“The Great British Baking Show” (aka “The Great British Bake-Off”) knew what kind of reaction doing a “Mexican Week” might provoke. The new season’s fourth — and sure enough, immediately controversial — episode opened with hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas standing in a bucolic English garden, sporting matching ponchos, sombreros, and excitable grins. “I’m really excited for Mexican Week, although I don’t feel like we should make Mexican jokes,” says Fielding. “People will get upset.” Lucas, the most recent addition to the “Baking Show” onscreen team, frowns. “Not even Juan?” No, Fielding confirms. “Not even Juan.”
So extremely self-aware as to become clueless all over again, the toothless bit set the stage for the confusion to come. Judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith set three challenges for the bakers, which were ostensibly meant to celebrate the specifics of Mexican baking, but instead highlighted the show’s ineptitude at including any cultures outside the bounds of the U.K. and European Union writ large. “Mexican Week,” with its catastrophic steak “tacos” and bakes docked for the sin of being too spicy for Hollywood and Leith’s palettes, quickly followed in the footsteps of Season 11’s infamous , curiously pan-Asian attempt at a “Japanese Week.” Then, just a couple of episodes later, the show decided to pay tribute to Halloween treats with a downright confounding “s’mores” technical challenge. Using Hollywood’s own recipe, the bakers were forced to recreate the American way of smashing melted marshmallows and a slab of chocolate between graham crackers with chocolate ganache and whole wheat digestive biscuits, resulting in less of a treat than a bizarre trick.
“The Great British Baking Show” has never been great at venturing outside the long-held traditions of English grannies, so it’s not necessarily a terrible thing to see its challenges stretching in new directions. In fact, given its increasingly international contestant pool, embracing baking techniques outside the mainland could be a wonderful opportunity for the show to expand its horizons some 10 seasons in. But it takes an incredible amount of hubris for its white, British judges and hosts to assume that they know enough to not just set the challenges, but judge them on their merits when they clearly have no idea what those merits are. It’s one thing to enjoy a milk bun or tres leches, but another thing entirely to know how they’re made, what makes them good, and how they could be better.
It’s not Hollywood and Leith’s fault that they don’t know every ounce of baking knowledge in the world. It should, however, be their responsibility to acknowledge as much instead of presenting themselves as total experts. At the very, bare minimum least, someone (anyone!) involved in the production could have done a Google search to confirm that tacos are not, as it turns out, the same thing as tortillas. It’s also, of course, incredibly insulting to dash off a recipe or give critiques on a delicacy with no basis in reality. Making a dish that’s not just revered within a culture, but loved for the memories and traditions it evokes, is as personal as it gets. Making of a joke of it by carelessly botching the execution isn’t a quirky good time; it’s deeply disrespectful of the “home is where the hearth is” ethos that supposedly makes this show what it is.
And yet: even after watching a hapless contestant try to peel an avocado like a potato for her “gwack-ee-molo,” I still, incredibly, came away from “Mexican Week” wishing that they’d try it again sometime. While retreating to the more familiar comforts of jammy dodgers and trifles would be much easier for “Baking Show” it’d be far more interesting if it truly committed to expanding its worldview in a more meaningful way than “Asians like matcha, right?” As much as the show pushes the myth that a handshake from Hollywood is the most discerning baking prize on the planet, it needs to acknowledge that Hollywood’s knowledge and skillset don’t always make the most complete package.
So if the team were to demonstrate that “Baking Show” actually cares about honoring all the cultures and varied baking styles across the globe, there’s an obvious solution that countless other food shows have adopted over the years when their permanent hosts can’t quite meet the brief. Why not invite guest judges who can better speak to the challenges at hand into the tent? Why not enlist actual Mexican and Japanese bakers into the tent to share their expertise and constructive critiques? A single new judge might not be able to do much about the show’s framing of the food and its history, but they could at least bring an informed perspective to the table. They could work with Leith and Hollywood to set challenges that make sense for the series, ensure that they get the details right, and use their own lived experiences of the food to contribute useful feedback.
If the show hasn’t tapped guest judges before now because of producing difficulties or egos, well…too bad. With a bigger platform, outsized success and more attention comes great responsibility to get things right beyond the basics. For as set in its ways as the show’s typically been, it’s simply gotten to the point where it needs to make room for other voices before it embarrasses itself any further.