Good Crumb: On The Great British Bake Off
By Sarah MesleSeptember 13, 2019
This summer my two sons and I watched three family-friendly-ish television series full to completion. Two of these shows (Umbrella Academy and Good Omens) were about, literally, the end of the world. One was The Great British Bake Off. I’ll give you one guess as to which offered the most meaningful human drama for our dark, apocalyptic times. Here’s a hint: it was the one featuring characters who regularly say “oh, that’s scrummy” or wipe their teary eyes with aprons.
Right now a lot of stuff is happening in Britain and, like a lot of Americans, I don’t really understand it. It’s not that I don’t recognize the “negotiation” over Brexit to be part of a terrifying global rise in climate-spurred isolationism, nor do I fail to see it as posing a lived community crisis on the ground. But the situation around Brexit is so strange and almost comically procedural that it all feels like some sort of existentially dire Monty Python sketch, a Mary Poppins animated song-and-dance scene turned nightmare rudeness scenario. A recent tweet described a fiery and Brexit-related parliamentary screed by asking “has anyone confirmed if Britain is real” and the response, significantly, was a lot of GIFs from Lord of the Rings, illustrating that for a lot of us stateside the real UK exists in tandem with our fantasies of it: turning on the BBC, we’re basically watching the Hobbits over there battle that Balrog Borris, using their Dunkirk Spirit or something. And, of course, Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand.
The Brexit drama gives a remarkable backdrop to Netflix’s release of the new and 10th season of Great British Bake Off, a show that delights precisely because it too delivers an elaborate concoction of intensified reality. Its deliciousness hinges on the frisson it creates between blended flavors: it’s a reality show that offers up fantasies of British home life somewhere between the Shire and Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner. I don’t really know what it’s like to watch GBBO in Britain, or from a British perspective, but I can’t imagine a version of watching this show that doesn’t taste somewhat like myths of national belonging. Your fantasy of Britain is sort of real, the show seems to say. And then it asks us to think what we value about that fantasy.
Great British Bake Off’s pageant of home baking looks slightly different when viewed through a scrim of democratic crisis. But I would say that this staging only brings into greater visibility what was already remarkable about this show — and what makes its fantasies feel not just escapist and nostalgic, but utopic too. In a moment when Boris and equally vile forces world-wide are closing the doors of human connection, Great British Bake Off musters its apron-clad troops in a great campaign of our era — the battle to demonstrate that hospitality matters.
If you have not watched The Great British Bake Off, let me explain its structure. Each season, twelve bakers/contestants convene in a soothingly large and oven-filled “tent” in the middle of a verdant British field, next to a stately British manor. (She never appears but I like to imagine that both field and manor belong to The Good Place’s Tahani Al-Jamil, who would definitely throw this sort of cheerfully detail-obsessed party.) In each episode, the contestants try their hands at three “bakes”: a signature bake and a “showstopper,” both planned in advance by the bakers, and a surprise technical challenge set by the judges. After these three contests, the best is named “star baker” and the least successful departs in a fog of hugs and tears.
What are the contestants competing for? No major cash prize or career-boosting bake shop for this celebration of “home baking;” GBBO winners receive, mainly, a picnic where family, friends, and co-contestants eat delightedly their final showstopper bake. And a cake-stand and a bouquet of flowers. The goal, in other words, is to be openly acknowledged as the one most likely to bring a party’s best snacks. No one ever suggests that this is anything less than an incredibly fulfilling accomplishment, and several season finals have brought me literally to tears.
But as with any competition show, the pleasure comes as much from execution as event. GBBO excels at offering an elaborate and idiosyncratic smorgasbord of treats, each of which really merits an essay in itself: the big caretaker energy of current queer-friendly hosts Sandy Toksvig and stealth hotty Noel Fielding; the frequent camera cutaways from contestants slicing marzipan to lambs mewling in dew-drenched fields; the urgent soundtrack of string arpeggios that starts as the timer for each bake runs down.
Special mention, however, belongs to the judges: a well-coifed aspirational silver fox named Paul Hollywood and his compatriot, Prue, who recently replaced the original judge Mary Berry. Prue, with a short haircut that’s less rigorously tended than Paul’s, wears confident bold colors, geometric glasses, and chunky jewelry of the sort worn by the museum lady docents I aspire one day to become. (Mary Berry, by contrast, was a ferocious 1950s-style tiger of feminine excellence, which she signaled via her flattering floral-print blazers, excellent manicures, and smiling politesse.)
Together, the judges appraise each bake — flavor, texture, innovation, ambition, presentation — in a vocabulary that’s precise to the point of absurdity. You had no idea so many things could be right — or wrong — about a chocolate cake, samosa, or sausage roll. Their language is so compelling that each episode finds my kids and I staring at the screen, trying on words and accents, muttering like imitative toddlers. For days afterwards my eight year old will sample his cheerios and ruminate, for example, “the sponge is claggy but the ginger came through.”
The Great British Bake Off has for years been a top-rated program in the UK; its cultish US fandom has grown since PBS started airing the series in 2014 and especially since Netflix released the back catalog for streaming in 2018. I myself had never watched it before this June, when I turned to it in an effort to bridge the sensibilities of my horror-loving tweenager, my Anglophilic self, and this same soft-touch eight-year-old. It worked. The three of us, enamored, immediately embarked upon a sixty+ episode binge of “biscuits,” “good crumbs,” and “short rises.”
