“Next Best Baker” by Jeff Strand (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

A group of contestants on a TV baking show are each given the task of putting together a cake that contains four specific ingredients: mint, carrots, pistachios and dog feces. This may seem a distinctly unorthodox assignment, but Tiffany, Cyrus, Helga and Mark all take things in their stride – because on Next Best Baker, making a cake from fecal matter is actually one of the less outrageous challenges. Come the final round, the game moves from the merely repugnant to the outright horrific…

“Next Best Baker” is gross-out humour of the driest sort. Its deadpan treatment of the repulsive subject matter is evident from the reactions to the dog-mess assignment. “I do wish that the dog shit was a bit more subdued”, says one judge of Tiffany’s cake; “it doesn’t really blend with the other flavors.” Mark, meanwhile, makes his entire cake from feces, with the other ingredients serving as decorative toppers: a little fence made of carrot sticks, a sprig of mint as a tree, and a pistachio with a face drawn on to represent a dog. “It could just as easily have been a happy pistachio”, remarks an unimpressed judge. “From an appearance standpoint, this is probably your worst effort all season.”

In the final round, the contestants are tasked with producing the baked product of their choice on the sole condition that it is baked in a severed human head, and are even given bone saws for the job of hewing the heads open. The nature of this assignment allows the story to explore the personalities of its characters.

Tiiffany is conscious about practicality: “What if the smell of flesh permeates the flavor of the cinnamon roll? This has disaster written all over it!” Cyrus, a vegan, is concerned more about the ethics of the situation: “I would actively boycott a restaurant that prepared their baked goods in this way.” Helga is more enthusiastic, and is intrigued by the novelty value of the process. Vincent, a newcomer who replaces the disqualified Mark, merely hallucinates cat-faced insects.

In a further twist, it turns out that each contestant is assigned the severed head of a loved one, freshly killed behind the scenes: a brother, a wife, a son, a foster-father. This utterly horrific concept is milked for sick humour:

“They say that a parent can’t choose their favorite child. But can you choose your least favorite? It is indeed one of your children’s severed head under this cloth, but which one? Who do you hope it is?”
Helga wiped away a tear and thought about it for a moment. “Stephan.”
“Let’s see if your wish was granted!” Edgar pulled the cloth away. “Nope! It’s Anton! That’s certainly going to make things awkward with Stephan when you see him again.”

The element of personal tragedy does little to dampen the dryness of the story’s tone: because Helga’s son was a police officer, she decides to honour his career by using his head to make doughnuts. The severed-head-of-a-loved-one twist does, however, allow the story to further explore the characters – who, as cartoonish as their situation might be, have enough individual quirks to make them stand out as distinct individuals.

The contest has still more macabre turns to take, and the story manages to spend its length elaborating on what at first appears a rather thin premise. Keeping up a gross-out joke for this long is harder than it might seem, and “Next Best Baker” – like the contestant who performs an appropriately morbid victory celebration in the final line – comes out on top.

The story is part of Baker’s Dozen, which is itself up for a Splatterpunk Award in the Best Anthology category.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: