Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five Reasons We Love the Great British Bake Off

We all love the Great British Bake Off. Well, most of us do. In last week's Sunday Times, AA Gill was baffled by the popularity of a bland television show about people making cakes and biscuits in a tent. What he didn't realise was that the weekly triumphs and failures of the bakers are a microcosm of the ups and downs of life that we can all relate to. Maybe these are the reasons why the Bake Off hits such a sweet spot for so many of us:

  • The happy childhood you had or didn't have Many of the contestants use family recipes handed down from parents and grandparents, and baking can be a sure way to bring back happy memories of childhood. Stirring the Christmas cake every year, licking the golden syrup spoon after making flapjacks, that apple pie or Sunday teatime cake your mum always made. The smells and flavours of baking can take you right back to that time when life was simple and you were safe and loved. 

  •  Or if you never had that, if your childhood was chaotic or loveless or painful, baking can be a healing act. You can make the birthday cakes for your own children that you never had yourself, start your own traditions to pass down to future generations. You can make all the sweet and pretty and lovely things your neglected inner child could ever want, and your kitchen can be the magical place where that happens.

  • It's never all bad. No matter how wrong your bake has gone, Mary Berry can usually find something nice to say about it. Maybe it looks a mess, but the flavours are lovely. An ambitious idea didn't quite turn out as you envisaged, but no one can fault your creative vision and originality. The bake is a bit over or underdone, but it's a design triumph. Sometimes there's a tendency to be too hard on ourselves and focus only on the negative, on the things that haven't worked out as we wanted, that aren't quite perfect. But when you think about it, you can probably find a positive side. Most of us could be a bit more Mary Berry to ourselves.

  • Life is uncertainty... ... and baking is too. So many times, a contestant tries to bake something they've made dozens of times before, and it goes horribly wrong. The genoise sponge inexplicably fails to rise, the tart filling just won't set, the pastry turns out soggy. Maybe it's the different oven, maybe it's the stress and time pressure, maybe it's just one of those days. And we all have those days, when nothing goes quite right and you wish you'd never gotten out of bed. Being able to face the baffling randomness of life and carry on anyway is one of those life lessons that baking teaches so well. Keep calm and carry on baking.

  • Everyone makes mistakes There's a certain schadenfreude when you see a contestant doing something you just know is going to be a disaster. They decide to put their chocolate in the microwave to heat more quickly or put some water in to 'help it melt', they walk away from their simmering caramel for 'just a moment', they decide for some reason it would be a good idea to trim the lovely lacey edges off their florentines with a cookie cutter (why, Ewenzor, why?) They don't listen to you yelling 'NOOOO!' at the screen. They get what they deserved. 

  •  But we've all been there, with our moments of inattention or stupidity, or impulsive decisions that end in entirely predictable disaster. We're all human. That's comforting to know.

  • Floorcake moments. You know how it goes. A contestant starts to take their flawlessly baked cake out of the oven, or triumphantly slide their painstakingly constructed choux swans onto a serving plate. Then, in a sudden moment of clumsiness, perfection turns to a mass of crumbs on the floor. You feel their pain. 
  • Because that's what life is like sometimes. Things are going well, you're full of hope and optimism, the future is bright. Then - illness, accident, redundancy, bereavement, heartbreak - it all comes crashing down. The disappointment can be crushing. You cry, you storm out of the metaphorical kitchen in frustration, you sink to the floor, defeated, you demand the gods or the universe tell you why, why this is happening to you. Then you get up, scrape up the wreckage of your cake and stick it together with buttercream as best you can. You serve it up to the judges with a generous dredging of icing sugar to cover the cracks.
     That, right there, is life.

    Saturday, August 16, 2014

    The Lifestyle Possibilities of the Pill

    It's called the curse for a reason. For many women, the menstrual cycle is a monthly ordeal of physical and emotional suffering.  First there's the pre-menstrual headaches, mood swings and difficulty concentrating. Then there's the stabbing ovulation pain or mid-cycle breast soreness. And that's before you even get to the debilitating cramps and heavy bleeding.

    The oral contraceptive pill is often touted as a good solution to these problems. But as Dr Alice Roberts described in a recent Guardian article, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes the hormonal ups and downs of suddenly stopping the pills every month can cause worse pre-menstrual symptoms than ever. But there's another choice. Most birth control pills are suitable to be taken continuously for several months at a time, or for as long as you want, meaning few or no periods at all. No blood, no pain, no mood swings.

    Using contraception this way is common in the US, where extended-cycle pills are available as a lifestyle choice and marketed as brands such as Seasonale and Seasonique. But it's an option rarely offered on the NHS here - possibly in part for cost reasons, and also simply because of lack of knowledge on the part of GPs here. Many women in the UK just aren't aware that it's a possibility, and in many cases neither are their doctors.

    When I first started taking birth control in my early 20s, freshly graduated from my biochemistry degree, I checked out the formulations of some commonly prescribed pills, and found that the popular combined pill Microgynon 30 contains exactly the same active ingredients as Seasonale, the 'four-periods-a-year' pill sold in the US. But when I asked my GP about it, he looked genuinely baffled. "That's impossible. That's not how you take these pills."

    I did it anyway. My body, my choice. My money too - I pay for my birth control privately these days, preferring the choice and convenience of it - so I'm not expecting the NHS to subsidise my lifestyle choice.

    There are risks associated with hormonal contraception, and these shouldn't be underplayed. There's evidence that some pills increase the risk of certain cancers, including breast and cervical cancers (though they do reduce your risk of others, such as ovarian cancer) and cardiovascular problems. Some women find it causes depression or weight gain. It's not safe or suitable for everyone, no matter how you take it.

    There's a certain branch of feminism that would go further and say it's bad for all of us. Free yourself from the patriarchal medical establishment and its control over your fertility. Inga Muscio's third-wave feminist manifesto 'Cunt: A Declaration of Independence' - which I read in my 20s, didn't we all? - was an eloquent argument for reclaiming your feminine power like this. Ditch the pills and painkillers and embrace cycle tracking and raspberry-leaf tea. Make your own reusable pads with brightly patterned cloth. Taste the blood, make art with it. Learn to love your period.

    Which is wonderful if it works for you. It doesn't for me - no matter how badly I wanted it to. Being period-free has been a real liberation for me, I can't even find the words to describe how much it's improved my quality of life to not be living in pain and dread from month to month. This is what works for me.  This is my choice. And surely that's what feminism should be about: ownership of our bodies and our choices, and recognising that there's not a single correct way to be a woman.

    Back in the second-wave days of the feminist movement, there was a real emphasis on sharing medical knowledge and skills, and taking a self-help approach, from 'menstrual extraction', a technique for removing menstrual flow in one go, to herbal abortions and natural birthing.

    I don't agree that trying to do these procedures without proper medical expertise and facilities is a good idea, and I don't share the mistrust of conventional medicine. But I liked the independent, self-determining spirit of it.

    So maybe we don't even need branded and packaged solutions like Seasonale. Maybe we just need to educate ourselves about how the existing pills can be used, and take control of how we use them, instead of being told what we can and can't do. Yes there are risks, but we're big girls now. How about women decide for ourselves what risks are acceptable to us - after we've been given all the relevant information and medical advice, of course - and how many (if any) periods we want to have and when we want to have them. Periods aren't really a curse. But they are a choice.

    (First published at The Huffington Post UK, 10th August 2014)