Interview by Tabitha Blankenbiller
I, like the majority of Americans, discovered The Great British Bake-Off through the life-altering (and –sapping) magic of Netflix streaming. I binged through the first season (technically the fifth season in the UK) while fighting the AWPlague post-Los Angeles, a transformative experience I wrote about for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. I’ve watched the devolution of Food Network for all of my adult life, from the felt prop infancy of Good Eats through Rachael Ray’s hot dog casseroles and Sandra Lee’s infamous Kwanzaa Cake. My heart sank as the schedule shifted from shows that actually taught me how to cook like Giada’s early work, Ina Garten’s ceaseless unapologetic elegance and Mario Batali’s rich genius to focus on competitions that became more ludicrous with each passing season—a trend ushered in by the popularity of Chopped and leaving us now with Cupcake Wars, Cooks vs. Cons and the insufferable Cutthroat Kitchen. An allegory for so many 21st century educational properties, these were programs that trumped GIF-ready personality and sound bite performance over any culinary talent or insight.
They gave Haylie Duff a show.
I was done with cooking TV.
Until I gave The Great British Bake-Off a begrudging chance, knowing I could turn it off whenever the contestants, hosts and/or announcer’s voice grated my nerves down to dust.
The contrast between TGBBO and American food competitions cannot be overstated. The tone is endlessly cordial, and most often friendly. There are no reality TV cutaways to contestants proclaiming “I’m not here to make friends” or “I’m only here for that ten thousand dollars.” There are no sabotages being bid on or set up by UNReal-like producers. When someone begins to sink, a fellow contestant or host comes to their aid not to fan the flames, but extinguish them. It’s like they’re all human beings who share a passion and want to learn and grow together. Strange, foreign stuff indeed.
Instead of deciding which of a season’s cast you most love to hate, on The Great British Baking Show, it’s tough to pick a single favorite. Your heart plummets when Paul or Mary, the show’s judges and experts, announce that a cake has a “soggy bottom” or is “underbaked.” You truly want to see everyone enveloped in a hug and passed the star baker’s Sheriff badge.
But during Season 1/5, one contestant captured my feels the way no reality show cast member ever has. Martha Collison, the youngest competitor in the show’s history, who filmed TGBBO in between taking her high school entrance exams. She was everyone’s kid sister, except with a technical culinary knowledge and troubleshooting streak that most pros spend a lifetime without developing. When she won challenges she blushed; when she lost she teared up. A bit shy but easy to crack a smile, I couldn’t help falling for the default rookie underdog. When she was eliminated very late in the competition, I couldn’t hold back my own tears.
As you may have guessed, the now-grown-up Martha Collison is doing just fine. Her debut cookbook Twist: Creative Ideas to Reinvent Your Baking will be released from HarperCollins on July 14th, and she recently accepted a position as Afternoon Tea Advisor for Wimbledon, where she’s baking up special cakes for fancy people. And stateside fans of TGBBO are just fine as well, with a new season premiering on PBS July 1. Collison was kind enough to take a moment to grant a rabid fangirl wish and speak with me about her US-converting season of TGBBO for Barrelhouse, which has been edited for clarity.
BARRELHOUSE: The Great British Bake-Off is just starting to take off here in the states thanks to Netflix, but your season originally aired 2 years ago in 2014. Have you personally experienced an uptick in interest recently?
MARTHA COLLISON: It’s been kind of steady because they originally aired the series on PBS, but it was kind of low-key. But then all of a sudden, about a year or so on, it started back up again. It was really exciting actually to have people watching it for the first time but also quite funny because I was 17 at the time and I’m 19 now, so I’m afraid people will keep thinking I’m 17 forever.
BH: Have you ever watched American cooking challenges?
MC: I think I have. I think we get Cupcake Wars on some of our channels here in the UK and we get Iron Chef, is that one of them?
BH: Yeah. That’s one of the nicer ones as far as civility. That is I think why we’re all so enamored because it’s literally so mean-spirited here.
MC: More drama.
MC: I think with TGBBO especially, they encourage us to be friends with each other. We stay away for the weekend together, and they take us out to meals so we can get to know each other and properly support each other.
BH: Do you still keep in contact with anyone from the show?
