Ageism, affairs and Mexico Week: Getting personal with Prue Leith of "Bake Off"

"Don't think it's all over just because you're 60, 70, 80 or, I hope, 90"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 7, 2023 5:30PM (EST)

Prue Leith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Prue Leith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Many know Prue Leith as a judge on the comfort TV favorite, "The Great British Baking Show." As I learned from Leith, the South African TV personality has more to talk about than just delicious bakes. She has had an extraordinary career as a restaurateur, a caterer, a cooking school founder, a philanthropist and the author of numerous cookbooks and novels. She joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss two new projects, a cookbook "Bliss On Toast: 75 Simple Recipes" and her memoir "I'll Try Anything Once," now both available in the United States.

Leith opened up about what it was like updating her memoir for an American audience, in which she details her affair with her first husband and advocacy for assisted death. "I really think that people ought to consider what kind of a death they want," she told me. And she does not have regrets about her affair. "He was the love of my life. He was the most important thing, still is the most important influence on my life." Leith also addresses the controversy from GBBS's "Mexican Week" and shares why she thinks Paul Hollywood helped her get her job. Watch Prue Leith's "Salon Talks" episode here, or our full conversation below. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I want to get into the title of "I'll Try Anything Once" because the contents absolutely live up to the name. Why does this phrase mean something to you, and why did you make it the title?

My autobiography, which was originally called "Relish," was never published in the States. I didn't have much profile in the States and a few copies that got here didn't sell particularly well — nobody had ever heard of me. 

When "Bake Off" became so popular, I suddenly became better known in the States than I am even in the UK, so it seemed a good idea to republish the book. When I said, well, it's called "Relish," the American company said, relish in America is something you put on a burger, so I don't think you want to call it that. We felt we better change the name. In England, of course relish means... well of course it does in American too, but it meant a zest for life or relish of everything because I am a big enthusiast about a lot of things.

We just banged around and thought what shall we call it, and I think I said "I'll Try Anything Once" because I tend to do things because I think they sound like a good idea, and then I get very enthusiastic and just do it. And I keep doing things that I've never done before. At the moment, I'm doing a one woman show, which for an octogenarian to decide to get on a stage and tour all over America and all over Britain telling stories about my life. It's similar to what's in that book, but it is a theater show and it's going incredibly well and I can't believe it. And I started that at 82. So I, in a way, I'm on a mission to say to older women, don't think it's all over just because you're 60, 70, 80 or, I hope, 90. You can still do good things.

A lot of us know you, especially here in the States, know you for colorful necklaces and for baking innuendo, but what I didn't know going into this book was that it was also going to touch on apartheid, abortion, death, aging, so many really intense things that you have been through that you have dealt with. 

One of the things that you are passionate about is this idea of assisted death and the right to a good death. Why is that was such an important thing to talk?

I think as you get older you tend to think more about death, but we don't think about it enough, and I really think that people ought to consider what kind of a death they want. Too many people, A, don't consider it or they believe this kind of myth that you get from the movies, which is you are lying in bed, you're surrounded by your family, then you peacefully go out and it's all very gentle. Well, of course we'd all love to die in our sleep gently in our own beds or whatever, but that's not what happens to most of us. Most of us end up dying usually in a hospital with a whole lot of well-meaning medics, desperately trying to keep us alive even if we don't want to be kept alive, and with no quality of life and no enjoyment. A lot of us die without any friends or relatives around. It just seems awful to end one's life so badly when it's unnecessary.

I campaign for an organization called Dignity in Dying, but there are a lot of other organizations that are campaigning for much the same thing. I don't know what is the absolute right, best law to have, what I do know is that in Britain we need to change the law, we need to make it possible to die when you want to die. 

"The hardest thing to write about was probably my love affair with my first husband, which was a secret for 13 years because his wife was a great friend."

If you are terminally ill and you've been diagnosed that you will die within six months, of course, you can never be totally accurate about this, but if it's certain that you have a terminal disease and you do not want to live it out in agony and pain and whatever, you should be allowed to either legally given the means, the medicine, the drugs that will kill you, or you need a doctor to help you do it, physically help you do it, which is what they have in Canada. 

