In an April interview with The New York Times, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. admitted that he has fallen in love with the Great British Baking Show, explaining that it’s “like 60 minutes of Zen meditation between the evening news and the latest episode in the continuing saga of Donald J. Trump, unfolding 24/7 on CNN.”
Strangely enough, my Swedish husband and I agree. We have been tuning in every evening recently for an hour of peace at the end of a hectic day.
There’s a mindlessness to the show that relaxes the soul at a time when every second word out of the mouths of cable news reporters is an indignant but seemingly futile protest at Trump’s latest lie.
Great British Baking Show contestants demonstrate the culinary arts with gusto as they beat egg whites for meringue or pound yeast dough onto a board for puff pastry or pipe impossibly perfect buttercream arcs and spirals onto a layer cake to create a masterful flower decoration. There’s no obvious conflict, although the contestants do compete, and this is what creates the show’s brilliance.
It’s Daniel Tiger for the middle-aged. Safe, practical television that would merit Julia Child’s seal of approval. No guns, no violence. The only mystery is who will receive the weekly honor of being crowned Star Baker. Even the judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry seem to root for the contestants as they circulate at the beginning of each challenge and offer encouragement.
The original title was the Great British Bake Off, on television in Britain since 2010. I would tune in while on vacation in Sweden. We started watching because the only other option in English was reruns of The Simpsons. At first it seemed like a weird idea to unite amateur British bakers in a huge white tent, often in the rain, in the middle of nowhere, but the show did prove distracting.
The bakers face a Signature Challenge, a Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper, which demands skill, imagination, and stamina. The contestants cheer each other on during prep and exchange hugs at the end of each episode, when judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry choose a Star Baker and send one of the original twelve contestants home.
You can watch this show on Netflix. Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite….
The premise is simple: over a series of ten episodes, a group of amateur chefs responds to three challenges and are judged on the results. Can they concoct a Showstopper that will wow guests at a fancy Christmas dinner? Are they skillful bakers, capable of mixing flavors in creative ways that will please Paul Hollywood, who has a particularly delicate palate? Will their American pie look picture-perfect when sliced without any oozing onto the plate?
Not every contestant is successful all the time. One may ace the first two challenges and dramatically fail the Showstopper. If you have ever had a chocolate soufflé deflate before you could get it to the table, you can sympathize. After each episode, one contestant is asked to “go home.” On days when the jelly leaked from the pastry or a recipe didn’t fulfill its promise, the bakers all worry about dismissal. The camera captures each possible mistake. It follows a botched vanilla sauce down the drain or an over-cooked sponge layer into the trash. It lingers on a worried face as a contestant explains why his or her time to pursue the creation of a crispy tartlet crust in the quiet of his own kitchen may have come at last. The judges confer and usually their choice makes sense to viewers. The contestant’s departure is cushioned with more hugs and best wishes for future baking success.
The show appeals to the amateur chef seated on the couch in his living room – and who doesn’t identify as an aspiring chef these days? Anyone who likes to cook can hope to glean a few tips that can be put to immediate use.
What’s more, as Gates says, watching the bakers calms the nerves. The Great British Baking Show serves up harmless fun with no bad aftertaste. It’s bland entertainment, but never stress-inducing. What more could anyone want in the Age of Trump?
# # #
Alexandra Grabbe is the author of Wellfleet, An Insider’s Guide to Cape Cod’s Trendiest Town. Her recent work has appeared in The Washington Post, Better After 50, Five on the Fifth, The Compassion Anthology, and is forthcoming from The Offbeat. She is writing a novel about a French Resistance fighter.