MC: Yeah! Everyone from my series is together in a WhatsApp group.
BH: [Uncontrollable awww’s and cooing]
MC: In a group chat we talk to each other pretty much every single day, and anytime any one of us is doing something new and exciting, we all learn about it which is really nice.
BH: That’s so great—sort of like a support group.
MC: Yes, and it was great at the time while we were filming the show; it’s such a massive thing in Britain so it’s very secretive. While we were on it we weren’t allowed to tell anyone except our very close family, so we only had each other from when we started filming it until it aired. There were about three months where it was just us talking to each other about getting excited. Everyone was really pumped for it to come out.
BH: What were the weeks of filming like? You filmed on the weekend, and then you had the rest of the week free. Did you go home and bake 24 hours a day? Did you try not to think about it? You were at school during the same time, too.
MC: It was difficult because they kind of expect you to go back to your normal life and you have to put yourself in a different place where you go back. But the time between each session seemed so short, because sometimes they’d film a Friday and you’d have to come on a Thursday night, then you’d leave on a Sunday/come back on a Thursday with only three days in between, and some of the challenges are five or six hours long. There is just no time to practice, especially while I was at school and studying for my first-year exams. I couldn’t tell my friends what I was doing, so I just had to carry on but my brain was never there because I was always thinking about I was going to make for the next week!
Some people would go back to the retired and they would have all day to practice for three days, and then some people would go back to having 3 kids or having a very intensive job or whatever, and they couldn’t practice at all. So it was very much dependent.
BH: So those who were old and retired totally had an advantage.
MC: Kind of! I think it’s quite subjective because it depends on how good you are, but you had more time to practice and think about things. And you could tell most of the time with who was winning it who had the time. There were people from my series like Nancy, who ended up winning it, she was like “I made this tart 5 times!” and those of us like me and Richard who had busier lives were a bit more like “oh, I’ve made it once, if that.”
BH: I’ve looked at a picture. I’m feeling good about it.
MC: Yeah, it was like oh okay, I’ve made three of these eclairs. I should’ve practiced 36. We’ll just see how it goes.
BH: Did people notice that someone was amiss with you? Did your friends catch on that something might be going on with you leading a secret life?
MC: My very close friends figured out immediately because I went through auditions, which weren’t a secret, but at a certain point it became a secret and I disappeared every weekend. So. Natural progression. But it was really difficult because I missed church every Sunday for 8 weeks in a row, so my parents had to make up these weird lies about where I was, which was awkward.
BH: I have to ask, just because it was so strange to see Fridgegate [the incident where a contestant’s ice cream cake was mistakenly removed from the freezer by another and left on the counter to melt] because it didn’t seem super dramatic watching it. It seemed like a trick of editing, which is what I gathered.
MC: Yeah. I think they still try to create drama, but it’s to a smaller extent. When filming they might catch you making a grumpy face and then cut it into looking at someone else’s bake. Even if it’s not true, it looks really mean! So you have to be careful about that.
But the whole Fridgegate thing. I think it was just miscommunication and it was a hot day in Britain, which you wouldn’t really believe, but it was a really hot day and we were trying to make ice cream, which doesn’t go together well. So making ice cream outside on a hot day, and the freezers weren’t working for anyone, so they edited that episode very well to make the rest of our things look good. Mine had an absolutely massive crack in the middle but they panned around and didn’t mention it, and Chetna’s had meringue falling off it because it simply wouldn’t stay on. We were all having an absolute nightmare. And Ivan [the Fridgegate victim] is an amazing baker and hates putting out anything imperfect. If he’s not 100% happy he gets a little annoyed with himself. I think he regretted [throwing the whole cake in the rubbish bin] immediately afterwards.
BH: I could feel that. I think we all did.
MC: It was really sad! It was the first time anything major had happened, and then the week after that Diana [the cake remover] fell ill. Which was unfortunate because it looked like she’d kind of just left the competition because of what happened. It was really sad, like a little piece had been taken out of our family. But we powered through.
BH: Coming from the American School of Reality TV, all of our thoughts are like “oh my god! She left! She’s going to have a dramatic re-entrance in the penultimate episode!” While my husband and I were watching it I had to get on my phone and madly Google Guardian articles about what actually went down.
