Welcome to the Eater round-up of Great British Bake Off 2022, as Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Matt Lucas, and Noel Fielding return to Channel 4 with the 13th series of cakes, puddings, breads, and inevitable recourse to terrible baking puns. Paul Hollywood’s terrible handshake is here, sweaty as ever, and the tent stands on.
Great British Bake Off 2022 Episode 4 was Mexican Week. It was dreadful.
Okay, it’s Mexican Week, better not trade in racial stereotypes right from the first minute!
Cut to Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding wearing sombreros and serapes, admitting that they shouldn’t make jokes because it’s gross, making them anyway, and contestants admitting that they variously know nothing about Mexican food; don’t know what Mexicans bake; and have only ever eaten fajitas.
As this episode is at the time of writing a week old, there is already plenty of excellent coverage of this hour of cultural reductionism. So, how did it happen?
Why does no-one on this show want to learn anything?
It’s not reasonable to ask any given contestant to know everything. It is reasonable for them to have done research (which many evidently have, when tasked with making pan dulce in the signature challenge.) More concerning is that Great British Bake Off’s producers and researches think that this level of ignorance is okay. Presenters Fielding and Lucas can’t pronounce “dulce” properly, and they think it’s funny to say something is “mucho difficult.” Prue Leith at least acknowledges that pan dulce’s variety is regionally determined, but then goes on about “vibrancy and colour” like she’s, well, Paul Hollywood on a travel show.
At least when other British food TV shows ride roughshod over culinary cultures, they normally employ an expert in that culture to try and head off disasters. Gino d’Acampo may have had to compare his grandmother to a bike, but at least he had the chance to defend carbonara from Holly Willoughby. Masterchef and its stateside cousin Top Chef at least teach their hopefuls about what they’re doing before asking them to do it.
On GBBO, sourdough whitewalker Paul Hollywood’s eye reigns supreme, with no-one to challenge him. Having a guest judge whose expertise relates to the week’s theme has long felt like a way to make the show infinitely better. Apparently, that’s not of any interest.
Why does this show not want to teach people anything?
There were so many opportunities. Making a chocolate and chilli concha seems like a good idea, but using birdseye chilli instead of the myriad indigenous Mexican chiles seems like a bad one. Instead of emphasising the regionality of Mexican baking, the show cuts to Lucas and Fielding asking “if Mexico is a real place” and comparing it to Xanadu and Oz, two fictional places. Even an old GBBO problem reared its head, with Hollywood asking them to make a yeasted dough without giving enough time for it to rise properly, and producing flat versions of a baking tradition that will have been new to many viewers instead of doing it any justice. Worse, knowing camera zooms — like on an avocado being peeled — imply that the producers are aware that it’s wrong, but would rather just play for lazy laughs.
One does not bake a taco.
…Great British Bake Off’s problems are bigger than any given episode
Two things unite all these facets of awfulness. One is the show itself. The other is a dangerously smiling kind of twee cack-handedness that recasts ignorance as charm and attempts to excuse itself from offence by implying that it couldn’t possibly know any better because it’s just a silly little baking show. In the tent, no-one can hear you scream, or claim that making tortillas in a pan is a baking challenge.
Taking this position does a disservice to contestants and viewers alike. It treats the former as empty-headed and the latter like idiots, and allows the show to try and hold on to all of its status as a cultural touchstone without having to deliver on any of the responsibility that comes with that status. Beyond being grievously offensive to Mexico, its people, and its culture, it is also telling its viewers that thinking about Mexico, its people, and is culture this way is totally fine. Per 2020’s Orientalist mess that was Japanese Week, GBBO is an influential show. People watch it and people bake along to it, and something demonstrating the execution of traditions and dishes of great cultural significance needs to get them right. That the producers saw the reaction to that show and did nothing to make this episode better suggests either that they don’t care, or welcome the whiff of scandal with no care for the damage it might cause.
And this is the real crux of the issue: the dismissively fairytale nicety of the tent is allied to something even more dangerous: An absolute stubbornness to make it better. Paul Hollywood will always be God, Prue Leith will always be reduced to a caricature of calories and booze, and there will never be an appetite to make the changes that would treat other baking cultures with respect. Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding will literally say “we probably shouldn’t make any Mexican jokes, because people will be upset,” and just make them anyway while playing cultural appropriation for laughs. A contestant will unironically ask, “What do Mexicans bake?” like he’s being been told he has to develop a pastry based on Pluto. Lucas’s comedy history is rooted in mocking, caricaturing, and disrespecting nations and peoples with racial stereotypes, but he’s allowed to be here. It’s an embarrassment, but nobody on the show actually seems to care.
GBBO can stick with its smiling incuriousness if it wants. But the right response from its audience would be to turn it straight off.