This week had all the nauseating makings of what’s becoming a typical 7-day span in our world; a giant building fire, a plethora of senseless shootings, a serious Bachelor in Paradise scandal, investigations and hearings and lies and denials and a bunch of other devastating tragedies that made my emotional organs ache. If you came here looking for deep commentary on the dark side of the universe, this ain’t it. This, my bros and beauties, is not a hard-hitting piece of journalism, because, quite frankly, I just don’t have that in me. It’s not about anything cruel or executive or despicable or discriminatory or inhumane. Still, it is about something that’s been on my heart as of late, and so I feel compelled to address it here.
Guys, I am 120 thousand percent addicted to The Great British Baking Show on PBS.
Have you seen it? Tell me you’ve seen it. If not, you need to at least entertain the idea of opening a soft little spot in your life and letting it crawl right in.
Should you prefer to take your television in buttery binge form, as I do, there are three complete seasons on Netflix and the fourth season is underway now on PBS. I’ll give you details, but all you really need to know is that this sugary little show has all of the ingredients of an unforgettable meal. It’s mesmerizing. Me and my little chicks will settle into a spot and look on in awe as these completely endearing foreigners, with their imperfect teeth and buffet of awesome accents, torch and pipe and crouch on the floor to watch their confections brown in the oven.
The premise is nothing groundbreaking. Each weekend, as many as a dozen amateur bakers come to this pimped out tent on some beautiful farm somewhere in, I don’t know … I guess Britain? No, that’s not right. It’s Berkshire. Berkshire’s the place. Anyway, over the course of the weekend, they complete three challenges: a signature challenge, a technical challenge and a showstopper. By Sunday’s end, we have a Star Baker, and we have the person whose flavors didn’t jive or their bread was raw or their house made of gingerbread collapsed and they must, unfortunately, be eliminated.
All their efforts in hopes of exciting Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Mary is this stylish old bag of class who is apparently a baking legend across the pond. She’s published more than 70 cookbooks and been recognized by the Queen. Paul Hollywood is a silver fox with 500 expressions conveyed entirely through his eyebrows. He’s one of the UK’s leading artisan bakers – the Billy Crocker of Berkshire and beyond – and, while he tries to be a badass, he’s really a teddy bear. A handshake from Paul is the equivalent of Johnny Carson asking a comedian to come over to the couch after a standup set.
The emcees, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, offer just enough British humor to keep things light. They step in to bring the bakers off the ledge when their Baked Alaskas melt into a puddle or the top tier of their wedding cake crumbles. When a contestant cries, which happens kind of a lot, they deliver a soothing perspective that makes it all better.
As the episodes pass, I just fall more and more in love with the subtle charm of the personalities and language and the way Paul fingers loaves of bread with such authority. It’s the way they call cakes “sponges”, and cookies “biscuits”, and pronounce basil with a short “a” instead of a long one. I watch intently as bread proofs. How is that exciting? I don’t know! I can’t answer it honestly.
I knew my condition was contagious when I overheard JoJo and Spike playing kitchen in their bubble bath the other night. “Spikey, your flavors just burst off my tongue! You are this week’s Star Baker.” They gradually went from hearing it in the background, to being fully absorbed. Especially my JoJo, who now carries a sketchpad to draw cakes and souffles. She asked me the other day if we could go on TGBBS as a team … you know, since she’s not allowed to use the oven by herself.
I can hardly keep up with JoJo’s newfound thirst for culinary knowledge. I am not a baker. I can cook up a dinner like any desperate housewife, but kneading and ramekins just aren’t my jam. This brings me to the intersection where the Pinterest phenomenon meets my new obsession, this show. I’m lusting after a skill I will never possess or pursue, just like 85 percent of my pins. I’m never going to make an arlette or a windtorte or a Charlotte Royale. But I’m sure as shit gonna watch other people try.
So what is the appeal of a show where you watch people sweat and stress over plates of beautiful foods that you will a) never taste and b) never recreate at home? It might go under another name for you – Chopped, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Chef’s Table, whatever – it’s all the same concept. We’re using two senses (sight and sound) to take in something that typically only delivers pleasure when tied to two totally different senses (smell and taste). It’s all one big olfactory, tastebud tease, and I question my willingness to play along.
And yet, each night, when the dinner is dished and cleared and the training miles are logged and the freelance is filed away, I curl up and let Netflix take me to the tent. I mean, I think there’s something to the microcosm you find if you look past the sugar and spice.
Sometimes shit falls apart.
There are times in life when your meringue is stiff and fluffy, and others when it’s deflated and chewy. But regardless, you have to “proceed with confidence” as my old manager would say. You have to present your efforts with a smile and a smidge of pride, even if it looks like a pile of dirt. Crying over curdled custard does good for no one.
Patience pays off.
There’s the suspense of the bake – things take time, they can’t be rushed. The closer you watch it, the more you agonize over the end result, the longer and more torturous it feels. There’s a thrill in that moment when the timer goes off and the work is done. Just give things time to rise up.
Sometimes you gotta stick your neck out.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I love when a contestant presents their concept and it’s something that seems crazy, like apple and tarragon (this constitutes crazy by PBS standards), and Paul raises his skeptic eyebrows at the poor soul. But then, more often than not, Mary takes a forkful of the final dish and declares it, “positively scrummy” and the audience rejoices with the relieved baker. Sometimes you just gotta hang your dough balls out there.
Being competitive doesn’t have to mean being a turd.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe it’s a casting thing, but the bakers on TGBBS are just the greatest people. They’re humble and helpful and they send every contestant voted off away with a group hug. There is no sabotage or trash talk or conspiracy. Honestly, in three seasons the closest thing I’ve seen to a dick move is when one baker accidentally grabbed another baker’s meringue out of the fridge and used it. And then she cried and gave him all the credit, as deserved. That’s it! They’re too focused on their own work and their own goals to worry about screwing with anyone else. And isn’t that how it should be? We’re all ultimately in the same boat here. If everyone just focused on being the best version of themselves, on baking the most beautiful, delicious cake possible, there would be enough slices to pass around. The TV villain is tired. Give me more confidence coupled with a dash of grace, and I’ll watch all day.
With a great sadness for the seasons behind me, I feel like I’m at a place where I can reflect a bit. My guess is I fell so hard for Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood and their sweet little tent in Berkshire because it’s an emotional refuge. It’s a place to hide for an hour while everything and everyone else in my world is busy going entirely batshit crazy. And this post, I suppose, is my invitation for you, too, to run away for a little awhile. To come lose yourself in proofing baguettes and trifle layers and statues made of biscuits. You have to admit … it’s an appetizing prospect. Or rather,”positively scrummy.”