MC: It went crazy on the media, which is quite funny because at the time for us, while we were doing it, it was a big deal but it wasn’t THAT big of a deal. We were all over it by lunch time. Nobody really knew what happened and everyone was sad for Ian, but we moved on quite quickly. It was a joke almost. But it became such a thing to everyone else. There was a lot of Twitter hate for Diana, and people became very vicious and unfriendly. We felt horrible, and we were all getting kind of harassed by media trying to find out the truth behind it. When you think about it, the tininess of ice cream melting. In a tent. It just doesn’t seem significant. But suddenly the whole world is on to us.
BH: Oh yes. There is no insignificance in reality TV. So going back to your reality TV contestant origin story—you started baking as a kid, you were kind of experimenting in the kitchen?
MC: Yes, I started baking when I was about 8. I took on quite a few hobbies while I was growing up, and my parents thought this would be the same, but this one stuck. My parents are good at letting me have a go at things, so when I wanted to try out baking, they let me which many parents wouldn’t do because obviously it’s quite messy. I loved messing around with combinations and many of them were quite horrible.
BH: I used to do that. I used to try and make my own sauce, so I’d take every condiment in the refrigerator and mix it in a bowl.
MC: Thinking you’re going to come up with something magical!
BH: Right. Not quite. One of the things that came through in the series is your incredible technical knowledge. You were untangling these puzzles that people with years of experience on you got completely stumped by. Did you specifically study technique or is this a hands-on kind of talent of yours?
MC: I used to look forward to the technical challenges in the show, and everyone else hated them. But with the other challenges everyone could practice, but on the technical challenge it was something no one knew about, so everyone was in the same boat with following the recipe. And I loved doing that sort of thing, and they were the challenges I kind of did the best in. I think I’m a bit of a food geek, really. I’ve accumulated a strange amount of technical knowledge for a 17-year-old. I also had quite a number of food classes growing up, so I was constantly learning different techniques, which were really helpful.
BH: Ah, okay. So you actually get to take cooking classes in school?
MC: Yeah, from the ages of 12 to 15 we have an hour at school where one of our lessons is about food and cooking. I took it further as a later elective and got to research different pastries and things. I loved that. It was just my hobby.
BH: I’m totally jealous. I had a choice of band, or other band.
MC: It was brilliant! We get educated on things like textiles and sewing just like math and English. You end up with something truly practical.
BH: So the prize for TGBBO. Is it…just the cake stand?
MC: It is! Everyone is so surprised and thinks there must be some secret cash, but all we really get is a bunch of flowers and a cake stand. But then, you also kind of become a national treasure just by doing it because everyone in Britain loves the bake off so much. People last year watched the bake off more than they watched the finals of the World Cup, which is crazy. To think that one in every six people in the UK have seen me baking was really weird, and it became strange to go out on trains, and shopping, and have strangers tell me things like “that was a great pudding” or “what a nice meringue.”
BH: Do you have a standout story of being recognized?
MC: One of the weirdest ones was when I was skiing with my family in Austria. I wasn’t even in England. I was wearing head-to-toe helmet, goggles, full ski kit. And as I was standing waiting for the lift I was talking to my sister, and this family behind us was like, “were you on the Bake Off?” We were in the middle of nowhere where most people don’t even speak English, and it was so strange. Then there are the people who move to sit next to me on trains so they can talk for an hour or so.
BH: Umm. That’s creepy.
MC: Strange! And quite long. I didn’t know sometimes if they’d get off or not, and they’d start to gather a bigger crowd. They’d get on the train and wonder what was going on, then sit down and join in the conversation.
BH: Oh my gosh, so they just don’t let you off the train?
MC: It was really manic for a couple of months. Every time you’d go out, someone would say or do something. I had to be very aware of what I was doing—always smiling and looking nice! Don’t want to get a bad reputation.
BH: If you ever come here, you can just be a terror, because the worse you are the more famous you get.
MC: Oh that’s awful!
BH: Yeah, just go ahead and lick some donuts. Go crazy. Speaking of tastes, what was your favorite bake from another contestant that you got to try?
