Americans Could Learn From ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Never am I more aware of how ramped up and divided America is than when I watch the contrast of civility and kindness exhibited on “The Great British Bake Off”, my current favorite means of television escapism and entertainment.

(It can be seen on PBS and Netflix, where it’s known as “The Great British Baking Show” –  because of an American trademark issue with the Pillsbury Bake-off.)

If you’ve missed it (and if you have, that’s a shame) “The Great British Baking Show” is a popular British television series that features elimination rounds between amateur British bakers demonstrating their culinary talents. The contestants are tasked with creating a variety of challenging custards, tarts, puddings, breads, cookies, pies and every kind of sweet and savory delicious food imaginable, mainly things that involve flour and/or sugar. Every 10 weeks it’s a brand new set of bakers.

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Source: PBS.org

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a show just for bakers, because scores of non-bakers are fans, too. For good reason. There’s something about watching “The Great British Baking Show” that makes me happy, because although the bakers are under extreme pressure to produce over-the-top difficult “bakes” – the format of the show is fair, compassionate, humorous and thoroughly entertaining. Plus, I learn a lot about baking, which, as a life-long baker, I like.

I realize the show has had its own degree of internal drama, but I prefer to remain willfully ignorant about that, and focus on what I love about it.

What first drew me into show was its people, starting with Paul Hollywood, the hunky handsome famous baker, who I mentioned last year when I wrote about giving up on online dating, because I said I’d found my perfect match. (Turns out he’s not so perfect after all, what with having a rather public roving eye, but it was a nice fantasy while it lasted.)

Paul Hollywood, UK celebrity chef.

But I also adored his co-host, Mary Berry – old enough to be my mother – so talented, so spunky, so smart and so knowledgeable about baking. Likewise, I loved the show’s original presenters, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and was so upset when they left the show after a corporate programming shake-up – followed by Mary’s departure — that for a brief time I vowed to no longer watch the new version, with Paul and some new co-hosts (who were perfectly fine). I got over it, and returned to the show. (But it’s still not as good without Mel, Sue and Mary.)

I returned because the program’s enticing, simple format and its earnest, authentic bakers were the real stars of the show. The contestants were a wide mix of regular people, all of whom share a passion for baking. And wow, such an impressive diversity of ethnicity, personality and culture! Gay and straight bakers, white bakers and bakers of color, old and young bakers, single and married bakers, grandparent bakers, mommy and daddy bakers, nerd bakers, white- and blue-collar bakers, shy and outgoing bakers, educated and self-taught bakers, humorous bakers, insecure bakers and pessimistic bakers, often all in the same pool of contestants.

Consequently, “The Great British Baking Show” has spoiled me, and made it so that I can hardly stomach the more cut-throat American cooking shows, where contestants are often mean and rude to their fellow competitors, and are sometimes sore, bitter losers.

American reality television reminds me a lot of American politics, which has effectively pitted Americans against each other. It’s tricked the American masses into believing the destructive messages that claim we’re split between the good guys and the bad guys and it’s every man and woman for themselves and if you don’t agree with me you’re an idiot and just shut up and get out of my sight because I have no use for you or what you think or have to say and we have zero in common.

With American cooking competitions, the prize is money, typically thousands of dollars. With “The Great British Baking Show”, the grand prize is an engraved plate stand, a bouquet of floppy wildflowers, and the satisfaction of being named the winner after 10 weeks of difficult baking challenges.

Other weird, very un-American reality-show things happen during “The Great British Baking Show”. First, the winners are cheered and congratulated by the “losing” contestants. What?!! (And it seems genuine.) Second, when the contestants are waiting for the final verdict, sometimes they are holding hands, or have their arms wrapped around each other.

Why did I assume all these years that the British were undemonstrative? Scratch that.

But the thing that always slays me is when the name is called of the person who’ll be sent home – the loser. The hosts, presenters and other contestants immediately surround the person with hugs and kisses, lingering squeezes, words spoken into necks – as they comfort the departing person. There are tears, not just by the loser, but often by the contestants who openly express sadness that a fellow baker has been sent home. More than once a remaining contestant will say he or she thought they should have been the one sent home. One week, after a contestant who had a fondness for Hawaiian shirts was eliminated, all the contestants showed up the next week wearing Hawaiian shirts in his honor. What the what?

Another thing that strikes me as foreign is that sometimes, when a contestant is having a colossal failure, like a cake is on the verge of falling over, or a baker is on the brink of missing a deadline to plate something, fellow contestants will sometimes jump in to help. I remember one “Chopped” episode where a contestant helped another, but then the show’s host reminded the contestants that they were competitors each vying for $10,000.

On “The Great British Baking Show”, it’s as if even though they’re all there to win, the bakers haven’t lost the ability to still care for and encourage one another. It’s as if the people are more important than the prize, if you can imagine that.

That resonates with me, and I think that mindset resonates with most Americans, too.

That’s why I don’t blame Americans for how they misbehave on American reality cooking shows. Rather, I blame the producers of the shows who egg on the contestants and whip them into a frenzy and encourage them to talk crap about each other and be nasty, because it makes for good television. But does it? Not for me, no more than I like car crashes and high-speed chases in movies (don’t get me started on particular kinds of sex scenes), but for some reason, movie-makers seem to think that’s what we want.

Left to their natural tendencies, most Americans I know would be inclined to help a fellow baker – or neighbor – in trouble, and feel sad at another’s misfortune, despite our differences.

Conversely, I’m reminded of our highly polarized American political system, where our country, families and friendships are increasingly divided. Liberal and conservative labels are conveniently lazy, and allow us instant prejudice to justify dismissing someone before we even get a chance to truly know them.

Don’t most of us want the same simple things from life? Yes, we do. Clean air, decent housing, equal opportunities in education, health care and employment, to name a few. But as long as we’re fighting, we can never come together to find common ground to solve our country’s problems. As long as we’re fighting, we’re not listening and considering that perhaps, we have more in common than we know. As long as we’re fighting, we’ll never know.

Back to “The Great British Baking Show”, about which I am not ashamed to admit that I have wept at the finale of almost every episode. I think what touches me most is how all the families and friends have gathered on the lawn outside that huge white tent, all the former contestants, winners and losers; all eating cake. All united.

Here in the so-called United States, we are embroiled in one of the most contentious times in American history. Here we have gay and straight Americans, white Americans and Americans of color; old and young Americans, single and married Americans, grandparent Americans, mommy and daddy Americans, nerd Americans, white- and blue-collar Americans, shy and outgoing Americans, educated and self-taught Americans, humorous Americans, insecure Americans and pessimistic Americans, often in the same city.

Despite our differences, we  have so much in common. But there’s so much at stake if we can’t acknowledge how we’re alike; reject the messages of hate and division, and unite for the good of us all.

Yes, we have a long way to go. Maybe we could start by baking a cake.


Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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