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Joan Wickersham

‘The Great British Baking Show’ offers food for thought

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I almost never bake. So why am I hooked on a TV show whose narrator informs me, in an intimately hushed English accent, that achieving the correct crumbly texture in a soda bread depends on “getting the ratio of bicarb to buttermilk spot-on. If there’s not enough liquid, the loaf will be too dense. Too much, and it won’t hold its shape” — an utterance accompanied by suspenseful vibraphone music, and followed by a pastoral shot of sheep grazing in a green field?

If you are one of the many Americans who’ve conceived a similar passion for “The Great British Baking Show,” then you already know what I’m talking about. This is reality TV. But it’s not like any other reality TV you’ve ever seen. It’s polite. Twelve amateur bakers gather in a large tent on the grounds of an English country house to hear things like, “Today the judges would very much like you to make 12 individual custard tarts.”

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The contestants are engineers, physicists, teachers, students, a psychologist, an anesthetist, a banker, a bodybuilder, a prison governor. They are educated. They are nerdy. They pun. “This is Py-thagoras, this pie: made up of a number of triangles and rectangles.” They talk to themselves. “Oh, I’m pouring like a buffoon,” laments one baker as he tries to fill a tart. They buck each other up. “Cover it up with icing, they’ll never notice,” one will counsel another, who is “gutted, simply gutted” when a cake emerges from the oven with a crack across the top.

They make bread, scones, cakes, trifles, tarts, tortes, and biscuits. They make things I’ve never heard of: suet puddings, Chelsea buns, Victoria sandwiches, dacquoises, entremets, and religieuses (choux-pastry nuns). They make things they’ve never heard of. “Bakers, today you’ll be making a schichttorte.”

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“A what?” asks one of the show’s two comic emcees.

“A schichttorte.”

“Well, but they might make a good one. Who are you to say that?”

Where else can you see a former-Buckingham-Palace-guard-turned-prison-governor making a three-dimensional bread sculpture in the shape of a lion while the narrator solemnly explains, “Paul’s predator will have a white-bread head, a whole-meal tail, and a body filled with figs and walnuts”? Where else can you watch other contestants creating their own 3-D bread sculptures: the Brighton Pavilion; a snake-charmer basket inspired by a visit to a grandfather in Bangladesh; an unmade bed with a raisin-and-fennel headboard, a mattress stuffed with marzipan and glacé cherries, and an enriched-dough duvet?

The judging, too, is exceptionally courteous. “I think the decoration is not particularly striking.” “I could do with a little more flavor in the mousses.” The show is competitive – each week one person is crowned “star baker” and one person is eliminated – but not cutthroat. The emphasis is on the bakers versus the physics and chemistry of the process, rather than on the bakers versus one another. People want to win, but they’re not rooting for their fellow bakers to lose. “He’s gone from strength to strength,” says one baker of a competitor, just before the final.

The drama here is that there is no drama. There is sportsmanship, grace, self-deprecation. Nobody is being snarky about anybody else. Nobody is throwing anybody else under the bus, to use a phrase often heard on American reality TV. Nobody swaggers, nobody brags, nobody makes threats. Nobody is saying, “I’m going to take you down” or “I’m coming for you.”

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Nobody says, “You’re fired.”

When I watch “The Great British Baking Show,” my mouth waters. Not for macarons or chocolate ganache, but for civility, for quiet competence, for expertise — for true mastery.


Joan Wickersham is the author of “The News from Spain” and “The Suicide Index.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.