MC: My favorite bake, and one I always remember, is from when I went out on the Donut Week and I went back to our little baker room where we have our lunch and such, and all the other bakers were briefed on what the final week would be and I was put in this room with all the donuts. So I was like, well if I’m going out, I may as well enjoy myself! So, Richard’s donuts. They were rhubarb and custard. And they were just the best thing I ever tasted.
BH: Your cookbook’s coming out in July.
MC: That’s definitely the most exciting thing I’ve done since the show! I never would have dreamed that I would a write a book.
BH: Did you write the book with no ghostwriter?
MC: Every single word is my own! All the recipes, quite intensive, but I’m really proud of it now of the hours and three months of solid writing. It’s so cool to have something physical that’s all my favorite recipes! Whenever I need one of them I know where to go!
BH: Yes! That’s me and my Pinterest board. Someday, cookbook. Did you do much writing before the cookbook, or is this one of your first experiences?
MC: I used to have a food blog, so it’s one of my passions and one of the things that probably got me onto the show in the first place. I had a very low-key teenage place where I could talk about cooking or baking or whatever. It becomes a big step, going from following other people’s recipes to writing one!
BH: What was the audition process like?
MC: I applied online, and it was due around Christmas. I was procrastinating on my exams, so I thought I’d just fill out this application.
BH: Oh look! You’re already a natural writer.
MC: So I submitted the application and didn’t hear anything back on it, then I had a rubbish couple of weeks. I failed the exams and my driving test at the same time, but that same day my father gave me a call and said, “Martha, there’s people on the phone that say they’re with the BBC and they want to talk with you about a bake off.” And all of a sudden it was the best day ever!
I had to take a sweet and savory bake to a physical audition, so I made this mint chocolate macaron cake and a cheese and fig loaf, and they tried it which was a bit nerve wracking. It wasn’t until I met some of the other people auditioning there that I found out how very big it was. They didn’t say officially, but there may have been up to 40,000 people trying to get on the show.
BH: Oh my god, that’s crazy.
MC: I know! You just never, ever dream it can be, because I kind of grew up watching it. I was quite a bit younger during the first season, watching it every year and falling in love with it, so to me it was exciting to even be part of an audition. Then there were a few more rounds of making sure we would be okay with the cameras, and a psychotherapist to see if we’d handle the stress and cope with everything properly, which was nice of them to do. Then there was a phone interview where researchers called me up to make sure that I actually cared about baking.
BH: How does an investigator find out that you really, truly love to bake?
MC: They asked a few questions to make sure you weren’t one of the people going in for the wrong reasons. They’d ask questions like “oh I’ve got flour, milk, eggs, this and that, what am I making?” And I’d have to say, “oh that’s scones.” Then I’d have to give them the method for how I’d make them a scone. Then they’d want to know “what are the optimal conditions for bread to rise?” Only a true baking geek knows things like that! It was all very friendly, though. Everyone involved and the crew was so very nice.
BH: I read there were usually about 50 crew members working in that little tent.
MC: Probably more! It was mental. It was packed with home economists and food researchers and cameramen, all going on in the middle of the tent, so we wouldn’t even be able to see the bakery at the other side of the tent!
BH: Has the show’s popularity made home baking more popular in Britain?
MC: Baking is HUGE now. Bake sales are massive, which is kind of nice because at the moment there’s another kind of trend that’s “clean eating,” which is all about not eating carbohydrates or sugar. It goes very counter to that trend, with all sugar and all fat. It’s quite nice that it’s still a big deal despite the health craze.
BH: We definitely have the gluten free, clean eating crap here in America. So please, keep exporting your bakes!
MC: It’s nice! It brings the fun. I think the show really encompasses how it’s all about fun and family and that sharing what you’ve made with other people instead of just about wellness. It’s about enjoyment.
BH: You’re not going to win a million dollars, you’re just going to have a very fulfilling time and make friends.
MC: Yes! Make friends, have a great time, and get to be on the nation’s most loved TV show.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a Pacific University MFA graduate living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in a number of journals including The Rumpus, The Establishment, Electric Lit, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Brevity. Her debut book “Eats of Eden,” a collection of essays and recipes, is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in Fall 2017. You’ll find her posting food pictures and writerly missives on Twitter @tabithablanken. Her baking white whale is black forest cake.