There are arguments for both sides. There are risks on both ends. There's nothing without risk. But I think we have to legislate for the majority, and we may not be able to legislate for everybody because where do you draw the line? You wouldn't want children opting to die, you wouldn't want young men... the biggest danger of suicide in young men is between 19 and 25, or something. Well, we know that passes, that's a stage when young people are at their most vulnerable. But we know that generally if you get to 25, you've got a likelihood of living as long as anybody else. So we would want to not allow a 19-year-old who's just lost his girlfriend and hasn't got a job and is desperate to get out. We wouldn't want him to do.

Perhaps we shouldn't have people with mental difficulties. And yet in Canada a lot of people, groups like disabled groups or mentally handicapped people who represent mentally handicapped people are arguing that it's discriminatory to allow some people to die and not to allow others. So what I'm saying is the whole thing is extremely complicated and difficult, but that is not a reason to do nothing. 

And definitely not a reason to not talk about it. There's so many other things that you talk about in this book too, like I said about your relationships, about infidelity, about adoption. What was the hardest thing to write about in this book?

The hardest thing to write about was probably my love affair with my first husband, which was a secret for 13 years because his wife was a great friend of mine and both the families were extremely close. She was my mother's best friend, and she had married my husband when she was 40 and he was 20, so there was a 20 gap between them. And then when he was about 40, he fell in love with me and I was only 20, so there was a 20 gap between us and Rayne was sort of between us. He had a first wife who's 20 years older than him and a lover who was 20 years younger than him.

It was really difficult for both of us because he didn't want to hurt Nan. I didn't want him to leave her because I was quite happy, I was building my business, I liked being alone, I didn't want marriage, I wasn't desperate for children. So I was fine for 10 years. And then I hit the famous thirties when you start to want a baby, badly. And so at that point it became really difficult and I wanted to leave him and I tried hard to leave him. I ran away from him at one point. But I loved him so much, I kept coming back and in the end I did get pregnant and then we had to just come into the open and I wanted a baby very badly.

So we then told everybody and it was really difficult for a while, but his wife was a wonderful woman. She insisted we all stayed friends and so he, and the families did stay friends. It wasn't easy and I don't have the same relationship with them as I had before, but I think everybody behaved as well as they could. People often say to me, well would you have done it differently? And the answer is no. He was the love of my life. He was the most important thing, still is the most important influence on my life. He was the chairman of my company, he helped me with everything, father of my children. We adopted a Cambodian daughter together. I mean I wouldn't have missed any of that for... So yes, I think adultery is wrong. Yes, I think it was wicked. And no, I would still have done it.

You certainly could not have expected that in your seventies you would become a judge on "Great British Baking Show." In the book you said that you didn't think they would hire you because, I think the quote is, you didn't think that they would hire another old lady and you hadn't really even watched very much of the show. What made you decide to take that risk then and go ahead and go for it?

I mean who would resist it? Of course I said yes. I think I was just amazed by good luck. But I think the long and the short of it, what had happened was the formula had really worked with Mary Berry. It was tremendously successful. She was an absolute icon, a national treasure, we all love her. And so I thought, well Channel Four is a sort of trendy, very advanced, very woke broadcasting channel and they'll want to have some young dude, I don't know, I could think of quite a few people who would've been exactly fitted that role, but they obviously thought, no, it works with Mary, what we need, it's another old lady.

"I think that broadening the challenges is quite necessary because people's tastes have changed."

To be honest, I think Paul Hollywood had a lot to do with that because I had to have an audition, and I know that they auditioned a lot of younger people and other people, men and women, to be Paul's partner. And Paul, when we were having the audition, Paul really helped me because we were having an audition that we had to judge soda bread and brownies, nice simple things. And we walked onto the set to judge the first thing, which I think was the soda bread. And Paul, you know how confident and knowledgeable and articulate he is, he never ums, he never errs, he just goes bang and says exactly what's right and wrong about the bake in front of him, very succinctly and perfect. 

