January 6, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Two things only the people actually desire: bread and circuses. –Juvenal
When I fall prey to the black dog, it’s easy to tell. My depression manifests in baking: jars filled with rapidly aging cookies, racks of untouched cupcakes, freezers glutted with brownies. Typically I find baking soothing, but there’s nothing soothing about this frenzy of activity. It’s a Hail Mary attempt to wrest a little accomplishment from life, the last of my energy reserves wasted on food whose presence, whether it’s a success or failure, becomes another reproach. Baking is about the triumph of precision over creativity, but in these moments my approach is slapdash and the results uneven. If cooking can be a means of nourishing and communing, this is the opposite, a sort of gingerbread fortress of solitude.
I am not at all sad as I write this, but it’s easy to conjure that memory of sadness: as the Ghostbusters learned from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, in the thrall of the wrong forces, even the sweetest and most comforting things can become terrifying. Indeed, sometimes I think the impulse to destroy what comforts is pretty human.
All of which is an elaborate way to say that, even with these sinister predilections, I consider the Great British Baking Show (née Bake Off) the most important breakthrough in formulaic comfort viewing since the first witness was surly to the first dedicated detective of the Special Victims Unit. Shamelessly cozy, aggressively anodyne, equal parts comforting and engaging, GBBO is an Anglophile’s shameful dream come true. There are no hysterics and no theatrics; everyone is nice to one another. The hosts are like embarrassing parents. We literally watch bread rise.
There’s an addictive pleasure to watching anyone do something well. And whereas an American show might demand a three-course meal of Bac-Os, gummy worms, and uni—all thrown together in ten minutes—these amateur bakers not only practice their recipes in advance, but go home to their families between shoots. It’s eminently civilized, but somehow the more compelling for it. Simply put, one has faith in them—in their skill, in their collegiality, in the fact that their lives will go on pleasantly whatever happens. In a world short on such things, it means a great deal.
The set itself is rather like a version of heaven: a white tent filled with stoves and pastel standing mixers, somewhere green and bucolic. Why are they in a tent? That’s unclear. But in that tent, life is beautiful even when it leaves contestants to the vagaries of summer storms and chocolate-melting heat.
Speaking of weather, it has occurred to me before that this show is what weather was, before weather turned into climate: a sort of conversational universal donor. If someone has not watched it, you describe it. If they have—and many have—an instant bond is established. Someone might prefer the stubborn old highlander to the sunny schoolgirl, another might deplore the flavors chosen for a Swiss Roll challenge. But the rules are firmly in place, and what we are really saying is, Isn’t this relaxing? It’s very insidious, really—pretty dangerous—but then, so is the converse.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.