Food & Drink

How I Got Through Chemo With 'The Great British Bake Off'

Published On 01/05/2017 Published On 01/05/2017
the great british bake off
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Twice in my life baking has become an obsession. The first time, my jaw was wired shut after a car accident flaked my eye socket, cheek, and jawbone, splintering them apart finely enough to sprinkle over a bakewell tart. Unable to eat solid food for two months, I was so hungry that fast-food ads became nearly pornographic, and I weaned myself off their deep-fried torture by flipping to the cooking channels and immersing myself in the process of creating food to forget about my yearning for it. I watched Martha Stewart or Emeril Lagasse, even old reruns of Julia Child. It didn't matter. I just wanted someone to talk to me while they trussed a chicken or sauteed onions to distract from the fact that I was 85lbs and nursing a measuring cap full of liquid Lortab, desperate for company and literally starving.

Those shows inspired me to get up from the sofa and clench flour and butter into a greased fist to pound out a shortcrust. Pretty soon, every 9" pan in my parents' house was dusted with the crumbled remains of a first, second, or third cake layer. I could mumble a little through the hole in my jaw wires where my teeth had been. "Eat it," I'd demand of my family before I was off to bake something else and they were stranded at the dining table with a chocolate meringue or strawberry gateau, shoveling it in because I needed the servingware for whatever was in the oven. The emptiness in my stomach and the pain in my face were nothing compared to the thrill of melding flour, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until they were beautiful, joining what was separate into something whole.  

Eventually, doctors snipped apart the wires, mended my face with titanium implants, replaced my teeth with ceramic, and I was more than the sum of my parts again. I stopped baking and went back to being a teenager, worried that my friends had forgotten me during my convalescence. The following year when I went to college, I’d all but forgotten I'd ever learned how to bake. For the next four years, I mostly ate store-brand white bread filled with peanut butter instead of homemade jam sandwiched between ladyfingers.

Now, I love to cook. Some of my best story ideas have come in time to the percussion of a whisk scraping flour from cast iron as I stir in the heat radiating from beneath my roux. Stuffing butter beneath a chicken skin and basting it with a beer glaze of my own invention is the best way I know to say "I love you," and squeezing roasted garlic into a bowl of mashed potatoes is my primary means of expressing sympathy. But my urge to create food that was as beautiful as it was functional seemed to have left when my jaws were freed. In all these years, baking has seemed tedious, more like science than art, and I've mostly avoided it.

But I started baking again this year after I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32. In a lot of ways, the long stretch of solitude after my double mastectomy and during chemo was like coming home. I remembered the boredom and loneliness from my car accident days, flipping through television channels without watching, opening and closing books without reading. I remembered the hunger as well.

As the chemotherapy drugs left patches of hair dusting my pillow and my eyebrows rubbed off onto my washcloth as I rinsed my face at night, they also made my mouth taste like it had been packed with ashes. Everything tasted gritty and slightly spoiled. Even soup made me gag. Instead of turning me off food, however, my dead taste buds made me the hungriest I'd been since my mouth was wired shut.

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I longed to press Camembert between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, feeling it bloom as it melted, or snap a crisp Linzer cookie between my teeth, refreshed by the cool tang of the jam at the center. But I knew eating those things wouldn't help; they'd taste like garbage and just leave me feeling sick and sad. The hunger was mental, and so, to fill up, I watched The Great British Bake Off.

I'd loved the show for years. While others rolled their eyes at Sue and Mel's puns, I laughed out loud. The bakes, from the signature at the beginning of each episode to the technical challenge and the impossible-looking showstoppers, were riveting to me. "They don't win anything?" my friends would ask when I tried to describe the beautiful simplicity of watching nice people try their hardest to bake things that tasted good. It's hard to relay to those who haven't seen it that the show isn’t about winning or losing but the delight that comes from the way Mary Berry pronounces the word "layers" or the giddy joy contestants (and me by proxy) feel when Paul Hollywood offers a long-withheld handshake. "Sounds boring," my father told me when I tried to explain this to him once. But to me, The Great British Bake Off is the Platonic Ideal of television. However, before I got sick, it only inspired devotion, never the urge to test my own long-dormant baking skills.