He went and did that, and he was dead right. I mean there was nothing he said that I could not agree with and there was nothing I could add. It was just perfect. So I just said, I agree, Paul is right. So then when we stopped filming, Paul said, you can't just do that. You can't just agree with me. He said, television show, you've got to get in there. So then we judged the brownies and I sort of more or less pushed him aside and told the world what I thought of the brownies. And then I got the job. Paul helped me get the job is the long and short. They must have probably asked him which of the people you've seen do you want, and he must have said me, but I think I owe it to Paul.

You talk about the formula for the show, and yet the show has evolved. It has changed in the makeup of the cast of characters in it. And over the past few years, particularly this past season, people have seen an evolution in the types of things that are the types of foods that are being made. I want to ask you what that word, bake, means to you in the context of the show and in your words.

I see the difficulty. If by bake you mean the classical answer is a bake goes in the oven, bake is something that has been put in the oven. But I think that would stop us doing an awful lot of things. You wouldn't have, I don't know, a lot of things like trifle for example, there's some baking in it, but most of it is not baking. And so I think that broadly what we mean for a bake is either a dessert or cake or something that's been in the oven. And it can be savory, but it must be close to baking.

I mean the only times we break the rule about going in the oven is if we make a flat bread, which is made on a griddle, or on a flat frying panel or something, or crepe, but a pancake and a flatbread is quite close to baking, I think we can cheat a bit. I think that broadening the challenges is quite necessary because people's tastes have changed. I mean at the moment I've been traveling around America and Canada and everywhere I've gone, you can see how the influences of Mexico are there, there are tortillas or flat breads or tacos everywhere and they are taking the place of sandwiches. Well now a sandwich you would accept had enough baking element into it, then why would we have a sandwich and not have a taco? So I think people must just have a bit of, don't be pedantic about it. If it makes a good competition, that's fine.

I think a lot of us here in the States watched Mexico week and said it seems like maybe the UK still has a few things to learn about Mexican food. Do you think that was fair?

I agree, and I think we do have a few things to learn and we were all really upset about that because Paul, for example, had just come back from a month in Mexico where he had made a wonderful program called "Paul Eats Mexico," and he'd been around eating all sorts of, I mean obviously some tacos and some refried beans and all the things that people complained that we used, but he had also been eating all much more sophisticated Mexican food and he absolutely loves Mexican food and loves Mexico, and he'd been very influential in choosing the challenges.

What was so upsetting about it was the idea that we would somehow want to be either patronizing or mocking. The truth is that on "Bake Off," we make jokes about everything, but we certainly would never do it being anything other than friendly. People got upset because the hosts wore sombreros and ponchos. But you can't arrive in Mexico and walk through the airport without people wanting to sell you ponchos and sombreros. Yes they're clichés, but then a hot dog is a cliché and Americans don't mind if we make a hot dog.

So it's really difficult because there will always be people who just are upset by it, and I'm sorry we upset anybody. And I mean, you just think of "Bake Off," the essence of "Bake Off" is that it's friendly, it never tries to humiliate people, it's very inclusive. You only have to look at our bakers and you can see that we drive very hard to make sure that we represent the bakers of Britain or the bakers of America. They'll be every skin color, every age, every ethnic origin that exist in the country. So the thought that we should not take seriously somebody's cuisine is really upsetting, but obviously we made some mistakes.

What I really would hate to see, I'd hate to see people becoming so protective of their own cuisine that they don't like any kind of adaptation or any kind of imitation. First of all, imitation is a sign of flattery. You only want to copy somebody's cuisine or steal ideas from it because you like it. And if we are going to be very correct and say we must never do anything that could be smacks of cultural appropriation, does that mean we can't do Italian food, German food, all of American cuisine has come from somewhere else, mostly Europe. If people are going to be indignant about ever taking any ideas from any other country, that's the end of cuisine. Britain is exactly the same. Britain's cuisine is a mass of influences from outside. That's the end of my speech.

One of the things that you have said is about the way that this show is so positive and hopeful. People talk about comfort TV in a way that I think feels kind of dismissive, and yet the love that people have for "GBBO," the absolute affection and protectiveness that people feel about it comes from something emotional. What do you think that connection is?

