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Comfort Food: The Great British Baking Show

Comfort Food: The Great British Baking Show

Laurie Ulster

No, I don’t mean the FOOD. If I spent my days eating cakes, pies, and weird British meat pastries I’ve never heard of before, I would not come away from it a healthier, happier person. But WATCHING The Great British Baking Show, as it’s known here in America, is just what the pandemic psychiatrist would’ve ordered, if I’d been smart enough to see one.

The absolute perfection of this show is, in this viewer’s opinion, only to be found in the seasons when Mary Berry is alongside Paul Hollywood as a judge, and the superb hosts Mel and Sue are still around to nudge, noodle, and lovingly help the contestants.

The 12 home bakers each season are competing to win… a huge cash payout? An opportunity to host a show? No! They’re just competing to win, because winning is nice. They get a bouquet of flowers and a cake plate, but it’s that title they want, even if it doesn’t bring riches and glory along with it.

This is NOT just another baking competition. Here are five reasons that in these very troubled times, and with my very troubled brain, The Great British Baking Show is the ultimate comfort food—not just soothing and calming, but also, good for the weary soul.

None of the Contestants Are Assholes

This may be a competition series, but the contestants are not encouraged to be mean to each other. They’re all nice people from different parts of England, and more often than not, you’ll see an outpouring of sympathy from their fellow competitors when something goes wrong, and even an offer to help.

In 2013, Deborah accidentally used Howard’s custard to make her trifle, and when it was discovered, Howard good-naturedly laughed about it. “I’m sure one custard is as good as the other,” he said sweetly, although his turned out to be much better and the judges had to take that into account and evaluate the custards separately from the trifles they were in. And Howard felt worse for Deborah, who was mortified, than he did for himself!

When social media is getting you down, when people are fighting non-stop on the news, there’s nothing like a whole bunch of people who, despite a setup that puts them in competition, really seem to like and respect each other. Many of them become BFFs afterwards!

The Diversity of the Contestants Will Make Your Heart Sing

There’s always diversity, and it’s never an issue. Just like real-life diversity, it just IS, and it makes everything better as well as more interesting. 2015’s winner was the first contestant in a hijab, and she was universally adored by the other contestants. I almost wept at a video interview with her husband, who talked about how she always does so much for her family, and how excited he was to see her in her own, very much deserved spotlight.

There are contestants from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds who bring their family’s flavors and traditions to the baking table, plus gay bakers, older retirees, young students, professionals (engineers, anesthetists, pastors, hairdressers, teachers, bankers, just for starters) and stay-at-home parents. They never shy away from showing where the contestants live, who their partners are, or how traditional or non-traditional their families may be.  Despite what many politicians want you to think, we CAN all get along.

Mel and Sue are the Best Hosts of Anything Ever

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They’re not on anymore, sadly, but they live on in eminently rewatchable reruns. Netflix is your friend. And so are Mel and Sue, who provide very clever commentary and silly but appropriately brief introductions, and keep the action flowing. They gently tease Mary and Paul, but support the contestants 100%, whether it’s a much-needed hug, a laugh to staunch the flow of tears, or even a helping hand with pouring or carrying. One of the winners has described how Mel would help everyone clean their stations afterwards, while Sue had to be watched because she’d eat their ingredients. “They’re as lovely as they come across,” she said.

There Are No Gimmicks

Politics right now, along with world-changing decisions, seem to be all about gaming the system. In this show, unlike most American cooking shows, there’s no last-minute ingredient added, no game to determine who gets what bonus or how much extra time. And the amount of time they give the bakers to create their masterpiece is actually—okay, usually. Bread week is a challenge, the amount of time they need. Crazy, right?

The location Is Delightful

Baking in a tent on the grounds of some gorgeous estate conveys that feeling of afternoon tea at a country home. While it sucks for the bakers, especially on unfriendly-to-chocolate humid days, it creates a pretty visual backdrop of green grass and occasional wildlife. At the finale each season, the show hosts a huge garden party, where all the eliminated contestants return along with everybody’s families and friends, and the winner is announced.

You can almost pretend that everything is going to be okay after all.

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