A few weeks ago, I sat down for coffee with a family from Syria. I was teaching an English class in our apartment complex and afterward the mother of this family invited me into her home. They arrived in the US very recently. If you’ve paid attention to the news, then you might have a dim view of this family’s background: They faced suffering and the threat of violence; they most likely fled their country in an arduous journey; they had to wade through camps and bureaucracies to make it all the way here, to the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, where they are the first of their community to be resettled. You might have images of boats and tents and mothers clutching their children. But I have in mind a more immediate, more personal image: I was sitting in a sparsely decorated living room drinking coffee that was served thick and dark and sugary in tiny red cups. I drank it, even though it was late in the evening and I knew I would pay for it later. I drank it because that coffee contained a part of this family's life and heart and culture, and to reject it would be to reject it all.
I came to this realization with a start as I watched the most recent season of The Great British Baking Show. If you are not familiar with this series, a few caveats are in order: Yes, it is a reality show from England centered on baking, and yes, it is the best thing to ever air in the history of television. This might sound hyperbolic, but I am addicted to the show in a way that is hard to explain. When I’m having a hard day—which truth be told, is often—I play an episode and get absorbed into its gentle perfection.
The concept is simple: 12 bakers are faced with various challenges related to baking, and each week one contestant gets sent home. Two judges—the steely-eyed Paul Hollywood and the legendary Mary Berry—taste and comment on each specimen. The contestants don’t seem to have the personality disorders often found on reality TV, nor do they vie against their fellow participants. Everyone is on a personal journey to do their very best and to do it in community. (At the end of each episode the contestants hug one another and seem genuinely bonded by the experience of baking their hearts out together.)
PBS just aired the finale of the current season (season six in Great Britain, season three in the US). Out of all of the delightful, hardworking contestants—stay-at-home dad Ian, young nurse Tamal, prison-warden-with-a-heart-of-gold Paul—the winner turned out to be Nadiya, a smart and sassy mother of three, originally from Bangladesh. For me and countless other viewers, Nadiya’s presence on a hit reality show is a form of activism.
With her commitment to wearing the hijab, Nadiya brings her culture with her wherever she goes. It’s a wonderfully normalizing sight to behold a Muslim woman making French and Croatian and British pastries to the cheering of her fellow contestants. In light of Brexit, immigration tensions in the US, and an increasingly fractured world, Nadiya’s participation seems almost subversive as she matter-of-factly bakes her way to the top of the competition and into the hearts of viewers. She is less of an abstract immigrant and more of a real person. We get to know her through her gorgeous creations (a chocolate peacock? Yes please!), her hilarious facial expressions, and her slow-building ambition. And during the finale, we even see a few glimpses of her modest flat, her beautiful children, and her husband, who stays up late at night washing all the dishes from her practice bakes.
Nadiya, like everyone else on the show, is not simply trying to win a competition. She is trying to offer us a piece of herself and wondering what we will do in response.
While many cheered for her, there were others who called this season’s show a rigged contest driven by political correctness. Of course baking alone can’t solve the great divides between people, especially in seasons of heightened political strife, but getting to know those who are different from us is the first step in understanding and overcoming cultural conflict. The general camaraderie of the contestants—the way they hugged each other at the end of each episode, the way Mary Berry cried as she crowned Nadiya the winner—points to the fact that being in real relationships with people different from us can be life changing.
The other day, the eldest daughter in the Syrian family knocked on my door. She is 18 years old, has a wide, beautiful smile and dark brown eyes, and doesn’t speak much English. She is also engaged to be married to a boy who lives in Germany, whom she is hoping will soon be allowed into the US. In her hands she carried a plate filled with tiny cakes—some with chocolate chips, some with cinnamon and other spices—all lovingly made by her. She pulled out her cracked phone and showed me Instagram pictures of intricately frosted cakes and platters of artfully arranged tabouli, rice, and kebabs that she made at home in Syria and also in refugee camps in Jordan.
She left her cakes for me and my family, and I ate them with pleasure. As I ate, I couldn’t help thinking that if you lived next door to this family, they would no doubt make cake for you as well.
In an age when we are increasingly told to isolate ourselves for the sake of safety and security, when entire countries are choosing independence rather than interdependence, when fear is used to stir up votes and hatred and acts of violence, this gift of eating cake has started to mean a great deal to me. As one of the hosts of the Great British Baking Show says, “baking is an act of love,” and love binds together what otherwise would stand apart. The ministry of baking and cooking, sitting, smiling, and chatting, of tidying up (or not), of inviting someone into our lives and spaces, is perhaps one of the more radical ways we can change the world. But for this ministry to truly change hearts and minds, we must also work hard at making sure our neighbors are not just people who act and look and talk and eat just like us.
The truth is, we will never be safe, but we are always loved by a God who shows no partiality. And in remembering this, perhaps we can start to reject fear and move towards interdependence, and we can do it all while eating cake.
D. L. Mayfield is the author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary recently released by HarperOne. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, and likes to write about refugees, theology, and downward mobility, among other topics.
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