Betsy Martin looks out at the contestants for the first time. The rows of baking tables are staggered slightly so that from the front she can see each of their faces. They wear identical half smiles to mask their nerves. Each one of them is completely distinct, but she still has trouble telling them apart. It’s always like this at the beginning of filming before their individual personalities crystallize, before the cracks and eccentricities start to shine through. Everyone starts out almost the same, all on their very best behavior for the cameras, but it won’t take long for a bit of adversity and competition to bring out their true personas. Of course, for one of them it will be too late. Betsy likes to make a little wager with herself about who will go home first. She scans the contestants.
Up front there’s Hannah, from the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota. She’s very pretty and very young—there’s always at least one of those, the producers make sure of it. Likely talented as well, someone like her must be or they’ll look like they are just chosen for show. Across from her, Gerald from the Bronx looks stiff and uncomfortable in another linen suit. His fastidiousness may be his downfall in the future, but not today. In the next row is Peter, who is from nearby New Hampshire. With his plaid shirts, he reminds her of a small, handsome Paul Bunyan. His relaxed confidence makes her think he will do well with challenges and be a good baker as well. Next to him is Stella from Brooklyn, a thirtysomething former journalist who is by all accounts extremely new to baking, not having baked a single cake until this year. It will be interesting to see how she fares. The final row is Pradyumna, a stylish entrepreneur who lives in Boston, and Lottie, an older woman who lives in Rhode Island and, if experience with others like her is any indication, will likely blow her competition out of the water at the beginning and then fizzle out. The older contestants just don’t have the stamina, she thinks harshly. For the moment Betsy’s money is on Stella going home first. You do not simply teach yourself to bake and then win Bake Week all in one year. Next to her, Archie Morris rubs his palms together, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet as though he is waiting to start a race.
It is Betsy’s first time sharing the front of the tent, ever. She doesn’t like it one bit. It had been a shock to her when the producers suggested Archie Morris as the cohost of Bake Week. For the last nine years she has been the only one behind the judging table, the sole anchor and mascot of the show. The very concept of Bake Week was hers, after all. The idea came to her over twelve years ago. She’d just finished her sixth cookbook and wanted to try something different, when her agent Francis had gotten a call from the producers of a new streaming service. The people at Flixer were looking for new programing, and they’d wondered about Betsy’s interest in repackaging her old cooking show. She’d mulled it over. Back when her husband was around, the idea of filming a show at Grafton would never have flown. He’d hated her celebrity and found the idea of televised baking to be a “supreme bore.” He may as well have been describing himself. But it had been six years since her divorce from Roland Martin. Grafton Manor needed repairs, and this could help pay for them, she told herself. The idea of making the show a competition had hit her like a bolt of lightning. Back then the concept was fairly novel. But this wouldn’t be just any competition. Betsy’s show would be gentle, with a focus on the craft, not a bunch of runaway egos forced to bake things you’d never even want to eat, as was so often the case with these things. And most importantly, it would be held at Grafton Manor, Betsy’s childhood home. Archie Morris is known for hosting a very different style of show.
Betsy had watched only one episode of The Cutting Board and was not impressed. It was the polar opposite of Bake Week, a macho, cutthroat competition where the contestants rushed around in a mad panic insulting and undercutting each other along the way. If Archie was anything less than thrilled with their finished dishes, he would push their plates away in disgust and unleash a torrent of abuse. It would be ridiculous, Betsy thought, to make something like baking into a sort of martial art. She was positive that Archie did not have in him what made Bake Week so special. To be a good host in her eyes, you need to show you have the right combination of humility and nurturing—two qualities that brash Archie Morris is not known for. When the suggestion of adding him as a cohost first came up, she had set up a meeting with her producers and voiced these concerns. She had expected the idea of Archie Morris to be dropped immediately and for them to, at the very least, suggest other more suitable cohosts.
But later that day she’d gotten a call from Francis. He told her that despite her position on the matter, they’d hired Archie. The show needed “livening up,” they’d said. She’d taken that as code for what they were really trying to say: she’d gotten too old, and they were worried she could no longer carry one of Flixer’s most streamed shows alone. To add insult to injury, the producers had demanded that Archie stay with her in a guest suite in the East Wing of Grafton. “They want to keep the judges and the contestants separate,” Francis had relayed to her. “Then let him stay in a hotel,” Betsy had shot back, only to be on the receiving end of that look, the one he gives her when she’s said something particularly difficult that he prays she won’t say to anyone else.
So, she’d tried to accept Archie Morris as gracefully as possible. At least on the surface. Besides, she knew she had no choice. She needed the money the show brought in to keep the manor running. Without Bake Week, what would keep Grafton afloat? Her cookbook royalties weren’t enough to keep a full manor house alive. Much like herself, an older building must be maintained in order to function properly. There is always something that needs looking into, repairs both small and large to contend with. Along with the aesthetic work—it was unending—there was always a room that needed painting, a floor refinishing. She couldn’t hope to keep up without the money from the studio. Aging is not for the weak. Or the poor. Betsy had swallowed her pride and hoped for the best, even though she did not think he was the right fit. Both of them—Grafton and her—would have to endure Archie Morris to survive. Melanie signals from the back of the tent as the camerapeople make their final adjustments.
Watching the bakers come into themselves is one of the joys of Bake Week, something that sets it apart from other cooking shows where some angry chef barks out insults and orders. At Bake Week, the goal was not just to win, not just to bake well, but to be human in the process. That is what makes compelling television programming. That is what makes viewers tune in in droves. Not to see how fast you can make a blini while someone barks out the seconds left on a ticking clock. It was one of the tenets Betsy had insisted on when she created this show over a decade ago, that it be truly inclusive. And so far, it has been. She credits Bake Week’s massive success to the way it treats people. No yelling, no scolding, just good-natured competition and respectful defeat. Father would have appreciated that part. You must know how to lose, and to learn when you lose, he’d always told her. It’s the only way you can come back to win. She pulls an index card out of her pocket and cups it in the palm of her hand one last time before the cameras start to roll.
Archie has no notecard with names to memorize. In fact, he’d pushed her arm away when she’d tried to give him one the day before. “Don’t need it.” He’d tapped smugly at the crown of his head and winked. God, she’d wanted to stab him with a cake tester, but she breathed deeply and tried to let it pass, focusing instead on the indisputable knowledge that this is her show.
She can feel the irritation begin to well up again as he starts to work the bakers like the warm-up act at a bad stand-up club. He ambles from table to table, chatting with Hannah and gently poking fun of Gerald’s lovely suit, palling around with Peter and Pradyumna. She watches as each contestant he speaks to melts under the gooey warmth of his attention. Disgusting. Finally, having made a full round, he comes back around to the front, giving her a cocky little wink as he takes his place next to her, a bit too close, as though he might be trying to inch her to the side of the screen. His head is truly too large in size, like an overfilled balloon.
She looks to the side of the tent where Melanie confers with several of the crew. She points to something on her clipboard, appearing to scold a young woman holding the boom mic. The girl’s face falls, and Betsy wonders if she needs to speak with Melanie about her manner. She’s noticed a change in the last few seasons that coincided with her climbing rank. Her look has become more intimidating, much more polished and put together. Melanie has always been a bit of a perfectionist, which Betsy appreciates, but sometimes that tendency has her veering a bit too close to control freak for Betsy’s comfort. Betsy inspects a gold button on her jacket. They are already a half an hour behind schedule. Time to get started already.
Then a signal finally comes from Melanie. Filming is about to begin. The glow of the lights is familiar on her face, and she steps into them, embracing their warmth. She raises her arms, a gesture welcoming the bakers to the tent and, if she’s judged the cameras correctly, blocking Archie’s face from the shot entirely.
From THE GOLDEN SPOON. Used with the permission of the publisher, Atria. Copyright © 2023 by Jessa Maxwell.