Fairly innocent, but also innuendo riddled, the Great British Bake Off has hit headlines over the past few weeks after the BBC lost its contract on the show to Channel 4. To take a step back from all the “soggy bottoms”, collapsed gingerbread houses, and “informal baking”, gal-dem caught up with the wonderful Ruby Tandoh, who featured in Bake Off’s 2013 series, to talk about her new cook book Flavour, “wellness” eating and all things One Direction.
gal-dem: So a lot of people will recognise you from Bake Off, which you appeared in at the same time as studying for your degree. What was that experience like and tell us what you’ve been up to since then?
Ruby Tandoh: Bake Off was so strange. I’ve spent a lot of my life so far kind of flitting from hobby to hobby, course to course, place to place. And applying for Bake Off was, I thought at the time, just another one of those whims. I’d recently started learning how to bake and I was like – what better way to learn than to throw myself into this massive competition? I had no idea that it would come to anything, and so I was really caught off guard by getting on the show and then doing ok on it. Since then, I’ve been wavering between this overwhelming urge to bolt, reinvent and restart, and actually enjoying this new job in food and writing. Somehow, through all the anxiety and stress and scrutiny, I’ve had the time of my life cooking for a living and writing my books.
You’ve become a hugely successful food writer – have you always enjoyed writing alongside baking, and can you tell us a bit more about your new book Flavour?
I’m absolutely delighted that you’d flatter me with the “hugely successful” but I think my publishers and sales figures would beg to differ! Its been a really different experience, writing Flavour. When I wrote my first book, Crumb, it was straight after Bake Off and there was this sense that I could capitalise on that exposure and the baking-frenzy by releasing that baking book. I loved writing it and I’m still really proud of the recipes in it, but I definitely hadn’t found my voice back then. Since then, I’ve had a load more time to consider what messages I want to convey, and what really interests me in food. That’s why Flavour, though less commercial than Crumb and less “successful” by some barometers, is actually the thing I’m most proud of in my entire life. I got the chance to write about food, and self-care, and how to indulge your appetite. I even got the blend the lyrics of a 1D song into a recipe. I feel like I’ve finally found my voice.
I read your piece about the myth of “wellness” eating, which seems to have become a huge trend recently. And I can say as much as the next girl that I’m all about the pasta rather than the courgetti! Can you tell us a bit more about your thoughts on the wellness movement, your relationship with food and how that’s reflected in your cookbooks?
I really hate everything that wellness represents, because for me it’s just so disingenuous. It’s this (highly profitable, hugely trend-driven) movement that claims to be about a kind of all-round, holistic health and happiness, but is actually just about the pursuit of thinness, class-coded purchasing and ultimately the drive for physical “health” – at whatever cost. It’s awful. It’s particularly dangerous, I think, because it has so successfully rebranded the diet (“bad”, “unsustainable”, “body shaming”) and turned it into something both identical to dieting and allegedly completely different from it. Somehow the wellness “lifestyle” (not a diet apparently) is marketed as being body-positive and about self-care. That puts everyone, but especially people with eating disorders, in danger, because the idea of something so “pure” and “healthy” but also “food positive” is really seductive. As someone who lived with an eating disorder for many years, that’s shocking to me. That’s why in my food writing I’m really careful not to conflate food with morality judgments, or talk about calories or “right” and “wrong” serving sizes. I want people to enjoy food and cooking in a really joyful, uninhibited way.
The current series of Bake Off is well underway, and slightly mired in scandal. What are your thoughts about it moving to Channel 4?
To be honest, I don’t really mind either way. I love Bake Off obviously, but I think it’ll either be adaptable, adapting its (pretty traditional) format to something fresher for C4, or it’ll organically fade away. Whatever happens, it’s had a great run.
It also seems slightly bizarre to me how contestants on an innocent show about baking seem to be the target of so much internet trolling. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences of that, and how you come up with such great put-downs?
Yes! It’s so wrong isn’t it? I cannot get my head around how people’s (sometimes legitimate, often not) grievances about certain contestants managed to get churned with so much bigotry. It’s such a shame. Candice this series, for instance, has had so much misogynistic and often violent commentary sent her way. In my series, Kimberley was told she was “smug” and “too confident” (no surprise that a self-assured black woman was taken down a peg or two by raging racists) while I was, unbeknownst to me, “sucking Paul Hollywood to get ahead”. I mean, what? I am really shit at standing up for myself and others in real life, but somehow online – and knowing that I truly, unequivocally, am in the right – I find it easy to name and shame the abusers. I love it.
On the topic of social media, the way you tackled those “massive shitting misogynists” and came out was just awesome. Was it something that you had wanted to address for some time, and in that way?
I was really shocked by how that whole situation played out to be honest. I thought that all my coded (and explicit) references to queerness were so fucking obvious… I thought that me tweeting that I’d come out to my parents would just be stating the obvious. But people are, I suspect, so terrible at seeing queerness where they don’t want to see it, that it took for me to come out and say “I’m queer” for people to really grasp it. That’s so bad! Since then, I’ve been just kind of living my life… I don’t feel like that much has even changed for me. I love my girlfriend and sometimes we watch TV together and swoon over Idris Elba or whoever – that’s what queerness is for me.
What have you got coming up next that we should keep our eye out for?
My cookbook Flavour is out now! So obviously I’m proud of that and want as many people as possible to see it and find the pop culture references dotted through it. Apart from that, I’ll just be writing occasionally for ELLE UK and ranting profusely on my Twitter.
And lastly, we have to ask – what’s your top tip for avoiding a soggy bottom?
Buy yourself a pack or two of Mr Kipling’s. Every time a perfectly baked bottom.