The Story Behind the book, The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Hall.
The idea for The Art of Baking Blind first emerged just after watching the final of the 2011 Great British Bake Off. The winner, Jo Wheatley, explained that she had entered the competition “because I just wanted to do something for myself.” It then emerged that her husband, a professional gambler, had been jailed for seven years for his part in a £60 million money-laundering scam.
The contrast between the image perpetuated – of an Essex housewife making huge teas for her cricket-loving sons - and the bleaker reality pointed up a truism: that lives are rarely as straightforward, or as perfect, as they seem. As a former news reporter and political correspondent on the Guardian, I was all too aware of this but it had become more stark as I’d neared forty.
At the same time, I caught the baking bug. My youngest child had still not started school and so we baked three or four times a week, Jack taking great pride when he broke eggs “without bits of shell” and our never going to a play date without a tin of home-made cakes.
I wondered why it had become such a national obsession. Was it because, as Mary Berry has suggested, we were in a recession or did it appeal to our sense of nostalgia: a hankering for a simpler, gentler – and perhaps fictitious – time? By baking, were we trying to ape an older generation of women who nurtured their families without apparently complaining of the drudgery of their lives? Perhaps it was about a need for validation particularly among highly-educated stay-at-home mothers? Or was it just another form of competitiveness carried out in a Cath Kidston apron beneath a Keep Calm and Carry On sign?
I realised I was investing a great deal of significance in baking: it was proof that I was a good mother; that I did something creative with my children; and that I was concerned with what they ate (I also did a lot of soup-making, roast-chicken roasting and risotto-stirring.) Playing at being a domestic goddess – whether by making a carrot cake or home-made bunting from my daughter’s old dresses – was a means of proving how much I loved them and wanted to create the perfect home for them. I might not have been playing Lego but there was always home-made cake.
Food was love, then, and giving home-made biscuits to other mothers was a somewhat needy way of showing them I wanted to be their friend. But food can also be controlling and I thought about women who had pressed food on me in the past, and whether that said something about their own ambivalent attitude to food.
The week my son started reception and I turned forty, I started to write this properly. At around the same time, the winner of the next series of the Bake Off, John Whaite, described bakers as “incredibly controlling people who just want to be loved” – a description that applied to at least two of my characters, Vicki and Carole, and made me think I had understood at least some of the motivation behind those who bake.
I knew from the start that the book, like the competition, would be structured around six types of baking with descriptions from an old cook book delineating the sections. I liked the idea of a cookery writer who had inspired many women to be the very best baker they could be; and by extension, they imagined, the best mother and wife. Of course, the reality of her life would have been masked by her writing: the poetry of her prose belying the fact that no one can be a model wife or an idealised mother. Even someone called Mrs Eaden/Eden can’t attain perfection. In this novel, baking can comfort, it can be a prized skill, or it can demonstrate love: but, despite the bakers’ great efforts, it can’t promise an easy route to happiness.
The more I wrote, the less ferociously I baked as I channelled my creative energy into something more permanent than a batch of cupcakes and, hopefully, just as appetising.
This is the result. Like any needy baker, I hope you like it.