Surely in “melting pot Britain” no one should be batting an eyelid at Nadiya Hussain’s win of the Great British Bake Off? Well yeah. But clearly the pot’s not as melted as we’d have hoped because the media has been flipping out about it all week. The Mail even broke its three-year run of featuring the Bake Off final on its front page, relegating the story to page seven.
Having graced our screens for six series, the show is a national obsession with supermarket baking aisles distending for the occasion every year. This time around though, as the numbers dwindled, something was different as 29 year-old anaesthetist and very adorably curly-haired Tamal Ray, and equally adorable 30 year-old mother of three Nadiya stuck it out to the final.
The 2015 line-up has come under fire from commentators since the start of the series with Quentin Letts at The Mail finding it difficult to process that different types of people live in the UK, bemoaning that somewhere “plain-as-white-flour, Middle-English bumblers” would be shaking their rolling pins in frustration for, in his view, not having had interesting enough “back stories” to make it to the screen.
“Were these new contestants chosen on merit?” he asks.
Of course Letts’ colleagues will say no, they weren’t. They were chosen out of “political correctness”; snuck in round the back, apparently leaving a trail of boring but masterful bakers in their wake.
This moved Toby Waterworth, a former Bake Off contestant from Series Four, to respond, emphasising the gruelling, merit-based selection process prior to the televised show in a tweet to hit back at those suggesting that perhaps the more “diverse” amongst the bakers had had an easy ride to the so-called gingham altar.
That being said, I find it difficult to believe that anyone would consider the selection of candidates to be based on baking ability alone. As well as being skilled with their whisks, contestants should have interesting stories – we don’t just watch for recipes – we watch for drama like last year’s “bingate” which saw Iain Watters chuck away his Baked Alaska in a fit of anger. And yeah, they should represent the variety of life trajectories that we see around us, not least because we all pay our TV licenses.
But television based on food and cooking does seem to see people from BME communities more highly represented than other parts of the media. Why?
As well as bringing different stories, people with diverse heritages bring something else to cooking competitions, and that’s exposure to more cuisines – something we British certainly have a taste for. Just a quick look at Masterchef, perhaps a show with a little more space to allow for other cooking styles to shine, will show us three BME winners in the past five years: Ping Coombes (2014), Shelina Permalloo (2012) and Druv Baker (2010).
But the restrictions of “Great British baking” haven’t stopped contestants bringing a different flavour into the tent. An expert sprinkle of rong tea, bay leaf or cardamom breathe new life into the WI bakes we know and love, even if Mary Berry seems a bit reluctant (refer to her face when trying Tamal’s ras-al-hanout spiced game pie in Victorian week).
This taste for something different doesn’t come without its problems, of course. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard judges on shows like Masterchef trying to encourage cooks from a certain background to stick to mum’s recipes, pigeon-holing them without space for innovation. But what I’m getting at here is that BME people have a lot to offer when cooking because we can draw on varied influences and perhaps this goes some way to explain why we excel in the field.
Ally Ross at The Sun went so far as to call Nadiya’s win “ideological warfare”, which seems a touch extreme considering that we’re talking about iced buns here, but the shocking resistance we see to her visibility suggests that there are people who are happy to eat food from around the world, as long as they don’t have to see the faces of the people who bring it to their tables.
The BBC may still be struggling to represent the diversity of British society in many respects but this year’s line-up of bakers managed a better job than most programming with four of the twelve coming from BME communities.
Which is where criticisms of how “right-on” the show is baffle me even further. I can’t think of a better example of Union Jack nationalism than the Bake Off; surely it’s the best that traditionalists could hope for?
Yes, BME people are present, but it’s only those that have a taste and talent for a type of cooking that has been drawn into an acceptable definition of British nationalism. We might be all eating naans, patties and tacos but these staples don’t feature too highly with sachertortes and mille feuille deemed to be more fitting with the “Great British” mark of approval.
As the series winner told the Radio Times:
“Just because I’m not a stereotypical British person, it doesn’t mean I am not into bunting, cake and tea. I’m just as British as anyone else, and I hope I have proved that.”
Against the odds Nadiya managed to charm a significant swathe of the population with her expressive face, witty comments, flair for flavours and the kind of creative presentation which saw her make a peacock out of cake.
For women like her, who have suffered a rising tide of Islamophobia over recent years, this was an emotional opportunity to gain positive representation in the media.
And for the rest of of the public, many of whom gushed with slightly patronising support, perhaps some anxieties bred by the right-wing media have been quelled. I mean if your only exposure to women wearing a headscarf is flicking past serious-faced photos of them in the newspaper with headlines accusing them of being an assault on British society then you’re probably surprised to hear a voice like your own, bubbly and bright, coming from that face.
Seeing different types of people with varied stories represented onscreen seems so commonsense to me that I find it shocking when others show active resistance. We’ll face more of course, but I think every win should still be celebrated, and this one is for Nadiya, for Muslim women, and for everyone that watched the show and changed their minds in the face of a prevailing narrative telling them that they’re wrong.
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Henna studies media at LSE and is on Media Diversified’s editorial and operations team. Before this she was a news editor at crowdsourced newswire, Newzulu. In a previous life she was a restaurateur; starting, running and eventually selling two restaurants serving American-inspired cuisine using local and ethical produce. Henna has a degree in History and Politics from SOAS, and a masters in Global Politics from Royal Holloway. She is a fellow of the social enterprise programme, On Purpose.
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