RUBY Tandoh may not have taken the Great British Bake Off title but, after last week's final, she stirred up a prizewinning critique of the culture of cookery shows.
The 21-year-old Bake Off finalist's Guardian article didn't taste nice. Some of it was bitterly familiar. There were wearying complaints of online trolling and "gender-specific" criticism which seem to be par for the course for any woman appearing on television. But what she wrote about "the broader background of gender politics" had me chewing things over for some time.
Tandoh pointed to "a culture of frilly baking versus macho Michelin stars, of real chefs versus domestic goddesses". Food, she noted, "has become divided and gendered, torn between the serious sport of haute cuisine and the supposedly antithetical world of women pottering around in home kitchens". I have to agree. Soon, it seems to me, we will be living in a world of blue chopping knives and pink pastry cutters, with possibly separate kitchen areas for different genders.
Now that the blokes have entered the kitchen, with men spending twice the time there they did in 1961, the genderisation of cooking has not stopped. It may even have become more pronounced.
In my household, it's the man who exquisitely plates up a restaurant-style steak, and me who occasionally shoves a sponge in the oven. And we're not alone. For many couples, the man seems to be the chef of the house, while the woman just provides regular meals. As a society, the way we eat, how we cook, what we consume, continues to be acutely divided along gender lines. Reality cookery shows are the frontline of that divide.
Stereotypes linger even when they ought to have been banished to irrelevance. The one about baking being for girls mostly survives. I know some very fine bakers who are men. One of my brothers created for me the biggest cupcake ever known to humankind, having bought a special mould over the internet, and several of the Great British Bake Off winners have been guys. But there's still a lingering feeling that real men don't bake. In fact, the barbecue effect endures: real men mostly cook meat, given the chance, outdoors and with sharp spears. My husband, who is a great chef all round, has never cooked a quiche, biscuit or sponge. He leaves "dealing" with the veg and salads to me.
I am the family's baker - which doesn't say much. In general I try to avoid making too many sugar-laden treats for my children and me to gorge upon. But the pressure is on. Go to a bake sale at my local school and you can be sure that 99% of the goods are made by mums, not dads - though many of them are fabulous cooks.
These tendencies aren't universal but, given the way television uses stereotypes as a shorthand to get us involved, it's no surprise if we see a polarisation writ large in TV cookery. Actually, the marketing and perception of food is heavily gender-divided. Chocolate is really for girls, but boys can eat it if it's called Yorkie or is a big hunk of confection like a Mars bar. I don't think I've ever seen a man eating a yoghurt on television. And it's impossible to watch a food commercial or cookery programme without a whole load of gender-related issues popping up: female body-image, sexual appetite, motherly comforts, sisterly competitiveness, domestic perfectionism.
All this creates an added layer of meaning around food. Masculine food is big, hearty, honest. Feminine food is light, decorative, comforting, emotional. As Tandoh wrote last week: "Even within baking there's the view that a spelt sourdough is somehow more sincere than a miniature macaron. It's all nonsense, of course, but as long as this needlessly gendered rift is maintained, both men and women will suffer for it."
Men, in other words continue to be the mainstream. They are the ones who do the serious stuff. And one way in which women have suffered is that we have become part of the message of naughtiness. Men can cook the big healthy meals, create the campaigns to change our diets, but it's for the likes of Nigella to represent the indulgence, the slightly sexual temptation. Eve messing up in the Garden of Eden with her apple pie again. Can we ever get away from our wickedness?
One answer to all this might be to celebrate the seriousness of baking, to hype up this feminine craft. Only a couple of years ago Nigella Lawson, appearing at the Hay book festival, described How To Be A Domestic Goddess as a feminist tract. "Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There's something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female."
So what's she suggesting: a campaign of liberation baking? I'm not sure that's the answer. I do feel uncomfortable with the way women's activities and feminine characteristics are all too often belittled. But given that most of us should be cutting back on fat and sugar and bodyswerving any approaching cupcake, is this really the time to start getting the nation's women baking for feminist victory?
No, let women keep to the moral high ground of creating healthy food, long a female occupation. Baking is an art that should be left to the select few artisans, while the rest of us soldier on with perfecting our soups, stews and salads, avoiding slipping into the role of the mum who makes a happy home out of concocting sweet things. The truth is we could all do with cutting out the cake - even when it's fresh from the oven and made with love.
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