Welcome, everyone, to the very last episode of 2019! As we head into the new year, all of us here at the The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition wish to extend our thanks for your continued enthusiasm for our little endeavor. Now, without further ado, we give you Friendsgiving!
I had an ear infection on Friendsgiving. Before we get into the meat of this week’s competition, it’s necessary for me to illustrate to you exactly how sick I was. I have never had an ear infection as an adult, so, despite that my ear had been bugging me for days, I didn’t recognize it for what it was. I got ear infections every year as a kid, but they never hurt. They were more of a nagging nuisance I got once or twice around the holidays, then forgot about. So it was to my great surprise that, at exactly 6:02 AM on Friendsgiving Day, I awoke with a piercing pain in my left ear. All hearing in that ear was gone, and in it’s place was an unending, high pitched dial tone, like someone had lifted the receiver to my brain and forgot to hang up. The pressure was indescribable. Concentration was impossible. I consumed unhealthy doses of every kind of over the counter pain medication and anti-inflammatory I had, which did absolutely nothing to dull the roaring pain in my ear. It was excruciating. I’ve never before experienced pain quite like, and I hope never to again.
The drive to the pharmacy for more drugs was harrowing. I could barely focus on the road. I was in constant motion, my body instinctually seeking escape from the pain. It was a Herculean task to simply stay in my lane, and absolutely impossible to regulate my speed in time with other traffic. I nearly hit cars in front of me so often that I stopped being alarmed by it. Space cushions did not exist for me; I either stopped dozens of yards behind other cars, or inches. I had almost no control. And the pain was so all-consuming that it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be driving. All I could think of, all my entire will was bent on, was making it stop. By the time I got to the pharmacy I had already started to make a mental list of places I could either buy or steal a syringe. Used, unused, clean, dirty; it didn’t matter to me. If medication failed, I was going to pierce my own eardrum to release the pressure. That’s where I was with the level of pain. I was going to voluntarily rupture my own eardrum, and I was eager, desperate even, to do it.
I didn’t know the Little Clinics attached to Kroger pharmacies were open on Sundays. In fact, I had assumed no medical professionals other than hospital staff would be on the clock on a Sunday so close to Christmas. So when I saw the nurse there, I was… I don’t know what to call it. I was in far too much agony to call it ‘relieved,’ but something akin. Cautiously hopeful, maybe. In any case, I reasoned that surely a medical professional could pierce my eardrum in a manner that would cause less permanent hearing loss that I could, and the pain would finally end. That was as far as I could think at the time: just make it stop NOW.
As if all this weren’t enough, I was shaking. A combination of low blood sugar and a frankly dangerous amount of over the counter painkillers on my empty stomach was problematic. While I was waiting to be seen, I shambled to the deli pizza counter and ordered a slice. The aroma of pizza failed to entice me, which I should have noted, but my mind was elsewhere. Eat enough food to avoid passing out so the ear can be fixed. That was my only goal.
I sat down to eat and immediately realized I could not taste the pizza. I don’t mean to imply the pizza was tasteless, I’m saying there was no sensation of taste whatsoever. No salt, no sweet, even the stinging heat of the freshly baked cheese was barely coming through. Only the wholly unsatisfying textures identified the substances in my mouth as food. It was a joyless meal, but as I chewed, the combination of heat and mechanical agitation did what I thought only medicine or sharp metal could; the block in my eustachian tube broke free, and the pain stopped. I had only a second or two to enjoy it before I nearly passed out from the relief. As I gripped the edges of the table to steady myself, every pore of my body opened up and I dumped sweat like a submarine expelling ballast. I was soaked and dizzied to near vertigo. I didn’t care. The pain was gone. That was all that mattered. Contented exhaustion consumed me, and I was overcome by a sense of floating, distant involvement. That feeling of disconnection would stay with me on and off for nearly two weeks. I took one last bite of pizza, and that’s when I noticed my sense of smell was gone.
A total simultaneous loss of both taste and smell has only happened to me one other time in my life, when I was intensely ill. I knew it meant I was severely sick, much worse off than I had realized. The nurse would soon confirm this as she shined her light in my ear and gave the most disturbing diagnosis I’ve ever gotten. She backed away, put her hands up like I had pulled a gun on her, and said with shock and revulsion, “WHOA! Oh, yeah! YOU are infected!” That’s exactly how she put it. Not my ear was infected. ME. In her defense, she wasn’t wrong. The cocktail of antibiotics, steroids, and whatever the hell else she prescribed worked quickly, but only added to my microbe induced body high. I’m not sure I understand why recreational drug users enjoy that sensation. I quite enjoy most of my own thoughts, and I absolutely rely on trustworthy sensory input. The germs and pills deprived me of both.
