My friend’s face bubbled up on my phone screen at the chime of a bell. You need to watch The Great British Baking Show, her Facebook message demanded. It’s on Netflix. Add it now.
Ok, I’ll check it out! I typed back. Shorthand for I’m in the middle of Orange is the New Black and cannot be bothered. And even if I wasn’t, I had seen every baking show on and off the air in the last decade. Ace of Cakes. Cake Masters. Cake Wars. Cupcake Wars. Food Network Challenge. Holiday Baking Championship. Halloween Baking Championship. Spring Baking Championship. Ultimate Baking Championship. Over a decade of watching people staring desperately through oven windows, as a shade of golden browning serves as an oracle to their fate; years of sugar fantasies buckling and shattering under the unforgiving radiance of studio lights. And I’ve watched these showcases mutate, from artisan invitationals for the world’s best bakers and pastry chefs to gather and broadcast their talents for the audience’s awe and delight, into fondant-flinging, sabotage-heavy shit shows—now featuring “celebrities”!
The dilution of the simple, beautiful premise of who can create the most outstanding cake has traced the implosion of my favorite channel. It had been so long since I watched chefs create for the love of it, I could scarcely remember what the non-spectacle looked like. The Great British Baking Show, I assumed without question, would be more shameless cross-promotion (“Your challenge, to create a cake inspired the new hit movie The Smurfs 2: Lost in Smurf York!”), dubious judges (Lou Diamond Phillips, the girl who played Pepper in American Horror Story: Asylum) and pointless hurdles (you must create your cake dough in this industrial cement mixer!). With a British accent.
I knew my friend was only trying to help. She knew how much I loved to cook and how my vacations orbited around finding the best local markets, dishes, and ingredients to smuggle back in my checked baggage. She saw my Instagram and its trove of food porn. She understood that my heart and my tongue and my hands are tethered to the same nerve, the same vein, bleeding and gathering love.
She did not know how much my heart could no longer take it.
My first apartment is more visceral in my memory than my childhood bedroom or freshman dorm. I can rebuild it down to the magnets on the fridge, suspending postcards from friendships that have long unraveled. In the frozen amber of imagination Matt—then my boyfriend now my husband—is sitting on the couch cushion closest to the window. The couch is as old as my parents, a remnant from my grandma’s basement and an era where sleeper sofas weighed roughly as much as cars. I’m in the kitchen, which no one, including me, has ever taken care of. The linoleum is fraying on every edge while the leaky window sprouts a fresh colony of mold spores along the sill. I haven’t figured out how to properly clean a kitchen yet, so all of my cocktail shakers and bottles of flamingo-pink high-fructose corn syrup Cosmopolitan mixers are lacquered in a grimy peach fuzz lacquer of stove grease. At night after dinner I run a Clorox wet wipe on the surfaces and hope for the best.
As I stand in that kitchen, no bigger than my current house’s master closet, grating too much lemon zest into pasta and piling 20 times too many toppings onto pizza, voices call out to me.
You always need to salt your pasta water. This is your only chance to flavor the dry noodles.
Rub a garlic clove along the toasted bread before topping it with the tomato bruschetta.
I always add a tiny bit of nutmeg to the pasta. Buy a whole clove of it and grate it fresh; the stuff ground into a jar isn’t worth a square inch of your cabinet space.
When you’re using just a few ingredients, it’s important to make sure they’re the best they can be. Never settle for anything less than pure, graded, good maple syrup.
Wisdom wafts in from our 32-inch square television, keeping me company even when I’m too busy to plant myself in front of the screen. Our basic cable was expanded just enough to include the Food Network, a luxury we couldn’t afford as kids who ran credit cards for groceries but did anyway, because nights where we couldn’t tease and adore Alton Brown finding the most complicated, anal-retentive but admittedly logical way to thread kabobs weren’t nights worth living.
I graduated into adulthood loving food but with no experience actually creating it. Growing up, my mom made dinner every night, planned down to the night every two weeks when she sat down with her cookbook and recipe clippings to write The Menu. Her font-perfect cursive schematic of 14 dinners hung on the side of the fridge, and I read it every day before school to give myself something to look forward to. YAAASSS, BEEF SOFT TACO NIGHT. But since she was so meticulous and organized, I never needed to learn the survival skill of cooking myself. Dinner was served family style on the dining room table night after night in a lifetime of tricky magic. I was too young and hungry to see past the convenience and privilege into the future of how the hell I’d do this for myself.