Do you know, I think that part of the success of "Bake Off" is because we live in such stressful times that people need an hour off from life. If you are working and you've got children at school and you're worried about their progress and you've got to get them to school and then get to work and then travel on the L line or the tube or get in a traffic jam. I mean, daily life was stressful before COVID. Now we've added COVID to it, a war in Ukraine, the economy is collapsing, politics all over the world in a mess. We need things like "Bake Off" as a kind of medicine almost, or sort of recovery time. It's like a good sleep or a massage. It makes you feel better. 

"I'm not exaggerating when I say I think it would've been really bad for the nation if we'd not had Bake Off to watch, and a few other things."

A big glass of wine.

"Bake Off" and a big girl glass of wine. I don't want to make it sound as if it's just therapy, but interestingly, when there was a danger that we wouldn't have "Bake Off" in the UK, the government was really concerned that "Bake Off" should continue because they knew that they couldn't deprive people stuck at home with their children of something where the family could actually sit at peace together on a sofa for at least an hour a week. They realized this was really important.

So they moved heaven and earth to make... Well of course we had amazing restrictions, I know that the first "Bake Off" we filmed in COVID, actually two of them we'd filmed in a hotel in Essex in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, which was completely sealed off by security guards. We couldn't go out, nobody could come in.

And it must have lost the company an absolute fortune to put it on because they had to house 150 of us in a posh hotel, they had to import everything in advance. It was an amazing logistic problem. I think it must have lost an absolute fortune, but it was necessary. It would've been dreadful not to, I'm not exaggerating when I say I think it would've been really bad for the nation if we'd not had "Bake Off" to watch, and a few other things.

I want to ask you about "Bliss on Toast" because I love that you downplay your own culinary expertise. You're a humble cook, but in your memoir you talk about toast, you talk about the baguettes in Paris, living on those, what was it about toast, of all the things you could have chosen for your next book?

I think what really did it for me was during the lockdown, during the pandemic, I was at home with my husband on my own. My children were in London and my grandchildren were with them, so it was just the two of us. And I would be make, and I'm a caterer and a restaurateur, I can't cook for two. I like to cook for four, or 20 better. And so I would make, let's say a chicken casserole and then we'd eat the rest for leftovers and there'd still be some leftovers. And then I'd think, what I'm going to do with this? And I'd put it on toast. And then I started thinking that looks rather boring, brown stuff on brown stuff. And so I would add, I don't know, pickled fennel or grilled tomatoes or something just to liven it up a bit.

My husband kept saying that this is delicious and it looks so good and it's a proper meal even though it's just stuff on toast. And so after a while I started keeping notes of what I was doing and then posting things on Instagram and finding people loved them. And then I started doing it for, I was writing for The Oldie, it's a magazine for oldies, and so I would do something on toast, take a photograph of it and publish it just with a caption that said, let's say, toasted rye, smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers or whatever was on it. And there was no recipe, there was just this picture and the caption. And I figured that people could make it from looking at the picture thinking, well I can do that, just assemble these things.

The readers absolutely loved it, and so I went to my publisher and I said, let's do a book. And they said "Yes, but we can't just do...". And I said, it can cost $5, it can be the size of a piece of toast, just a tiny little book, just for the picture and the caption like that. And they said, no, no, no. People who buy a book want recipes. They want to know how much smoked salmon, and how much cream cheese, and how much capers and what kind of capers, and what do you do if you haven't got smoked salmon, is there an alternative? So in the end, it turned out to be a proper book, but it's certainly still quite a small book. 

Finally, is it really hard eating cake all day, Prue?

Of course it's not. The cake is delicious. You only have to have a teaspoon of each one. I mean, occasionally if the bakes are really, really complicated so that every cake, say there's a three layer cake, and they all have to be different, and they've all got to have different icing. I mean, Paul and I are always asking them, can you just make sure it's only one kind of cake, because otherwise we have to have so many mouthfuls. But I reckon if you can get the icing, the filling and the cake in one teaspoon and there are 12 bakers on there, and you have a signature thing and a showstopper, and the showstoppers not too... You can probably get away with 1200, 1500 calories. So if you don't eat breakfast and you don't eat lunch, you've still got 500 calories for a couple of glasses of wine and those liquid supper.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Food Great British Bake-off Paul Hollywood Prue Leith Salon Talks