I should have gone to bed, that much is clear now. But, as I hope I have illustrated, I was not in my right mind. Dan’s house was closer than my house, I reasoned, so I should go there. It was faulty, short-term thinking, but it was all I was capable of. The sweat was really pouring at this point, and, despite being late December, I got in my car, cranked the AC as high as it would go, rolled down my windows, and went to Friendsgiving, where I would run the risk of infecting some of the people I love most in the world. They’re so lucky to have me.
I was somewhere around Aosta, on the edge of the suburbs, when the drugs began to take hold. The one purely lucid thought that managed to cross my mind before I left the clinic was, “You should not touch people’s food today.” Obviously cooking without the benefit of taste and smell would be difficult, but I almost certainly would have passed along my sickness. I explained this when I got there, but I don’t remember the response. I don’t remember much of anything before dinner. I was sitting under the living room fan, and periodically I would sort of come back online for a few moments and notice it was getting darker in the room. I have no idea how long I sat there. It was either a couple of hours or about a month and a half. Or possibly four minutes. I remember speaking with people. At one point I turned my head and Dan and Mandy’s neighbor Sophia had materialized. She has joined us before for dinner, but this time she brought along her husband. I thought his name was Chris, but then I thought I heard someone refer to him as John. My brain really didn’t record his name. We’ll call him ChrisJohn.
When I was finally roused for dinner, I saw that, much like Arlo Guthrie’s Alice, Mandy had made a Friendsgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. The table was loaded with every traditional holiday side you could want, including her mashed potatoes, which put all other mashed potatoes to shame. Sincerely, if Dan hadn’t gotten there first, I would have proposed to Mandy the instant I tasted her mashed potatoes. No dating, no courtship, just straight to marriage. That’s how strong her potato game is. She even brined the Friendsgiving turkey, which she had never tried before. Each bite was more tender than the last, and it was so juicy that I could have eaten my whole meal and not touched my drink. There is a reason Mandy wins these competitions so often. She is a beast in the kitchen. I’ve never in my life had turkey with a mouthfeel so like professionally prepared rabbit, but as juicy as a butter-injected chicken breast, and the thing I noticed most was that I COULDN’T TASTE ANY OF IT. I couldn’t SMELL any of it. I couldn’t even hear half the conversation because of the incessant ringing in my left ear. If I had been more clearheaded I would have been pissed. As it was, I just accepted my private sensory deprivation and slogged through the meal.
It is thoroughly disheartening to sit down to as beautiful a meal as Mandy served and be able to neither smell nor taste it. Likewise, when these very attractive desserts were placed before us, I may as well have been looking at a magazine. Look at them: each one is gorgeous! Based on presentation alone, I would be unable to pick a winner. Please believe me when I tell you the photos do them no justice. These were BEAUTIFUL. When I saw them I was secretly relieved I wasn’t competing, because I don’t think I could have made anything as pretty. You’ve seen my canapés. Presentation is not my strong suit.
As enjoyable as it was to admire their creations, Dan, Mandy, and Mark were there to compete. I tried to recuse myself as a judge but they weren’t having it. I thought the fact that I couldn’t smell or taste the food in a cooking competition was a pretty strong argument for my exclusion, but I was unanimously overruled. I still don’t understand their reasoning, but somehow it was determined then and there that Whosoever Eats The Bakes Shall Be Required To Judge The Bakes. So mote it be.
First up we were treated to Dan’s scrumptious looking Pear Clafoutis. This one really stung. In his high school and college years, Dan cemented for himself a reputation of reckless disregard in his eating habits. He only recognized two food groups: fried foods, and food that should be fried but weren’t. Any vegetable matter besides flour, cocoa solids, and peanut butter were automatically excluded, as were any non-carbonated beverages. I once witnessed him salt a pizza until there was a visible crystalline sheen on the surface. It crunched when he bit into it, and he followed it with two more similarly treated slices. Fruits fell under the vegetation ban, except for a very few varieties, which were only acceptable in the form of syrups or jellies. Mark and I have often wondered how he’s still alive.
