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Ruby Tandoh: 'Food fads are toxic - they erode the faith you have in your appetite'

Former Great British Bake-off contestant Ruby Tandoh has written a book that’s an antidote to stress and pressure over food and eating. She says: eat up and enjoy your food.

Ruby Tandoh

IN A WORLD where food can be a complicated thing, writer and Great British Bake-Off contestant Ruby Tandoh wants to make things a bit more simple. With her latest book, Eat Up, she’s moved away from the recipe format and instead to exploring what food means to us, how we can best enjoy our food, and why there’s so much joy to be had in the simple things – like snapping a cold chocolate bar, eating a doughnut, or just buttering a slice of crunchy toast.

Here, Tandoh answers our questions on the book, her thoughts on diversity in food writing, and how she has gone from an eating disorder to changing her view of food. 

What inspired you to write Eat Up – and how does it differ from your previous books?

I think what’s really different about this one is that it’s not just about food, it’s about why and how and when and where we eat, and the cultures, emotions and rituals that surround our eating behaviours. In previous books I followed the usual recipe book template, which meant being instructional first and foremost, and concentrating on the nitty gritty of how to cook. This one’s really different in the sense that it’s discursive and descriptive, and not at all a traditional food book!

How would you describe Eat Up?

In a nutshell it’s a book about our relationships with food. That could mean what you like to eat, or how to (re)find your appetite. It means the recipes your mum or dad passed down, and the food teachings we absorb from the culture that surrounds us. It means picking apart some of the confusing messages we get about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food, and making your own rules when it comes to food and eating. I’ve mixed loads of research and reading with personal stories, love letters to foods and a couple of recipes. It’s a real mix.

Do you think the food writing world needs be shaken in terms of diversity, and why?

For sure. There’s such an incredible diversity within the cooks working in restaurant and home kitchens – people from all part of the world, people of every size and shape and gender – but that diversity doesn’t always get reflected in the food media. We spend so much time sending white chefs out to places around the world to ‘discover’ those cuisines, when actually there are so many people from those cultures here trying to tell us the exact same stories, but better. We could definitely stand to be a bit less imperialistic!

Do you think the food writing world is slow to examine itself in terms of how it could change or become more diverse?

Yeah, although no more so than most industries. I think the problem for me lies in the contrast between the progressiveness of the beliefs of most food writers etc and the staid structures they maintain. So most foodie people would fully support a food business run by refugees, for instance, but they don’t quite draw the link between that freedom to create, earn and be heard, and the large amount of space that the foodie is taking up in the food world with their musings on those refugees’ culture.

There is space for everyone, so it’s not that I don’t want people to explore food from all over the world. I just think we all need to think about when we could step back a little for other people to step into the frame.

You write that the book is about how food is “about way more than just what’s on the plate”.

Basically it’s just about looking at the fact that, as well as having an impact on our physical health (this much is well-documented, even obsessed over, in our food culture), food plays a vital role in our mental, emotional, social and cultural wellbeing, too. So even if going on a juice only diet did improve your bodily health (which it DOESN’T, for the record), it’d be awful for your social health cos it’d mean you couldn’t eat out with friends, and for you emotional health because you’d be bored out of your mind. This is a big focus of the book.

The last few years have seen lots of food fads/movements appearing (and often quickly disappearing) – eg ‘clean’ eating, paleo diet, keto diet. What are your thoughts on how these types of fads/movements can affect people’s beliefs around food and their own bodies?

It’s such a shame because each of these fads is bad in its own unique way, but there’s almost no point individually critiquing them because the moment that one is debunked, another just springs up in its place. It’s a toxic industry, and it feeds off the very normal, human anxieties we have about our bodies and our health.

And over time, what they do is erode the faith you have in your own appetite and your own cravings/desires/tastes. So you end up feeling hungry for a jacket potato, for instance, but you’ll turn to a book written by someone who’s never met you to see what you should be eating!

Eat the jacket potato! Your body is there begging for something.

Do you think that the body positivity movement intersects with your writing in Eat Up?

Definitely, but I think we need to go further than body positivity if we’re to really make a difference. Often the ‘body positive’ movement is used to just bolster the supremacy of slim just-a-tiny-bit-wobbly bodies, but that leaves behind so many people whose bodies are bigger, fatter, disabled, whatever.

So I want to book to not only be body positive, but fat positive, supportive of people with eating disorders and mental health problems, inclusive of people of all sexualities and genders… all of this stuff plays into a meaningful kind of body positivity that benefits everyone, not just a select few.

For women in particular, food can be a loaded topic – how do you address the topic of gender and food this in the book?

There’s so much to address when it comes to food and gender, so I almost didn’t even know where to begin! One thing that really struck me though was the gendered nature of appetite, and the ways in which women’s appetites are monitored by women themselves and also the society we live in.

There’s an impossible gold standard that you’re expected to meet as a woman: be hungry, but not too hungry – don’t eat too fast or too loud or in public. Eat something ladylike. Yorkies aren’t for girls. All of these messages contribute to a food culture that is, I’d argue, so much more fraught for women and non-binary people than for men.

How have your own thoughts about food and your relationship with it changed since your time on GBBO?

I’ve definitely settled into my own tastes. I used to be really worried that my tastes and cooking style were rubbish and that I should read every food magazine and always keep up to date with the in vogue foods… but I just don’t care anymore. I’m always hungry for new stuff, but it’s my own appetite and curiosity that I’m following this time, not the dictates of some far-off TV chef.

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You’ve been celebrating the little moments that make food great on your Twitter account – why is it important to celebrate these moments?

Because I think there’s this tendency to think that good food is a special thing that you have to spend a lot of time or money or effort to get – that it exists outside of the greyness of everyday life. But that’s not true.

There’s something amazing about the way golden butter melts and pools on hot toast. The first sip of a good cuppa is life-affirming. All this stuff is special, and it’s right there in front of you to be savoured. Good food isn’t the preserve of the elite.

Were there particular food writers that inspired you when writing the book?

I love Meera Sodha and her books Made in India and Fresh India. I also love Samin Nosrat, whose book Salt Fat Acid Heat has revolutionised the way I think about food! And Laurie Colwin, who wrote Home Cooking and showed me that writing about food was always about so much more than just the food itself.

As you say in your foreword to the book, eating can be ‘so f***ing complicated sometimes’ – do you have moments when eating feels complicated, and when you do, how do you address it?

I used to have an eating disorder, so food was definitely complicated then, but I’ve been well and eating up for some years now. But still for me and for most people there will always be the occasional moment when you’re bombarded with a million contradictory messages from chefs, doctors, celebrities, newspapers, friends and families, all telling you what you should or shouldn’t be eating, and it’s EXHAUSTING.

We need to be given space to enjoy food again. I hope Eat Up gives people that space.

What does food mean to you?

Everything. It is the fabric of my body, it is life and politics and art and memory and power, it is taste and sex and caring and charity and goodness. It’s everything.

Finally, what’s your favourite food (or foods!)?

Ice-cream, all day every day.

Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh is published by Serpent’s Tail and out now.

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