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Nadiya Bakes and Changes Us All for the Better

There’s something special about Nadiya Hussain. She was the winner of The Great British Bake Off back in 2015 and is widely viewed as its greatest–or at least most exciting–champion ever.

I remember that season. I had started to watch, mostly because it was something I could have on in the family room television that wouldn’t ever have something disagreeable on it. We have a teeny little house and I have four children. I’m very mindful of negative imagery getting lodged in their subconscious, so it’s a treat when I can find a G-rated show to watch while I cook or clean or fold laundry. I especially like not having to police commercials, where so often there are ads for horror shows or movies that are nightmare-inducing. I know I’m a horror prude, but when you have a brain like mine (and some of my children do), once you get an image in your brain, it stays there.

So, I was watching GBBO and it was probably around the third episode when I noticed that a couple of my children had stopped their various games and were kind of eyeing the screen. By the fifth episode all of us were sitting down to watch. It’s delightful when that happens, and we had all, somehow, agreed implicitly that our player was Nadiya.

In the ultra-stuffy GBBO, where there’s a “right” way to do everything and, like golf, you’re judged against that impossible standard of perfection, a player like Nadiya is a dream. Fun, outgoing, and passionate, she brought a whole new level of intrigue to the show with her “exotic” palette. (That can often be a catch phrase for non-white.) In the annals of cooking, it’s so common to have your standard fare that’s widely accepted, and then, out of the blue, some white chef develops something with a fresh new herb or some coconut and all of a sudden it’s the rage. Meanwhile Black and brown chefs, who haven’t historically had access to the same spotlight, are like “yeahhhhh, we’ve been cooking with cardamom and caraway and fennel for like centuries.”

Cardamom is the one I first remember with Nadiya. I think it was right out of the gate and she said she was going to bake a cake with cardamom and the grand dame of British cooking, Merry Berry, raised her eyebrows. Paul Hollywood, a man whose mannerisms can oft be seen as aloof, was skeptical of the choice.

But Nadiya killed it. And she went on to completely earn the win. Everything they threw at her, every barrier that seemed like a great imposing wall, she added her own personal flair to and all but forced them to give her the win. It wasn’t like anyone on GBBO was trying to be racist, quite the contrary. It was just that this cultural adherence to certain norms begs the question as to who originated, emphasized and codified those norms. GBBO is just a small part of a much bigger systemic food institution, and that institution has had precious few voices of dissent since its inception, when all the key players were white. Nevertheless, Nadiya persevered, and she won. And lest I’ve painted the GBBO as part of the problem, Berry and Hollywood were genuinely thrilled for her.

But the lasting memory I have from that was that Nadiya didn’t think she’d win. Nadiya herself was the most surprised of all. My whole family was jumping around in our living room, and she gave this lovely speech. Truly inspirational:

“I’m never ever going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe. I’m never going to say I don’t think I can. I can, and I will.”

Hoooo. I get misty just rewatching that. Look for yourself.

After the win, I remember the realization setting in that we wouldn’t see Nadiya again. She wasn’t a celebrity! She was just some lady who baked a few cakes. It wasn’t like we could catch her other shows. In a moment, poof, she was gone.

Here in the states we heard about BBC shows featuring Nadiya but we had limited access to them. There was the documentary The Chronicles of Nadiya, which I couldn’t figure out how to watch, and then Nadiya’s British Food Adventure and Nadiya’s Family Favourites.

My family saw exactly none of them and Nadiya Hussain sort of drifted out of our lives.

Nadiya’s Time To Eat came out in 2019 on Netflix and we were suddenly reunited with our favorite. Or perhaps I should say favourite.

But she was…different? Gone was the wet-behind-the-ears newcomer and in her place was a certified authority figure. Gone were the black hijabs, and now our Nadiya wore colors that most people can only dream of pulling off. Pink polka-dotted sweaters. Sky blue nail polish. Magenta headscarves. (Other people more well-versed than me can tackle the hijab debate, I’ll just say that she chose and I accepted.) There were bright, striking colors, but interestingly, not Tommy Hilfiger-esque fire-engine reds and whites and navy blues. Nadiya’s color palette was purples and yellows and pinks and oranges. Just one look at her show and you got the sense that you weren’t in Kansas anymore.

It was refreshing.

And just like that, Nadiya’s mini-revolution had begun.

Nadiya’s Time to Eat was a show about cheats. Little tricks that mums–it’s still predominantly mums who are the cooks in most houses–could use to beat the system. It was a bubbly, effervescent foil to the daily grind, one in which mothers are so often expected to juggle all of the familial responsibilities of child raising, cooking, and emotional support while living in a modern culture where the economic survival of families depends on two incomes.

