I have pretty moderate baking skills. I can follow a recipe. I can improvise a bit. And at the right time, I really enjoy it. I learned to bake before I learned to cook and it was something I was particularly drawn to when I was young. In the early days of the internet I had my mom special order anise seed from an online store because we couldn’t find it at our rural supermarket. It was to make Star Anise Seed cookies from the American Girl cookbook I picked up at the library. And it was complicated! But ultimately I finished them and they were pretty good.
But then came high school (lots of homework and boys) and then college (lots of homework and parties) and then my first year in New York City (lots of work and no money). By the time I finally had proper leisure time and interest in baking I found out that I (truly this is every baker’s worst fear) was a Celiac.
And that was the death of baking for me.
Ok, I still bake. But gluten-free baking is harder, more time intensive, no one wants to eat it when it’s done unless you insist “It’s actually not bad!” And I don’t know about you, but have to qualify one’s bake that way is annoying as hell. So I don’t bake often. I have a couple favorite recipes, including one pumpkin loaf that’s easy AND so delicious. But that’s about it.
And so I live for the Bake Off. Or Great British Baking Show as it is now known on Netflix.
What is it about this show? Every time I post that I am watching it on Netflix, I get a flood of DMs to my inbox– all Americans– who are simply obsessed.
One of the defining qualities is the lack of cruel reality show tactics we’re used to in the States. Contestants only visit “the tent” for the weekend. Instead of being locked up for weeks on end together, risking their personal and professional lives to be announced Queen of Cakes. Contestants aren’t pitted against one another, rather they are often quite close and cheer for one another in the tent.
It’s the one competitive reality show I watch simply because of it’s grace. I imagine others find this as soothing as I do, having put up with decades of hyper-fabricated “reality” shows, where it is a well-known fact they remove any sort of support structures and supply ample amounts of alcohol and rumors. Devoid of all of that we get real people baking at their best, which includes helping one another. I still gasp every time a baker helps another with something. These are real people, kind people, who love to bake. It’s the best kind of escape. It has had it’s share of drama, but all-in-all the show is pretty light and intends to be.
On that note, I do have to admit that I watch Bake Off like some sort of lewd pornography. (This is my boyfriend’s leading theory of why I am so obsessed.) Because I simply cannot eat anything they bake; I watch to imagine that I can. I obsess over the cakes, the donuts, the pita breads cooked over an open campfire. I sadden over the fact that I cannot ever compete simply because I cannot taste any of the food to be able to judge my flavors. For many others they watch to learn a thing or two about baking. To gather ideas and get inspired. I watch to lust over the foods I will never taste again. Maybe it isn’t quite a pornography and is in fact a form of self inflicted pain.
In addition to the camaraderie of the group of bakers with each other, with the judges, and with their presenters (that’s British for host) and the damn near sexual close-up shots of cakes being frosted, Bake Off lends a glimpse into hum drum every day British life and a number of accents from across Britain, some of which I sometimes have trouble understanding. I faintly remember a season with a woman with an accent so thick I had to put on subtitles. (I wanted to say cockney accent but since I don’t actually know that seems like I am stereotyping). I enjoy this tiny peek over to lives across the pond.
The show is also progressive in a very no-nonsense British way. Contestants are from diverse and often mixed backgrounds. Contestants fall across diverse economic status. Gay and Queer contestants freely talk about their husbands and wives. Straight men cry on camera. Contestants with physical disabilities compete alongside the able bodied with nary a note of it by anyone. I am comforted by the fact that contestants get to show up as they are and there is no fuss. There is no five minute long segment about their struggles, viewers are not made to pity anyone. We are to simply accept them as they are and judge them solely on their baking. It’s the opposite of America’s Got Talent and I am so thankful for it.
I am not sure why I wrote a Bake Off essay about why I and others find Bake Off so soothing, but in this time in the world (is everything falling apart?) and in my life (I am so busy I can barely take a deep breath), it felt necessary to honor and share the small slice of obsessive joy I have. I’m curious if my readers would agree with me on this or have more to add. There are so many Bake Off fans out there (closeted and not) and I want to hear from you all.
I didn’t even begin to get into how fun the presenters and judges are in their own right but maybe I can save that for a Part 2 riff on Bake Off culture. So tell me, why do you think Bake Off is so soothing?