I’ve been binging on The Great British Baking Show lately and wondering why. I’m no baker, that’s for sure.
In my family, we fall into “categories” for cooking, and my grandmother was the baker. When she died, several years ago, my sister and my daughter took on the “baker” role. I suspect I’m in the meat-and-potatoes category, or maybe it’s soups. My extended family members all like my soup; it’s all about the lime juice and salsa I add just before serving. Not star-power cooking, but it will do. I don’t long to be a baker, that’s definite.
So if I’m not that interested in improving my baking skills, why watch the Great British Baking Show (aka TGBBS)? Two reasons stand out:
#1: The amateur bakers are all so nice to each other. This is not similar to American reality TV shows like Project Runway, where competition gets ugly (and apparently the uglier, the better, because if things are too nice, viewership plummets and producers go crazy.) Honestly, I think half the reason I watch TGBBS is because I am so disheartened by the nasty stuff going on in politics right now, I find TGBBS a huge relief – everyone polite, everyone sweet. The worst that happens in this show is that a tower made of cookies falls over, or sticky buns won’t come out the pan they were cooked in.
Yes, people get judged and one person has to go home at the end of each episode. But there are lots and lots of hugs when someone is headed home, and no one’s career as a baker is ruined, because no one on the show is a professional baker. So there’s some tension, yes, but not much. It’s all about nice, sweet people trying to make the most delicious baked goods they can. No one gutting health care, no one tweeting inanities.
#2: I see a parallel between the effort to produce good baked goods and the effort to create interesting stories. After all, creative people, no matter what they’re creating, interact with their material in certain ways. On TGBBS, the contestants work to respond to three different challenges each week: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. I think writers do basically the same.
A “Signature” bake involves presenting something that is uniquely YOU. On TGBBS, if the “genre” is Breads, then a Signature bread must be produced which reflects the baker’s personality and or personal traditions in some way. You see a contestant with science-based inclinations using a ruler to measure the absolute uniformity of dough for bread sticks. Think of it as a modus operandi. If flair, rather than science, drives someone’s Signature bread stick production, then we might see plaited dough woven together in dark and light stripes. Or if the challenge is a meat pie, we see a contestant whose background is East Indian use unusual spices to enliven hers, while someone more traditional produces a straight-up Cornish pasty.
This sounds to me like what writers talk about when the conversation turns to “voice.” We recognize certain writers – we know if an essay was written by David Sedaris or Oliver Sacks, not because the subject is different but because their voices are uniquely theirs. As a writer, you don’t want to sound like everyone else. You want to sound like YOU. Your voice, your signature – uniquely yours.
“Technical” challenges require the bakers to follow recipes and rules. Everyone gets the same ingredients and the same recipes. Sometimes the recipes are a bit vague, allowing for different results based on the bakers’ interpretations of the rules. But essentially it’s about seeing how each baker does with restrictions, that is, with less innovative and more formal tasks.
Anyone who’s ever written a villanelle or a sestina, anyone who has had to produce a line of iambic pentameter and/or follow a rhyme scheme knows what a technical challenge is.
And I think we all understand the phrase “showstopper.” For this, the bakers must take a category (writers work in genres) and produce something out of this world, never tried before, something attention-grabbing. It’s like a “signature,” but with an added dollop of wow. Very hard to do well, and many baking disasters occur in this phase of the episode of TGBBS. Bakers are going all out, taking risks. So for anyone trying to write the Great American Novel. Also true for any creative effort. Stopping the show with a showstopper is no easy task. Some of us never attempt it, some of us wouldn’t miss it for the world – instinct guides us at this point, I think.
So…The Great British Baking Show. It’s so much fun to see the smiles on the faces of the bakers who have handled a challenge well. So sad to see things go wrong. So nice to see the camaraderie and support and genuine affection among the bakers, no matter whether one baker is doing well or whether the cookie tower (or short story, or picture book, or illustration, or novel, or….) has crumbled.
As writers, we know those challenges; we know those feelings of joy and frustration. I’ve had my share of sticky-buns (in my case, poems) that wouldn’t come out of the “pan” they were cooked in. I’ve also had my moments of being declared the equivalent of Baker of the Week. I do my best to produce a well-baked poem – sometimes it works, sometimes not.
And even if I didn’t see writing parallels behind every croissant, I’d still be watching The Great British Baking Show. From time to time I need to avoid (one hour at a time – I’m not greedy!) whatever foolishness is currently dominating the news. Who knew British bakers would come to my rescue???