But look at him now! He’s chopping fresh herbs, stewing vegetables like an old pro, and actually making desserts out of whole fruits. Dan’s transformation in this competition is a source of neverending astonishment for Mark and I. I used to suspect that if Dan ever touched a leafy green he would just wither and die on the spot, but now he’s making things we’ve never even heard of. Just look at the subtle caramelization on this beauty! I love pears, and I would have given nearly anything to taste this. I didn’t notice anything odd about the texture, but there were complaints from around the table that his custard was off. Too “eggy,” I believe they said. Well, since the competition, I’ve researched what a clafoutis is, and the custard is not supposed to be creamy. It’s supposed to be more like flan, which has a bit of jiggle to it. I’m starting to suspect that Dan actually got this just right, and we just didn’t understand what it was supposed to be. Of course this is all just speculation, since I couldn’t actually taste the thing. But, yeah, this one hurt. This is the one I really wish I’d experienced.
We’ve heard Mark complain many times (after his many, many losses) that no one has a sensitive enough palate to appreciate his food. In fact, the opposite is true. Mark’s sense of taste appears to be deadened to such a degree that, in order to taste his own food, he will sometimes overuse strong flavors to the point that his dishes are offensive. He is, on occasion, the culinary equivalent of the guy who doesn’t care what the song sounds like as long as it’s played as loudly as possible. Mark also often fails to name his dishes, which means that the person doing the writeups – me! – gets to decide what to call them. This provides me with no end of amusement, because I get to name Mark’s dishes after the very worst qualities of both his food and his behavior. For example, what Mark served to us for Friendsgiving dessert can, in my estimation, only accurately be called his Poison Cranberry Deathtart. I know it sounds like I’m being mean to Mark, but that’s just because that’s exactly what I’m doing. In truth, I love Mark dearly, and surprisingly enough his penchant for creating nigh inedible foodstuffs came in quite handy for me this time.
As hard as it was for me to believe, the Poison Cranberry Deathtart was even prettier when it was cut. Look at this thing! That’s worthy of a magazine cover. But I was resigned to disappointment. I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, and, sure enough, when I took a bite I got nothing. Just more textures and a complete lack of flavor. However, if it hadn’t been for my inability to taste, I probably wouldn’t have looked around the table at that precise moment, and I would have missed the most enjoyable food reaction I have ever seen.
One by one, everyone around the table paused in mid-chew. Forks hovered as their owners’ brains stopped all other bodily activity and switched to full-on survival triage mode. I could tell by the widening of the eyes and the look of growing concern on the faces of everyone there that something was terribly wrong. These weren’t looks of disgust, I want to be very clear about that. These were far more urgent than any common reactions of distaste. No, these were the faces of people who were quickly taking stock of what was in their mouths out of genuine concern they had eaten something that might kill them. As a unit, nearly everyone reached for a glass to wash down whatever that had so offended, perhaps even injured, their tongues.
And then I felt it.
It wasn’t much. Piercing through my hideous infection like a tiny, lone matchlight in the dark, was a twinge. It grew. Not a great deal, to be sure, but grow it did. It was acidic, that much was certain, and sour. And then I got the fruitiness and fresh astringency of cranberry. I was tasting! It was a distant sensation, nothing at all like normal, but it was real and I could taste it! I was so happy! But in that moment of elation came a horrible realization. If Mark’s food was powerful enough to burn through the worst infection I have ever had and allow me to taste when my chemoreceptors were effectively switched off, then what must it be like to people who have the full faculty of healthy tastebuds? The answer was clear. Forks were lowered with worried care. Eyes darted about the table, searching for solace among the other victims of Mark’s madness. Sophia, if I recall correctly, actually clutched her hand to her chest, as if concerned the assault on her palate might stop her heart. Mark had created something truly terrible.
No one spoke. The addition of the new couple had rendered our blunt, familial honesty impotent, and our willingness to candidly discuss the catastrophe was lost behind a façade of civility. No one knew what to say. No one except for me, that is. I’m not certain of my exact wording because I was deep in the grip of some powerful pharmaceuticals, but to the best of my recollection I blurted out, “Holy shit, I can taste this!”
