sequin dress and stilettos.

She slams her crayon on the table.
"Done!" she shouts,
 slips from the bench to the floor,
crawls under the table,
and runs to the living room. 
She stops suddenly, 
raises her hands high, fingers spread wide,
and dives into a upside down balance,
all her weight momentarily held on two strong arms.
Her baby blue dress - always bowing to gravity's rule - 
folds in half, exposing her legs and stomach.

Maybe this is
women's work 
after all: a balance 
instead of a choice between
beauty and strength
disruption and peace
liberation and protection
nature and nurture.
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