On air for over 12 years, “The Great British Baking Show” (known as “The Great British Bake-Off” outside of the United States) has been a wholesome staple in British households – and increasingly across international borders. Every season begins with 12 contestants, making a home out of a white tent donning garlands of the Union Jack flag. Two announcers, currently Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas, are always on hand, throwing baking puns and comedic commentary into the tent to keep up the British banter within the anxiety-ridden bakers working through a deadline.
But, a recent episode plainly titled “Mexican Week” crumbled like cake with many culturally-inappropriate stereotypes about Mexico. During the interview segments, the camera filmed Kevin Flynn, the Scottish contestant, who cluelessly declared: “Mexican food’s fun, but Mexican baking? What do Mexicans bake?” As a Mexican girl and a lover of all things “The Great British Bake-Off,” it was absolutely heartbreaking to bear witness to the lawless Mexican Week from Series 13.
But I’m also Jewish, so this is not the first time I’ve been disappointed by the show’s cultural insensitivity. Seasons past, “The Great British Bake-Off” failed to announce the Jewish history behind bagels and referred to what was clearly challah as “plaited bread.” The programming has also further removed its old segment of diving into the histories of the dishes the contestants will be baking, making it more difficult for the viewership from all over the world to learn about the origins of these cultural confections.
During World War II, my Swedish-Jewish Mormor worked in Sweden’s oldest bakery and confectionery, Sundbergs Konditori, when she met my grandfather, a Mexican soldier for the Allies. He proposed to her before asking her to move to Mexico. Mormor Corinne, lovingly nicknamed “Concha” after the pan dulce, left behind a comfortable life in Stockholm to raise her family in Mexico City. While in Mexico, she held onto her two cultures, plus further enriched her life with her Mexican citizenship. Mormor filled our lives (and bellies) with Semla-inspired challah, Oaxacan chocolate babka and Swedish honey with Mexican-cropped apples for Rosh Hashanah.
To have a popular show rip apart two cultures I belong to — my Mexican and Jewish heritages — across their “cultural” weeks extracted a heavy disappointment in me because, to this day, we still struggle with visibility.
So what exactly did they get wrong?
For “Mexican Week,” it started immediately, with the introduction. The camera cuts to the lush greenscape of the grounds of Welford Park in Berkshire, where Fielding and Lucas stand in the center, both of whom sport colorfully woven sombreros and fringed serapes. The chances of a tourist visiting Mexico and being lost in a sea of locals wearing sombreros and serapes is slim to none. Serapes, with their colorfully designed textile, belonged to working-class men in search of inexpensive ware to protect the body from the elements. Its origin can be traced back to the Chichimecs people of Coahuila, a northeastern state in Mexico; Saltillo is the capital of Coahuila, and it is now a textile hub for the cultural creation of serapes. Although the serape is not indigenous to Mexico, it consists of a textile tradition that developed in the country during the colonial period. Like the serape, the exact origin of the Mexican sombrero is also unknown, but it is believed to have originated with Mestizo cowboys in Central Mexico; the wide brim of the hats gave allowance to its wearers to protect themselves from the sunny climate. Truly, the serape and sombrero, although they exemplify a role in the history of cultural attire, are not typical and fairly unrepresentative to the whole of the Mexican population.
To make an already uncomfortable matter worse with poor clothing choice, the announcers then dive into further ignorant territory: making a “Juan” joke. Noel states: “I don’t feel we should make Mexican jokes, people will get upset.” Noel seems to have foreshadowed this episode’s backlash, as he knew the dangers and insensitivities in setting up a terrible punch-line joke, but his blasé attitude in letting Matt continue onward to make it (and even repeating the punchline himself again) is infuriating. “What, not even Juan?” Matt asks. “Not even Juan,” Noel replies.
From there it doesn’t get much better.
There are conchas molded into what is believed to represent Mexico: cacti and corn. There is Noel pronouncing “besos” like Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezo’s surname. And in a bizarre twist, Paul Hollywood eschewed the wide array of Mexican desserts and confections for a technical challenge of… asada tacos, no baking required.
As if it could get any worse, Paul pronounced pico de gallo so horridly I felt my computer speaker break down. A few scenes later, in the midst of the competition, Carole, all purple hair in view, slices the skin of an avocado with a serrated knife like one might peel a potato and proceeds to pronounce guacamole like “glock-ee-mole-oh.”
Top it all off with the showstopper challenge featuring Sandro’s tiered tres leches cake (something that is actually impossible to make because the cake is soaked with three milks and not sustainable for tiers) featuring a giant black mustache because… well, I really don’t know what he was thinking with that.
The only actual showstopper this episode had was witnessing how the United Kingdom sees Mexico and what it has to offer.
While I once may have wished for the show to take on a “Jewish Week,” I fear for how that would actually turn out: Would the hosts where yarmulkes and tallit in their introduction? Perhaps clipping in payot-like sideburns or tying a gartel around their waist? Would Jewish food be reduced down to the most basic of Ashkenazi staples? And how on earth would they pronounce sufganiyot?
Considering Hollywood once published a cookbook misspelling challah as “cholla” and calling it a loaf that is traditionally served at Passover, I am now actually begging the producers of “The Great British Bake-Off” to leave the other side of my cultural heritage alone.