While the inclusion of a plant-based episode in the current season of The Great British Bake-Off is undoubtedly a reflection of how far veganism has come in the past few years, the show's treatment of the topic is a reflection of how far we have yet to go.
As organiser of London Vegan Meetup, I was contacted a few weeks ago by Love Productions - creators of massively popular TV show The Great British Bake-Off, and its sister show The Great British Bake-Off: An Extra Slice. Would I like to bring some members of London Vegan Meetup to the filming of the vegan episode of An Extra Slice?
While not a regular viewer, I was of course aware of the show. As most of the British public undoubtedly are! (Not to mention many of those beyond our shores.) And I had also seen the enthusiasm with which vegans had greeted the prospect of a vegan episode (as well as the "outrage" from some non-vegans.) So I knew that we would have many fans of the show within the 8,000 members of London Vegan Meetup, and I agreed to bring a dozen or so baking enthusiasts - along with their bakes.
In the days running up to the event, we had both professionals and amateurs from within our membership prepare a variety of impressive vegan bakes - including an intricate strawberry and whipped cream mille-feuille, a feline version of Jo Brand in cake form, a pair of heart-shaped banana cakes joined by a rainbow declaring "Vegan Justice for the Animals", some tangy lemon shortbread cupcakes with lemon icing dipped in Earl Grey tea, and a gluten-free Bakewell Tart with homemade cherry jam.
And then there was my own underwhelming offering! An iced chocolate sponge cake declaring my love for tofu, vaguely shaped like a Tetra Pak of tofu - using tofu as a binder, and with a tofu cream cheese for the filling. (Ironically, neither of which are approaches I would normally take in my baking!) Away for trustee training the day before recording, I'd had to prepare it earlier in the week. And it was starting to wilt...
We arrived at the studio around 1pm. The researchers asked us a few questions about ourselves and our bakes - and requested some of us taste our own cakes to ensure that they weren't poisoned! Then we were encouraged to find ourselves some lunch in the nearby shopping centre, and to return by 3:30pm for filming.
On our return, we congregated with maybe 30 or so other bakers - and then the production team started calling out names: "Corrado, Robb-with-two-Bs, Filitsa, Bron..." Ushered through to the studio, it transpired that we had been chosen to sit with our bakes at the front of the audience! Of course, we knew that the show's panellists would try some of our bakes. And that presenter Tom Allen would tease the corresponding bakers. But we still weren't prepared for what followed.
Before the filming of An Extra Slice, we all watched the vegan episode of The Great British Bake-Off. And that's when we started to become a little concerned. There was clearly a lot of prejudice towards vegan baking from the presenters and some of the contestants. Did they even understand what veganism is? Not following a restrictive and tasteless diet, but avoiding animal exploitation and cruelty - and embracing an even wider range of plant-based ingredients. There was certainly no attempt to explain that at all. This might be a plant-based episode. Even an animal-free episode. But was it really a vegan one?
The negative attitude towards veganism was echoed by the day's compère, who ridiculed the vegans for the benefit of the largely non-vegan audience; and also by members of that audience who had baked cakes in the shape of a chicken carcass, or a slab of a dead animal. Of course, we have a sense of humour, and can handle a little banter. But we don't find the abhorrent treatment and unnecessary slaughter of billions of animals to be a laughing matter.
We had hoped that An Extra Slice would be an opportunity to address such bias. We'd already discussed who who might be on the panel. Surely there'd be at least one vegan. Maybe Simon Amstell or Sarah Pascoe or Romesh Ranganathan. But no. Although, Jo Brand confessed that her daughter was vegan, and would be challenging her on some of the show's content, the negative preconceptions continued.
Some time after 7:30pm (more than six hours after our initial arrival), Tom Allen finally came down to the audience to see what we'd baked. Clearly, the panellists would want to try Corrado's mille-feille and Filitsa's cat cake. And sure enough, Tom headed for Corrado - asking him how he'd made such an amazing pastry. But he didn't choose to take it to the panellists to try.
Naturally, I couldn't imagine them wanting to try my tofu cake - which was now leaking apricot jam! So I was shocked when Tom came to me next. After several hours under the studio lights, and in the wake of absurd questions from an acerbic comedian that does this for a living, I didn't fare as well as I'd have liked. I still don't know how I should have responded to "what's fu-ing?" But, just moments later, I regretted giving such a literal answer to his question about tofu absorbing the flavour of meat, and wished I had instead pointed out that cooks marinade meat, or coat it with herbs and spices, so it would make much more sense to have tofu absorb those flavours directly. I'll just need to keep that answer for next time! And remember how different this situation is to typical vegan advocacy where we have more control over the environment, the direction of the conversation, and even the editing.
Such advocacy also reminds me how important it is to focus on the oppressed, i.e. how our movement exists to oppose the exploitation of nonhuman animals. Generally speaking, vegans are not an oppressed group; nonhuman animals are. Nevertheless, prejudice and discrimination towards vegans does exist. And veganism fulfils the criteria of a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010. So organisations do have a responsibility to act fairly towards vegans. And I wonder whether the diets, beliefs and advocates of various religions would have been denigrated so...
A couple of days later, Bron summed up my feelings perfectly:
I’m happy with how things have changed, and are changing rapidly, [but] I will never deny that there is still a lot of work to do.
So I'm grateful that those behind The Great British Bake-Off chose to include plant-based baking, and to put the word 'vegan' in front of so many prime-time viewers. It's particularly pleasing to to hear that one of the contestants, Manon is trying veganism for a month. Clearly I'm going to need to switch my allegiance! (Sorry, Ruby.) And I can't blame either Love Productions or the presenters for reflecting the attitudes of a wider society that endorses systemic exploitation.
But those attitudes demonstrate how much there is still for us to do. While the inclusion of a plant-based episode in the current season of The Great British Bake-Off is undoubtedly a reflection of how far veganism has come in the past few years, the show's treatment of the topic is a reflection of how far we have yet to go.
We need to continue to encourage more non-vegan organisations to include veganism, but also to advocate for better representation by those that already do. And we need to ramp up our effort to educate companies, institutions, and the general public about what veganism is - and even more importantly, about why.
For the animals. For the environment. For humanity.