Snack attacks

"Greggs was supposed to be safe from the liberal metropolitan elite. The vegan sausage roll showed that it wasn’t"

It doesn’t take much to rile professional controversialist Piers Morgan, who famously accused the bakery chain Greggs of being “PC-ravaged clowns” for having the temerity to offer a vegan sausage roll.

It’s doubtful whether Mr Morgan is in the habit of picking up a savoury snack as he saunters down the high street or whether he has actually tasted Messrs Gregg’s vegetarian option (for the record, I can confirm it is very nice). But the spat—which prompted Greggs to tweet back “Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you”—was never really about sausage rolls. It was about class and culture.

Nobody cares when Pret, Waitrose or some other fancy brand releases a new vegan product. But Greggs is special. Founded in Newcastle in 1951, it has a certain position in the British imagination: doughty, salt of the earth, unpretentious, and even a bit macho—unusual for a brand that specialises in pastries. The archetypal Greggs customer is the precise opposite of the stereotypical vegan, who is believed (quite accurately) to be young, affluent, metropolitan, left-wing, white, female, and Guardian-reading. Plus—and this is important—vegans definitely vote Remain. They’re not a popular bunch. A recent American study found that vegans are viewed more negatively than atheists, immigrants, homosexuals, and asexuals. The only group who fared worse were drug addicts.

This may partly be due to the fact that people tend to be very tribal about food. In all societies, food is a source of group identity—particularly when eaten communally. Vegans mark themselves out as outsiders by refusing to eat the same food as everyone else. Notice, for instance, that meat eaters generally don’t comment on the fact that vegans don’t wear leather or wool—it’s tofu that gets them going.

But the Greggs incident was particularly heated because of the way that class plays out in our new American-style culture war, which is concerned more with social values than with economics. The arrival of the vegan sausage roll was interpreted as a betrayal, even an invasion, by those who despise the stereotypical vegan and everything she stands for.

The liberal metropolitan elite have—quite legitimately—been accused of sucking the country dry, accumulating money, power, and cultural capital at the expense of the rest of Britain. Greggs was supposed to be safe from this. The sausage roll treachery showed that it wasn’t.

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