Nadiya was saying: we know this is the world we live in, but here are some ways to make a nice meal and not suffer as much. Here are ways to maximize your time.

Damn right appreciative murmurs!

How did she know? How was she able to identify this pain point? Because she was always one of us! There was no investment banker parent who got Nadiya to the front of the line at culinary school. She was second-generation British-Bangladeshi, born and raised in Bedfordshire, the daughter of a chef. She blazed her own trail in a post 9/11, anti-Muslim world, with nothing but legit talent and a larger-than-life personality.

Still, seeing her on her own took some getting used to. She was more polished. More professional, but was fame cleansing away the essentials of innocence and marvel that made Nadiya a household name in the first place? Our favorite moments from Nadiya’s Time to Eat were still her interactions. Nadiya is best when she’s with other people. That’s one of the things that made her so charming on GBBO. The new Nadiya, alone in command of one of those shockingly beautiful TV kitchens, was still a bit of an oddity.

When her next show debuted, just recently on February 12th, we were hoping for more interaction, someone sitting in the kitchen sipping wine for Nadiya to riff with. But on Nadiya’s new show, Nadiya Bakes, she’s even more alone! It was shot during Covid times and so, with the exception of a tiny crew with whom she always shares her creations, it was solo Nadiya again. Sure, she’s still the bubbly Nadiya we’ve always loved, but now she’s perfect. Perfect makeup. Perfect focus. Perfect recipes. Perfect life. Nadiya Bakes is like the Instagram version of Nadiya came to life and got her own show. Is she still wonderful? Yes. She’s an absolute delight. From time to time you miss the wonder-in-her-eyes pre-victory Nadiya, but William Blake taught us about innocence and experience and no matter how much we howl at the moon, Nadiya Hussain is a pro now. A true TV veteran. That doe-eyed innocence is gone and what’s taken its place is a powerful, modern woman, determined to plant her flag. All things considered, it’s more than a fair trade.

Which is, frankly, important. Because in this role, Nadiya can continue to set new norms and defy the preconceived notions of what food culture considers verboten. On Nadiya Bakes, she fires a broadside out of the gate, adding mango to a sponge cake, the type of decision that would make Mary Berry blanche. Nadiya is bold and committed and uses her platform to amplify the voices of many other Black and brown chefs who otherwise would fight to be noticed. But she doesn’t stop there. She bakes a Cranachan, the “uncontested king of Scottish deserts,” which typically features raspberries and cream, but instead she makes hers with mango and black pepper. Nadiya is blowing up norms wherever she goes with that million dollar luminescent smile and a giddy shrug of the shoulders.

But her recipes are also delicious. That’s a nice bonus.

My kids and I made her Blueberry and Lavender Scone Pizza and it was sensational. Like, people were moaning when they took a bite. It was pretty easy to make. The hardest part for me was locating clotted cream.

Here’s hers.

Here’s mine (some of my family didn’t want the sweetness of the topping–sacrilege, I know!)

We couldn’t have known then, waaaaay back on The Great British Bake Off, what a force Nadiya Hussain would become. She has embraced her mantra of “I can and I will,” becoming a many-times-over published author. Because why stop at multiple TV shows? One of her children’s books, My Monster and Me, is dedicated to awareness of childhood anxiety.

Celebrities who tackle mental illness issues and bring them to the forefront are near and dear to my heart, as it’s a topic that people still tend to shy away from. But in true Nadiya fashion, she confronts her demons head-on. She was diagnosed with panic disorder as a teen and went through CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to address it. Who might have known, back then, that she would endure and prosper and be named as one of the 500 most influential people in the UK and be listed on BBC News’ 100 Women list? Perhaps the most accurate (and impressive) quote about Nadiya was from the author of a government report on community cohesion. He said Hussain had done “more for British-Muslim relations than 10 years of government policy.”

That’s really the inestimable beauty of Nadiya Hussain. She’s a change-agent in polka dots. A revolutionary in banana and peach and fuchsia and cerise. A shining example of someone who effortlessly challenges our assertions, re-invigorates and re-imagines our collective assumptions and brings the world around her to a better place with kindness and sincerity and the timeless art of combining great food with great people.

And when you boil it all down, that’s about as delicious as it gets.

Written By

Thor is the Editor-in-Chief of The Gist and a father of four. He's a lover of ancient history, Greek food and sports. He misses traveling and thinks that if libraries were the center of American society, many things would improve overnight. You can hit him up at [email protected].

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