Why ‘Mexican Week’ is a sign of bigger problems for ‘Great British Baking Show’
Stereotypical jokes. Laughable mispronunciations. Culinary atrocities. “The Great British Baking Show” set off a minor furor on social media with its most recent episode, “Mexican Week” (or more precisely, “‘Mexican’ Week”). But were the bowdlerizations of tacos and tres leches cake harmless fun gone awry, or a sign of more fundamental problems in the beloved reality competition series?
“Baking Show” aficionado and Times staff writer Meredith Blake and “Baking Show” newcomer and Times food editor Daniel Hernandez offer two perspectives on the controversy.
Meredith Blake: It’s hard to identify the most unfortunate moment in this episode. Was it Paul Hollywood referring to something called “pick-oh-duh-callow” sauce, Carole from Dorset butchering a poor avocado, or the opening sketch where Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas, clad in sombreros, talked about making just “Juan” Mexican joke? (OK, let’s be real, it was the sketch.) But here was the rare case where the preemptive Twitter freakout actually seemed justified. There’s nothing wrong, in theory, with a Mexican episode of “The Great British Baking Show,” but this was a groan-fest from start to finish.
While there are lots of problems with how this episode approached Mexican cuisine in particular, the whole debacle is also symptomatic of larger issues on this long-running reality show, particularly since it moved from the BBC to Channel 4 and began to embrace spectacle over substance. Even when they’re not trafficking in lame stereotypes, the opening sketches have always been cornier than a bowl of polenta; if there is a single human on the planet who was dying to see Paul Hollywood put on a mullet wig and sing a spoof called “Achy Breaky Tart,” I have yet to meet them.
The challenges sometimes feel more like “Survivor” stunts than fair tests of the bakers’ fundamental skills (e.g. the time they had to cook pita bread over a campfire). The producers, who seem to have an unspoken rule about never repeating challenges, have searched the globe in search of new and increasingly “exotic” things for the contestants to bake — or in this case, cook, because tacos are really more cooking than baking, aren’t they? Particularly with the technical challenges, which are supposed to be an unbiased way to gauge the bakers’ knowledge of the basics, the producers add arbitrary criteria and silly embellishments just to make things harder for the contestants (who says a red velvet cake has to have six layers, anyway?).
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It’s ironic that this episode was such a disaster because one of the things that has always made this show great, even in seasons that were otherwise underwhelming, is its multicultural cast and its steadfast refusal to give anyone a villain edit. Where else on TV will you see a teenager in a hijab competing against a grandmother who just retired from her job working for Boris Johnson — and root for both of them? This may be “The Great British Baking Show,” but it has always celebrated the culinary contributions of people all over the world who’ve helped revolutionize British food — once a wasteland of mushy peas, now a place where you can get tasty samosas or a halloumi sandwich at a highway rest stop. Arguably the most popular winner in the show’s history is Nadiya Hussein, a British Bangladeshi woman who infused her bakes with South Asian flavors. Last year’s winner was Giuseppe Dell’Anno, from Italy. This season’s top contenders are from Sweden, Malaysia, Angola and Poland.
But, Daniel, you know a lot more about the food side of things than I do. What did you make of the episode?
Daniel Hernandez: A part of me, as I said in a related forum over the weekend, feels like it is a defeat to even have to address this kind of stuff at all. The internet and social media are littered with absolutely vomit-inducing hacks that often try to “update” or repackage cooking practices that are literally thousands of years old in saner settings. In the United States and Europe, purveyors of food are such classicists and defensive about any manner of dish, both high and low, but time and time again, they seem to exhibit no such restraint or reverence when it comes to their approaches to Mexican food — which, let’s be honest, is so globally hot right now.
The audacity is almost impressive. Not too long ago, an outfit in London tried to lay legal claim to ownership of the term “taquería,” which is sort of like saying someone is allowed to own the term “pub.” Stateside, a TikTok user was justifiably raked over the coals for attempting to rebrand aguas frescas as “spa water.” And these are examples from only the last two months.
The disrespect is frankly exhausting. So it was with a gripping sense of dread that I turned on Netflix to watch Channel 4’s megahit for the first time. It takes no less than 10 seconds for the foolery to start. Screen up, and hosts Noel and Matt appear in sarapes and dorky sombreros. The worst crime here perhaps is not the liberal use of these stereotypical images, but how played out they are — is this really the best mockery they could muster? Sombreros and sarapes haven’t been “ironic” or funny in about half a century. Add the “Juan” bit, and the opening employs some of the oldest and stupidest Mexican jokes in the book.
Harmless, I suppose. Entertaining? Not at all.
But as the show settled into that familiar reality-TV competitive rhythm, I indeed found most of the contestants charming and curious, and reflective, as you say, Meredith, of multicultural, modern Britain, which I’ve seen and admired with my own eyes. Mexicans are now part of that kaleidoscope, too; I personally know of several middle-class Mexican families who moved across the pond to the U.K. or Ireland in the last decade or so, and of course, many British citizens enjoy the expatriate life in Mexico, including many who’ve spent decades there and I count as dear friends. When Noel name-checks Day of the Dead festivals — “The one place that I’ll fit in” — he is channeling an increasing appreciation for aspects of Mexican culture that non-Mexicans find welcoming and appealing; we all die, and we should all honor our ancestors.
But for me, all the good will gets thrown out the window when the show asks its contestants to make tacos. Those of us familiar with the Rachael Rays and Paula Deans of the United States know the taco is both blessing and curse — its power lies in its awe-inspiring versatility, but the lure of going overboard, going sacrilegious or just going bonkers with tacos is often too strong to resist. Sadly.
The most memorable taco is usually found in its simplest expression: a dab of crackling pork al pastor, with a slice of pineapple off the top of the spit, and a single spoonful or splash of red salsa — that’s it. That’s all you need! But in the hands of our friends across the Atlantic, tacos go positively mental — from places like France or Belgium, I’ve seen far too menu items dubbed “tacos” that look like griddled calzones. On “The Great British Baking Show,” the technical challenge recipe included tacos that came with cooked, marinated steak, pico de gallo (the pronunciations had me cackling!), guacamole and refried beans. They also kept referring to tortillas as tacos, which is incorrect or improper usage; tortillas are tortillas and that’s that.
I thought hard about this for a while and couldn’t remember a single time I’ve had refried beans inside a taco in Mexico. On the side, definitely. In a Northern-style quesadilla, sometimes. But unless you’re having a taco de frijol — literally just beans in a tortilla — there is no reason to ever put refried beans in a taco. And arguably, what they termed refried beans in this show were not that at all. These were, like, chili beans at best, cooked with lots of onion, weirdly. Refried beans become pasty, broken down. Not here.
I was at a loss. I felt bereft, confused and rattled by the time the final challenge hit. The contestants are called upon to make a stacked tres leches cake, and apologies, but what the hell is that? Tres leches is spongey, soaked, ready to break apart. Why on Earth would anyone be asked to stack one? As L.A. author Myriam Gurba noted on Twitter, “Making a tiered tres leches cake is like making a tiered soup.”
The needlessness, the folly, the flippant abandon of “Mexican Week” on “The Great British Baking Show” will serve its purpose, though. It will goad us into outrage and stress-watching, and then carry on. Untold numbers of Britons will be led to believe they’ve learned a thing or two about Mexican cooking by tuning in, and untold numbers of Mexican Americans will have to endure yet another case of reckless appropriation by foreigners with good intentions, and misplaced pride in indefensible results.
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