Matt wasn’t a huge help.
“I don’t think you can make bread without a bread machine,” he said, when Ina Garten’s trip to a French bakery in Manhattan inspired a French bread day.
“How do you think they made bread before bread machines?”
“I think that’s the only way at home,” he doubled-down.
Giada DeLaurentiis taught us how to smash garlic cloves with the back-end of a knife against the cutting board, which worked even with our cheap cardboard-like blades. Mario Batali introduced the wonder that is the leftover parmigiano reggiano rind (even if the rest of my minestrone was soft, underseasoned garbage). Watching Iron Chef: America was like staring into the windows of Pottery Barn and dreaming of a future thousands of days and dollars ahead of us. Someday we’ll make scallops seared on a Himalayan salt block.
As we upgraded apartments and jobs, my food started to improve. The dough in my pizza cooked all the way through. Breading clung to my chicken. My scrambled eggs fluffed instead of caking. I discovered that there are more seasonings than garlic salt. But at the same time, our default channel veered sharply away.
“Do you want to watch that new Chopped thing?” Matt asked one night as I was in the kitchen, alternating sauce and Italian sausage and noodles in our favorite fail-safe lasagna recipe. It was 2009 and our steady stream of Giada at Home, Barefoot Contessa and Good Eats was already being deeply undercut by Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives marathons. Which, yeah, was fun at first, but how many times can you watch someone shove a cheeseburger into their mouth and start describing it before they finish chewing?
“I guess, if it’s on before The Daily Show.”
Over our plate of discount steak cuts we watched chefs tortured over sadistic baskets while judges with Level 11 Resting Bitch Face gazed on, incredulous over their inability to cook down a brisket in 20 minutes. Ted Allen leered in the corner of every shot like a high-ranking resident of The Capitol watching a round of The Hunger Games.
“If you want that ten thousand dollars, you’d better get those desserts on the plate!” He demanded, dangling a teensy wedge of salvation to the contestants, whose troubles were reiterated in every single reality show confessional cut. Shuttering restaurants, leaky roofs, mothers with terminal diseases who wanted one last glimpse of the ocean.
“Failure is not an option,” they all recited.
We didn’t learn anything, except never to serve Scott Conant red onions, nothing tastes good with durian, and that pain perdou is French toast in a dessert costume. We weren’t inspired to make something new. It was just like everything else on every other channel: talent traded for drama, success measured in the way someone dodged a trap rather than executed a leap.
“I think we should start watching Mad Men,” I said, rinsing the plates off in the sink. “I hear good things.”
When I come home from work now and Food Network is on, I roll my eyes. “Isn’t there anything else on?” I say, snatching up the remote from between the fat, furry flesh of our oldest cat and the back cushion of the couch.
“It’s just background noise,” Matt says. He’s on his phone triaging the work emails that never end. The voices against stock footage of spinning cupcakes are another track on the sound machine between Spring Rain and Tropical Rainforest. I make a point to switch over to a DVR’d episode of @Midnight or House Hunters.
Every show was terrible, paused only for commercials previewing new concepts that were even more terrible.
Tia Mowry shows you how to make pot roast! Why? Why NOT!?
You thought we found the Worst Cooks in America?! Think again! This guy can burn water!
It’s Chopped…but with KIDS!!!
Will you be able to tell if this dish was made by a Cook…or a CON!?
I couldn’t tune out the idiocracy. In my ears it amplified as an endless reminder of a friend I no longer knew. A presence that no longer existed.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt had to scrape me up from the bottom of Portland International Airport. I came back from AWP with strep throat so bad I couldn’t talk. I fell asleep on a plane for the first time in my life, just to escape consciousness of my body. That first day at home stocked with antibiotics and a doctor’s note, I slept longer than my cats. I ate a popsicle for dinner. My mother called to check on me and hung up almost immediately upon hearing my crypt rasp of a voice. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry…I’ll leave you alone…just get better, sweetie!”
The next day I still couldn’t speak, but I could keep my eyes open. I shuffled out of my bedroom to the couch and turned on Netflix. I scrolled past a mountain of garbage—The Interview, Fuller House, the complete and unnecessary Friends—until the cursor rested on a perfect, chocolate-gilded cake. It was The Great British Baking Show, the recommendation I’d long let rest in the circular file.
I hit Play knowing that at any moment I could X back out of it, just as I had with the latest season of Kimmy Schmidt. If I got monumentally bored, as I did with every episode of House of Cards, I could check on my Neko Atsume cats. I could let The Great British Baking Show be background noise with much better accents.
