Like many on the internet this past week, the Eater staff had (to put it mildly) strong feelings about the Great British Bake Off’s latest episode, the so-called “Mexico Week.”
Even before the show aired in the U.S., it was clear Mexico Week would be offensive to many viewers. In teasers, hosts Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding, dressed in sombreros and serapes, made unfunny puns, which were then reiterated by the official GBBO Twitter account. The episode itself didn’t allay anyone’s fears that the show’s approach to Mexican cuisine might be reductive when, in the technical challenge, the contestants, many of whom appeared to be unfamiliar with pico de gallo (or at least how to pronounce it), made tacos. (How this qualifies as a baking challenge is beyond us.)
Rather than dwell any further on the reasons why this particular episode is problematic — at this point it seems as if the GBBO team may even be writing bad jokes and stoking stereotypes on purpose to inspire hate watching and the rage clicks that inevitably follow — we’d like to once again acknowledge the other moments that have led us here. The Great British Bake Off (also known as The Great British Baking Show) started out as an almost-universal delight, with a simple format and a spirit that felt kinder than other reality competition shows. But as it reached wider audiences and as the seasons piled up, it seemed to suffer from a desire to keep things fresh, leading to many moments that have caused us to pause Netflix and ask “wtf??” Some of these are egregiously offensive, others more mundane yet still off-putting events that looking back, were clearly harbingers of the awfulness to come in Season 13, Episode 4. Taken together they point to a show whose best days have long since passed.
The removal of the historical context for bakes
Way back in the first season of GBBO, the episodes were accompanied by a brief segment that went into the historical context of the bakes. The hosts would sometimes journey to a locale known for a particular baked good and speak to actual experts on the subject. In later seasons, as the show grew from British TV to international phenomenon, this segment fell by the wayside; many of us didn’t miss it, many more never even knew it existed. I think we can all agree that as the show ventures into territory it is absolutely ill-equipped to handle (see below in re: Japan and Mexico Week, the babka challenge) hearing from people who have a good deal of knowledge about the foods the contestants are instructed to bake would be a huge boon. As it is now, the only expertise that matters is from a narrow, very British viewpoint, which is only fair when the foods coming under scrutiny are very British.
The Paul Hollywood handshake was never cool, but it was also never this gross. In 2018, Buzzfeed’s Scott Bryan identified the the precise moment the handshake jumped the shark, when Hollywood began doling out too many handshakes and they became not just a casual commendation but a codified kudos. As Brian Moylan pointed out on Vulture in 2019, “having [Paul’s] personal trump card of the handshake just cements his dominance over the proceedings.” A competition show judge’s signature move will always be a bit cringe (see also Val Garland’s “ding dong” on Glow Up, or former So You Think You Can Dance judge Mary Murphy’s hot tamale train), but it just feels overly smug in Hollywood’s hands (pun intended).
The many times the judges have whined about spice
No one on earth is as much of a spice weenie as Paul Hollywood. The man has, across the seasons, complained to various contestants that their use of spices ranging from paprika to ginger was too heavy-handed, causing him to cough and sputter. His own recipe for “spicy beef tacos” includes merely one teaspoon of ancho chile powder and half a jalapeno, an indication that he’s just not the best judge for any bake that contains any spice more piquant than black pepper. As former host Mary Berry summed it all up herself: “I’m not a hot, spicy person.” This would maybe be fine if all they were judging were the most vanilla of bakes, but the show also claims to reward creativity and asks contestants to put themselves into their baking, which means those with broader palates and backgrounds that include spice get unfairly dinged.
That time Paul insisted peanut butter and jelly do not go together
In Series 6, Episode 5, Paul expresses an inordinate amount of skepticism that contestant Ugne’s idea to pair peanut butter ice cream with concord grape jelly will work. Spoiler: It worked. Expand your mind, Paul.
The departure of Mary Berry
The British equivalent of a fancy meemaw, Mary Berry brought class and gravitas to GBBO, and a notoriously persnickety palate. When she, along with hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, left the show in 2016 after it switched from BBC to Channel 4, not even the charming personality and formidably chunky necklaces of Prue Leith could fill the void she left. Leith, by mere virtue of being new, plays second fiddle to Paul Hollywood. Berry, however, was not afraid to rein him in when he was being too bull-headed. She always made us feel good about loving booze in our desserts, and she is desperately missed even though she couldn’t handle her spice.
The Sandi/Matt swap
New hosts Sandi Tosvig and Noel Fielding at first seemed worthy replacements for the departed Mel and Sue. But the energy of the show totally shifted when Sandi left and Matt arrived. Do we even need two hosts? What if it was just Noel? Noel at least understands that the job is to be funny, to put contestants at ease, and to give home viewers something to watch besides panicky bakers.
The rainbow bagel challenge
The show finally does bagels, but instead of researching what makes bagels good, the show opts for rainbow bagels. You know, the storied baking tradition of Instagram.
The challah and babka meshugas
Not that fans of Jewish baked goods had reason to expect greatness from the show. Back in Season 5, Episode 2 (the earliest available season on Netflix), the bakers are instructed to bake Paul’s “plaited loaf,” a loaf that is quite clearly challah. Neither Paul nor Mary, who comments that the loaf might be quite nice at “a sort of festive occasion,” acknowledge the bread’s central role in Jewish tradition. Then in 2020’s Chocolate Week episode, Prue went so far as to say Paul’s babka was better than anything she had had in New York (lol) because it was lighter (gtfo).
Live-fire pita challenge
In the finale of Season 9, the bakers’ were asked to leave the tent for their technical challenge: making pita on an open fire as well as dips, completely upending the notion that the show was a test of a baker’s skill and a reversal of the positive ethos of encouragement for which many of us began watching in the first place. As Jenny G. Zhang put it: “Technical challenges are meant to test the contestants’ prior baking experience, advantaging those with more know-how; in this case, the only way for a contestant to be remotely prepared for a challenge like this would be if they were, I don’t know, a survivalist who regularly bakes on open fires?”
Since the live-fire pita challenge (which it’s worth noting also took place on a blisteringly hot day), ridiculous, stunt challenges that set bakers up to fail have unfortunately become par for the course.
In Season 12’s Japan Week, the show asked bakers to make nikuman, steamed buns with origins in China. The pan-Asian fillings and decorations that the contestants chose for the buns did nothing to further the viewer’s understanding of Japanese baking tradition, although at this point, they shouldn’t have expected it from this show.
Mexico Week makes it clear the makers of GBBO learned nothing from Japan Week. Hire some damn experts from the regions and cultures you’re asking contestants to bake from or get back to the business of asking contestants to brilliantly riff on the prescribed forms of historic British bakes. Given the show’s issues with overly complicated challenges that stretch the definition of baking, the latter outcome actually might not be so bad. Victoria sponges forever.