It just so happened that the seventh season of Bake Off coincided with my summer of chemotherapy. Four rounds of monthly poisoning had left me cancer-free but with a white cell count so low that I got sick every time I left the house. So I stayed in, and as friends left the city for their summer adventures, the contestants in the tent became my constant companions.   

By the time Jane won star baker in the first episode of Season 7, I'd already rooted through my cabinets to concoct a lumpy mixture of Oreo pretzel brownies. I wept as Pastor Lee was squished between Sue and Mel in a farewell hug before being sent back to Bolton to work on his genoise. "Right. Come on Candice, sort yourself out. No more crying," eventual winner Candice Brown told the camera. "Same," I told myself, wiping tears from my lashless eyes.

The brownies were a bust, simultaneously dry and gummy and filled with soggy Oreos; it wasn't just my chemo mouth that thought they tasted gritty, even my partner, Max, couldn't get through more than one. But I didn't care about eating them. I dumped the pan in the trash bin and started over. By my doctor's appointment the following week, I was through as many episodes of Bake Off as I could work into a day, cheering Ruby and Howard in Season 4 one hour and Nadiya from Season 6 the next.

My life became dusted with white flour and filled with chants of "Ready, set, bake." On Bake Off, nothing is more serious than getting yeast dough warm enough to proof or a perfect crack down the center of a Madeira cake. Not work, not family, and certainly not cancer.

"Any side effects from the medicine?" my doctor asked at a weekly checkup. "Besides looking like a goddamn goblin?" I joked, running a hand over my stubbly head. She didn't laugh. I didn't tell her that the main side effects of my chemotherapy were a loaf of bread in the morning and a tin of cupcakes at night. "Rise, rise," the contestants chanted on my TV. "Come on," I whispered to the plaits in the challah on my own kitchen table.  

Most times, I didn't even taste my creations. "Come get your cupcakes, or I'm throwing them away," I texted friends. Weeks before, I would have done anything this side of juggling to get them to sit with me a few more minutes, but now, I loaded them down with 36 ginger cakes or a chocolate pie or three pane bianco and shooed them out the door. Mary and Paul were my best friends now, and there was only space in my life for giant bags of flour. My friends took their pastries and went, floating like castor sugar out into a world I wasn't quite ready to rejoin yet.

Having cancer at a young age alienates you from non-cancer life, at least during treatment. I couldn't go to Brooklyn warehouse shows with tender scars where my breasts used to be, and I didn't feel much like nursing a beer at a house party while acquaintances with entry-level jobs at fashion magazines politely ignored the sloppy way I'd failed to follow a Pinterest headscarf-tying tutorial, revealing translucent patches of sickly looking hair still clinging to my death-white scalp or the fact that one of my stenciled eyebrows had melted away in the summer heat.

But on Bake Off, the baker's appearance is irrelevant, all that matters is that the fruit stays at the top of the tart and no one gets a soggy bottom. Kneading my challah dough until the gluten was stretched and gently wrapping strand over strand passed minutes, proofing took hours that passed days, the snap of biscuits one after the other beneath Mary’s tastefully filed nails bridged the gap between sickness and health, taking me from cancer patient to cancer survivor one signature bake, technical challenge, and showstopper at a time.

This Thanksgiving, I rewatched Paul carefully construct his truly spectacular bread lion as I kneaded biga and let it rise before twisting it into an Italian loaf. Candice's purple lipstick was as aspirational as her marzipan peacock, and once again, I cheered her to victory as I whipped meringue into airy tufts. My pull-apart rolls rose as Dorret's Black Forest gateau fell, and all the while, this American was truly thankful that she had seven seasons of home-baking Brits for company during one of the darkest times in her life.

Now, my tests look good, and my cancer is gone. My scars are healing nicely, and best of all, food tastes creamy and sweet and greasy and crisp, and all the other ways I want it to. Soup no longer makes me feel like crying. And the more I feel like myself, the less I feel like baking. In fact, a single bag of flour has lasted me weeks, but I know it's there should I need to make something from nothing to feel whole again.  

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Emily Alford is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed and Vox, and she recently completed her first novel, Bless the Girls. To see pictures of her Signature Bakes, follow @AlfordAlice.

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