When Matt arrived home from work an episode later he found me on the edgiest of my seat as I could get (burrito-wrapped in blankets and slightly leaning forward).
“How are you feeling?” He asked, unloading a bagful of Simply Orange juice and soft, delicately flavored soups into the refrigerator. I pinwheeled my arm, ushering him into my domain. “New Food Network show?”
I shook my head. “Netflix,” I whispered.
I didn’t need to explain the sheer optimism of the show, a concept so divorced from American food TV that I barely recognized it. There were no cuts to tenuous sob stories to try and make us care about the contestants. We cared because we could see them pouring all of themselves into the proofing drawers, hoping to impress the two understated professional judges not with a 10-foot Rice Krispie sculpture that could spit fireworks out its buttecream asshole, but with the ancient alchemy of deftly picking the right measurements of flour and leavenings to turn into the best looking, most delicious bread they could possibly make.
No time was wasted undercutting one another. There was no side-eye thrown or passive-aggressive voiceovers. After the baking challenges they sat in a row nudged together, clapping with feverish gusto when that day’s winner was announced. If a fellow contestant was sinking, their neighbors came to the rescue. “What do you need? How can I help?” It was as if they were all human.
We kept watching the judges explain why a scone doesn’t rise and the merits of an egg wash versus butter brush until my eyelids went on strike. “We’ll watch more tomorrow,” Matt promised.
For the next week we watched the show every night. Not while I cooked, not with a single distraction. My voice returned and we bantered with each other in bad accents.
“BAAAKE!” We cried out with the two hosts (below), women who managed to pirouette as comic relief without faceplanting as grating or smug. Instead of interrogating the contestants, they politely asked if they could pocket an empanada for later.
“Do you like empanadas?” I asked Matt. Little meat pocket pies were sorely missing from our meal rotation of chicken burgers, shrimp soft tacos and beef stir fry.
“I love empanadas.”
“I didn’t know that! I swore you didn’t.”
“What’s not to like? It’s pastry and deliciousness.”
“I should make some,” I said, taking my eyes off the screen just long enough to Pin a New York Times recipe for Argentinian empanadas.
“Oooo, you should make some sweet ones too for dessert,” he chimed in as they switched over to a contestant spooning lemon meringue.
“That would require making pastry.”
“Well that’s kind of a pain in the ass.”
“But I WANT to!” I wanted to watch the butter pulverize into pea-sized pearls, to feel the soft, velvety crumble of the dough between my fingertips. I had spent days sitting and watching the magic act. I craved a taste not only of the treat, but the trial.
“Well then,” he said, tossing his hands up in surrender. “BAAAAKE!”
“What do they win?” Matt asked when we finally sat down for The Great British Baking Show’s finale. Two types of dough, sweet and savory, were resting in the refrigerator waiting for the fillings I’d spent the afternoon slow-cooking and seasoning to just slightly strong (Judge Paul was sure to note that flavors need to be over-accented since they mellow in the oven).
Richard, Luis, and Nancy had presented their showpiece cakes to the judges and went outside the tents to join their families in a picnic. Their other contestants were scattered about the field, cheering on competitors who’d become friends. There were no pre-show reunions rehashing drama scripted between them, as we’d grown to endure on The Next Food Network Star. The best chef would win. I hadn’t felt this nervous about filmed strangers since Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkelman held Justin and Kelly’s tender fates in their hands.
I’d almost cried already when my favorite, 17-year-old Martha, was a victim of bad doughnuts. Of the three remainders there was no villain. Just ordinary people who could bake like a motherfucker, surrounded by families so proud they could hardly contain their calm-keeping.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. There was no $50,000 sugar ransom we’d been informed about. When the contestants spoke of winning, it was only in terms of principle. I want to make everyone proud, or it would be such an honor.
“They’ve got to win something,” Matt insisted, because why in this country would people be on television if they weren’t chasing a check?
But when The Great British Baker was crowned, there was no cash. There was a bouquet of flowers. There was an engraved cake stand. There were tears and hugs and a montage of contestant follow-ups, all of which were worse for my eyes than scotch broom. Luis is back at his office job, but still dreams of opening a bakery. Oh my god. SAME.
“Tabitha is rolling out her pastry for her sweet empanadas,” I narrated like a loon as the credits rolled.
“May I have one for me pocket?” Matt asked, mimicking the host’s tiptoe hover on my workstation counter.