I wanted to take a little break this week from writing about personal anxieties to bring up my life’s simplest joy.
The Great British Bake Off, hereafter referred to as GBBO, is a delightful example of the perfect televised baking competition. The few seasons that are available to Americans on PBS and Netflix comprise arguably the most valuable intellectual export we have ever received since all that unpleasantness happened between our two countries in the 1770s.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the show, GBBO is a competition in which a dozen or so amateurs of all ages from across the UK just bake their little hearts out in a big white tent. There’s three challenges per episode, two of which they get to prepare for in advance and one that’s a surprise. Meanwhile, the hosts and my two true mothers Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins bounce around the tent, make mom jokes, and steal extra bites of the contestants’ dishes. At the end of the episode, judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry--their real names--decide who has won Star Baker for that week and who will go home.
The Star Baker benefits solely from the hugs and congratulations of the other contestants, receiving no cash prize or special advantage for the coming challenge. They usually cry about it. Similarly, there is no big check or brand deal for the final champion of each season. They walk away all teary-eyed and proud with an engraved cake stand and a bouquet of flowers that they’ll set on their countertops as they continue their lives as architects, schoolteachers, retirees, and the like. Even when contestants lose, they make their exits with hugs and reassurances from Paul, Mary, Mel, Sue, and myself, mentally, from my couch. It is the most innocent and joyful baking show that exists now and ever has and ever will, and I will protect every personality that has ever appeared on GBBO with my whole entire life.
Watching an episode every week is what gives me the peace of mind and moral fortitude to endure life’s trials. American baking shows, our Baking Championships and our Cupcake Wars, with their nail-biter cake construction scenes, intense judges, and rivalries, have taken what should be a craft full of love and sugar sweetness and twisted it into a whirlwind of artificial drama. Thankfully, GBBO drifted across the ocean to take us by the hand and lead us, ever so gently, back to the light.
Don’t get me wrong, the bakers do get stressed out, but their neighbors will jump in to help them as much as they can, and so will Mel and Sue. Even the calamity background music has a bit of a jaunty theme. The most tense scene I’ve seen, the infamous moment Ian threw his bake in the bin, ended with his return to the judging having cooled down, followed by a remarkably rational discussion of how his emotions got the best of him. That’s right, the contestants on this show have healthy conversations about their feelings and calmly process constructive criticism. How remarkably un-American.
Not only that, but watching the greatest of British bake-offs is a factual learning experience on top of an emotional one. My vocabulary has expanded to include the following: tatty bye, bang it in the oven, whack it in the fridge, spiral roasties, saucy puds, baps, blimey, claggy, and scrummy. There was also a random episode in which the bakers had to make Tudor-themed desserts, so there’s that. Additionally, Mel or Sue will narrate each episode as everyone crafts their dishes, describing not only the action but also how the recipes themselves work. It’s a thoroughly unpretentious program of amateurs on screen for amateurs at home.
Unfortunately, writing about GBBO right now is a touchy topic, as there’s been some drama and upheaval in the show. Paul Hollywood is the only member of the team left, as Mel, Sue, and Mary have quit. To be honest, I haven’t followed all of the changes since the seasons on PBS are old ones with the whole gang intact, but the future is now uncertain for this one true light in my life. My heart goes out to all of Britain for this threat to their very cultural foundation and to all of myself for yet another scary and unforeseeable change in my personal life. What with graduation, moving far far away, and starting my adult life, the possibility of losing the Great British Bake-Off, the very foundation of my spiritual well-being, may just be what pushes me over the edge. I do have one small consolation in that I can hang on to the 3 original-cast seasons and Christmas specials that haven’t yet been released to Americans, but beyond that the future is bleak. But, as the bakers leap over their obstacles, their bad bakes and their soggy bottoms, as they stare into their ovens willing the cakes to rise, as they shake Paul Hollywood’s hand or endure his wrath, so also will I persevere through the changes in this life of mine. I owe it to them, and I owe it to myself. For Mel, Sue, Mary, and Norman--especially Norman--this light will never go out.