So even before the latest political drama I’d been primed to consider the strange integrative power of a show that bridges the gaps between fans of psycho-terror, punny humor, and stuffed animals. What had been clear to me is that there is more to the show’s appeal than the obvious account of it — that it offers a respite from our current global hellscape. In this perspective, there’s the adrenalizing news (Trump, Brexit, migrant crisis) on one side, and Great British Bake Off (chocolate tempering, crème pat) comfortingly on the other.
And truly, GBBO knows that part of the fun is the irony of making a lot of drama out of something so small-scale and full of comfort. The show highlights the slow, low-stakes qualities of baking: measuring precisely and waiting deliberately. A signature move of GBBO is to focus the camera on a contestant peering through a closed oven door, anxiously watching small changes in color gradient (sometimes a more confident baker will stand next to the closed oven, intently sipping a cup of tea). No one here thinks empires will rise or fall at the outcome of this show, even if a four-tiered lemon cake with raspberry curd does; Paul’s blunt refusal to eat an underdone Yorkshire Pud might leave a contestant with hands too shaky to manage a clean line of piping, but no one will starve if the frosting’s not right.
But that doesn’t mean the stakes of baking aren’t real. As anyone who has ever hosted Thanksgiving or a loved one’s birthday can tell you, horror and dread are a part of baking’s recipe. A long list of girlhood novels — Anne Shirley’s lineament oil cake, Meg March’s jelly that won’t jell, Laura Ingalls’ elaborately-whipped wedding cake — feature baking scenes I can only describe as exceptionally intense, materially, socially, and psychically. Even though GBBO’s hosts are full of jokes, the voice over they deliver isn’t totally kidding about the emotional weight of what’s happening (for instance describing a contestant “entering the intimidating world of melting sugar”). There’s a difference between international politics and hosting the vicar for afternoon tea, but if you’re the one who has ever served a messed-up cake, or a perfect one, you know that the difference is one of degree, not kind. Baking is one possible fulcrum of a world where people feel welcome. That always matters; it does especially now.
And it seems to me (again as a US viewer, I realize) that each season’s cast offers an expansive sense of what kind of home might count in the world of British “home baking.” The contestants are consistently diverse in gender, race, country of origin, and also age, sexuality, occupation, and aesthetic. It offers a sort of cozy cosmopolitanism where family appears both intimate and far-flung. A few seasons ago, for example, we learned that a contestant, Julia, “likes to bake while skyping with her Nan, in Siberia,” as the camera showed us actual footage of Julia, her crock of batter, and her cheerful Siberian Nan smiling through the iPad. This season is no different. In the video package introducing one contestant, Michael, we learn that his parents “insured his Scottish and Indian heritage were celebrated in his baking as soon as he could reach the kitchen counter.” Michael went on to cut three fingers in the course of the first episode — medical drama! — but even with bandaged fingers managed the mandala piping on his fusion British/South Asian “cup of chai” cake (good crumb; strong spiced flavor) beautifully.
It’s a little too soon this season for either me or my kids to have picked a favorite contestant (especially my eight-year-old, who has been holding his cards close to his chest after his favorites Ruby and KimJoy lost in season nine’s finale — this was truly disappointing). And it’s a little hard to anchor this season because the cast skews strangely young. I’m appreciating the young and competent Amelia, whose hair is bright pink at the tips, but the contestants who left in the first two episodes — the man-bunned Dan and the hot young waiter Jamie — produced bakes that were so “clumsy” that it seemed the show had broken its own rule of judging and chosen “style over substance.” Why were these stylish dudes there in the first place, if they couldn’t properly (and these are skills that matter here; so laugh but also this is serious) feather their angel slices or coat their layered biscuits? Why didn’t we have two more Nans?? When Jamie left after the always intense biscuit bakes, I was encouraged, and relieved to see that he seemed to have given up his first-episode habit of cheerfully guffawing, in a masculinizing way, at his own incompetence. “I’m just really going to miss this,” he said, and I believed him.
I can imagine a very different account of GBBO than the one I’m offering here — one that sees its diversity as a soothing act of false consciousness. It’s great, for example, for baking to celebrate someone’s “Scottish and Indian heritage,” but you could make the case that doing so is hardly a way to acknowledge that such a history would be full of colonialism’s completely brutal practices. And I could also imagine the argument that this vision of British social harmony just whitewashes the isolationism being enacted governmentally. The Great British Bake Off is television; it’s not social policy.
But as against that: Great British Bake Off does make a case for what society might be like. We might live in a world like this one, where the most riveting drama comes from the intricate complexities of making life good. And while GBBO in itself proposes no radical politics, there’s a radical lesson to be drawn from it. We currently direct huge amount of resources to distressing and cruel carceral and military operations; societies could instead, like actually they really could, work to alleviate poverty, improve domestic life, and give more people kitchens with stoves that cooked at consistent temperatures (this is not just a matter of fancy cakes: safe cook stoves are an ongoing and serious issue for women’s health globally). My mom spent years working at a food pantry in my small and very poor hometown: her signature “bake” was to give out bundles of cake mix, pans, and birthday candles, on the logic that people below the poverty line still had birthdays. GBBO operates, I think, on the same logic: that celebration and pleasure should not be a luxury. It should be a part of who we, as a people, really are.
These days, life can feel like an elimination drama. Maybe it is one. How magic, then, to have a show that insists that even as the resources dwindle, it’s good to imagine a warm oven and an open door; a show that looks at the cruelties of exclusion around us, puts out a sponge cake, and says: these are not the only available intensities. This is not the only way life could be.
Boris Johnson has such a fucking claggy texture,
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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