Signatures, Technicals, Showstoppers

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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???

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12 responses to “Signatures, Technicals, Showstoppers

  1. Love this post. Been hooked on the GBBS for a couple of years. A breath of fresh air, better than American competitive cooking shows.

    • It took me a long time to get around to really following a season of TGBBS, Jama (I had watched a couple of isolated episodes), but now I am SO hooked!

  2. Julie, I love GBBS, too. And I love your comparison here. If only watching writers work were as entertaining as watching bakers, we could have show. 🙂

    • Imagine a show, Bonny, where writers hunch over their notepads for an hour!! 😊 Not too exciting. Though I CAN imagine a show where writers go some place together (a circus, a waterfall, a walk), then write down their impressions/observations and read the results. Judges would be looking for keen observation, attention to detail, deft handling of language. Lower scores if sentimentality and cliche dominate. Hmmmm. I might even watch that one!

  3. I love your analysis, Julie! I have watched some isolated episodes, but I just can’t get into this show because while I do love baking, the desserts they make are so unappealing to me. I just sit here saying yuck, haha. But I completely understand why you like this better than similar US shows, because that’s the reason I can’t stomach the nasty US version of Masterchef but ADORE the Australian version. The contestants are so genuinely kind to each other and the judges are cute as the dickens — they’ve even been known to get teary when a favorite gets eliminated. 🙂 (And my dirty secret is that I really only like reality shows, but not the nasty ones. I do love Project Runway for the educational factor, as long as I can fast forward through the talking and snarkiness. I learned to sew watching that!)

    Believe it or not, there WAS a writing reality show here in Italy! The writers had a certain amount of time to write in real time on a given theme. Their typing was displayed on big screens over their heads so the audience could watch the process. Then they were discussed, judged, eliminated, etc. I think it only lasted one season. 😀

    • It’s true, Renee, some of the challenges on TGBBS result in unappealing dishes. Nothing with kidneys should ever be allowed! And there’s a lot of frosting and icing. But I don’t even care. They could be building with wooden blocks or designing aprons and I’d still be okay with it, which is why I know that the real appeal is just the people. (Confession: I watch Project Runway and like it, too. But not for the people., who can be so back-stabbing and snarky. More to see Tim Gunn and think about how creativity is taught. How advice is given. How talent is spotted.)

      You have got to be kidding about the writer-reality-show!

  4. I, too, take comfort in TGBBS. Thanks for articulating why it’s wonderful.

  5. Precisely the right word, Dana – “comfort.” Yes.

  6. I love TGBBS too, Julie, and like the connections you made to writing. Great post!

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