Racism in the Great British Bake Off

Like lots of other people, I’m a fan of the Great British Bake Off. Also like lots of other people, I was rooting for Nadiya to win last Wednesday as I settled down with my friend Sarah’s Mum’s Lemon Surprise pudding. The thing with Lemon Surprise Pudding is that the lemon isn’t that much of a surprise, given that it’s a fundamental ingredient in the making of the pudding. And sadly, neither was the racist backlash against Nadiya’s win in the British Press. The press’ argument has mainly revolved around a rhetoric of ‘PC Gone Mad’ (excuse the disablist slur), given to the final being made up of a Muslim woman (Nadiya), a gay Hindu man (Tamal), and a ‘stay at home Dad’ (Ian). One Daily Mail columnist remarked that Flora (who left in the semi-finals), was ‘too middle class’ to make it through, (despite Ian being the embodiment of middle-class wholesomeness). I want to point out here that the ridiculous of that comment is even more ridiculous when we notice that there has been racism within The Great British Bake Off throughout the series. Like the Lemon Surprise Pudding, the clue is in the name.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty: I’m no food historian, and actually, there’d be plenty of people better qualified than me to write this blog (I am white, for a start). However, it’s been annoying me that GBBO seems to be being hailed as some kind of icon of British equality and tolerance (a juxtaposition in itself), when in fact it: a) is founded on the notion of Empire and colonialism which at no point is explored within the programme; b) has exoticised and fetishised its contestants of colour throughout the series (and probably previous series, though I haven’t watched them all so thoroughly); and c) seems to now be being pedestalled and pulled out for recurring conversations of ‘British values’ (a Conservative mantra serving ONLY to incite racism).

To expand on my argument, I want to point particularly to Episode 7. This episode was dedicated particularly to the Victorian era. The first bake (the ‘signature challenge’) was a raised game pie. After admiring the ‘authentic’ pie dish that Matt (a white man) was using, borrowed off a friend’s mum (how quaint!), Paul and Mary go and inspect Tamal’s dish, a Middle Eastern Game Pie. On inspection from Paul and Mary, Tamal explains that he’s frying the meat in, ras el hanut, a North African Spice Mix. Mary quickly turns her nose up, leaning forward, and interrupting Tamal with, “I beg your pardon!” After some interrogation, they move over to Nadiya and her Aromatic Raised Game Pie. Again, Nadiya explains that she’s using a selection of spices, to which Mary replies, “many of the spices you’ve mentioned wouldn’t have been available”.

Nadiya’s pie was later rated as “just too much spice”. Tamal’s judging, on the other hand, had a tone of ‘you’ve got away with it this time’ as he was told by Mary that he didn’t add “too much spice” before Paul, in his classic you’ve-surprised-me-here-but-tread-carefully-boy type manner responded, “Do you know what? That’s fantastic. Really well done” [offers infamous hand shake]. I haven’t tasted these pies. I’ve no idea if I’d like them, but that isn’t my point. Rather, my point is that this is just one example of the squeals, scowls and shock expressed at Nadiya and Tamal’s use of spice. The disbelief expressed by Mary and Paul in the use of spices by these two contestants clearly marks them as Other; different to the remaining contestants. Furthermore, Mary’s previous comment, “many of the spices you’ve mentioned wouldn’t have been available”, is rife with assumption. Firstly, she assumes that everyone in GBBO shares the same ancestry and history. Secondly, that during The Victorian Period only England existed and that Queen Victoria only impacted upon England, despite mass colonisation. And thirdly, that there was no spice trade in the Victorian period (which in fact had been around for thousands of years). The producers could have chosen to rectify the situation slightly by using the ‘educational’ 3 minutes of the programme, which generally explains the history of a certain food topical to the episode’s theme, to educate the audience on Britain’s bloody, horrific colonial history, or, at the very least, about spice in the Victorian Period. Instead, however, they focused on Mrs Beeton (whose book has in fact has also been hailed as ‘shaping the British Empire’).

Perhaps then, it is not so surprising that The Great British Bake Off has been used since last Wednesday to direct conversations around British values. It is yet another way to cover-up and leave unacknowledged the deeply engrained racism of Britain, past and present.

Now here is someone much more qualified than me who further explores the problems with food being fetishised and Othered: How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy (thanks Sonia Soans for pointing me to this).

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