I tucked in, as the British would say. I gripped my fork like a Viking gripping his axe, and I attacked that tart like it was the last food on Earth. The sensation wasn’t long lived; even Mark’s semi-lethal pastry could only do so much against the armada of microbes trying to kill me from within. But Mark had weaponized dessert, and I turned that weapon against my enemies. Thank you, Mark! I couldn’t taste anything else that night. I couldn’t taste anything the next day. Christmas dinner was a mélange of faraway flavors, mere suggestions of food, like echoes on the wind. The infection would plague me until the New Year. I could have swallowed a mouthful of Peruvian fire ants and felt nothing. But that night, 22 December 2019, Mark’s Poison Cranberry Deathtart broke through my enemy’s lines and provided me with the only flavor I would know for days. I have no doubt that without the infection the tart would have been unbearable; the others had made that abundantly clear. But I savored it! There, on the war-torn front my sickness, Mark’s Poison Cranberry Deathtart was my battlefield angel, and Mark got my vote for Star Baker. Did he deserve it? Of course not. The tart was horrible, anyone could see that. But if I were to have any integrity whatsoever as a judge, what choice did I have? It was the only thing I could taste.
It took a few moments for the group to recover from the assault they had endured at the hands of Mark’s confectionery abomination. Throats were cleared, tears were dabbed, and an awkward silence settled upon our scene of shared trauma. Melancholy pervaded, and I felt pity for my fellow diners as I watched them each, in the privacy of their own thoughts, search for ways to cope with the scars left by that cranberry filled Frankenstein’s monster. I had not suffered as they had, but even in the haze of my floaty, waking fever dream, I could identify the spectre in the room. Mark remained among us, unapologetic and brazen, like a Nazi oberführer who had decided to sit down and take a meal with the Jews he had just tortured. It was uncomfortable. I did not care for it.
Mandy soon soothed the tension, however, with her gorgeous Apple Spice Cake. I love apples. I love spice cake. I love apple flavored pastry. But most of all I love upside-down cakes. There is no other method, at least none that I have ever found, to capture 100% of the essence of a fruit in a cake. Not only that, but using the upside-down method allows even the most amateur of cooks to create a baked-on caramelized glaze that, thanks to the moistness of the fruit, resists burning. Mandy’s cake had it all. I was desperately hoping that some of the antiseptic biotoxins from Mark’s bake were still lingering in my body, and would allow me to savor the smallest morsel of this beauty. But no.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The cake was light and airy, but I may as well have been chewing on a wad of cotton batting. No flavor whatsoever. Everone else seemed to like it. I could feel the telltale stickiness between my teeth confirming that Mandy had attained the toffee-esque quality unique to upside-down cakes, where the marriage of sugary glaze and scalding hot butter create a pastry both fried and candied, both moist and crisp. I knew the sponge held that mouthwatering nuttiness of browned butter that comes only when you get these cakes just right. And I was keenly aware, above all, that I was missing it.
In the end Mandy won Star Baker, which was her third striaght win in a row. At least I think she did. I was pretty loopy by that point, so nothing is for sure. I do remember that, in what I still beleive to be a purely political move designed to curry favor with the group, ChrisJohn cast a blantantly disingenuous vote for Mark’s horror show of a bake. What the hell ever. Everyone knows you hated it; it tasted like the metaphysical distillation of pure evil. Want to know the flavor of genocide? Poison Cranberry Deathtart. Don’t even pretend you enjoyed that thing.
I think everyone else voted for Mandy, but the later the evening got, the more the infection and medications took their toll on me. I recall eating dessert, but the next thing I remember I was somehow suddenly on the other side of the room, deep into a conversation with ChrisJohn about either the quality of service at Urgent Care clinics (which I’ve never been to), or my disappointment with the last Star Wars movie (which I’d never seen). My brain was clearly not to be trusted. In any case, I’m going to go ahead and say absolutely, yes, definitely, Mandy won as the final Star Baker of 2019! I’m sure she earned it, but I’m still a little bitter that I will never really know for sure. Even now, I’m still realizing just how much of the Christmas holiday I missed in the fog of infirmity. Turns out adult ear infections are no joke, my friends. Keep yourself healthy, and be sure to tune in next time for our first challenge of 2020, as we get back to basics with Meat & Potatoes Week!
Oh, before I go I need to talk about this picture of what appears to be a mostly eaten chocolate chip brownie among the other entries. I was clearly out of my mind, because I don’t remember this being present at Friendsgiving dinner. But I obviously took a picture of it, so it must have been there. I’m going to go ahead and assume that Sophia made this. I’m also going to assume I’m the one that ate it. And let’s just say it was delicious. Why the hell not? My brain wasn’t recording this portion of the evening, so I can make anything of it I like. Let’s say Sophia made the best chocolate chip brownie any of us had ever tasted, and it made all of our Christmases merry and bright, and it cured my club foot, and it brought all of our childhood pets back to life. God bless us, every one!
Until next time, bon appétit!