Ruby Tandoh on Her New Book, Re-Democratizing Food and Lessons from 'The Great British Bake Off'
Americans may be most familiar with Ruby Tandoh from her run as a contestant on the Great British Bake Off in 2013, but since then, the 25-year-old author has grown what started as a recipe column in The Guardian into a body of food writing that is as incisive about the relationship between eating disorders and health culture as it is on the undervalued appeal of food memoirs.
Her new book, Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, brings it all together into a sort of broad manifesto on eating itself, incorporating a mix of personal experience, recipes and readings of everything from Da Vinci's The Last Supper to Nora Ephron films, with the goal of, she says, helping "you fall back in love with food." She spoke to Food & Wine about the book, re-democratizing food, and yes, what she thinks of the latest season of Bake Off.
When did you start writing about food?
After the Great British Bake Off, I got a baking column in The Guardian that was mostly straight up recipe writing. But as time went on, I realized that I was actually less interested in writing recipes, and more interested in the context that surrounded those recipes: the stuff that informs the ways we eat food, and the ways we pass on culinary traditions.
As I was collecting ideas for the book, I found that I kept coming back to things like popular culture, and I wanted to delve into music, and delve into film, and see what examples I could find within those things that would help inform what our relationship with food really means.
I don't want to tell you how to eat, or what to eat, or when to eat. I just want to help you figure out your own relationship with food.
How do you approach thinking and writing about that relationship?
Obviously in an ideal world, we would just eat when we're hungry, and find things that give us pleasure, and we'd enjoy them in the moment, and we wouldn't have to worry too much else outside of those moments.
But that's not the world we live in. There is so much anxiety about food at the moment, and there are so many conflicting messages about what we should and shouldn't eat. So I think what I'm battling against is that, and I’m trying to make sure that if we do have to think about food loads and loads, then we should at least be thinking about it in a way that is nourishing, and positive, and helpful.
To me, eating is about nourishing every part of yourself. So rather than this rather limited view of nutrition as physical health, or "optimizing your body," it's about what you can do to be emotionally happy. In what ways can you eat that allow you to socialize and be socially healthy, by giving you a place to come together with friends? And also physical health, but it's about the whole picture for me.
Is there something you wish you could have told yourself when you were younger?
You should feed yourself the way that you would feed your best friend. I mean you wouldn't give your best friend like, a plate of cold pasta, or a bowl of peas or something. You wouldn’t dream of it! And I used to eat these things! It's disgusting.
You've gotta take care, even if all that is is making a piece of toast and putting butter on it. It's about showing yourself a little compassion.
A key theme in Eat Up is that "food is political." How would you explain the idea to someone who isn't familiar?
I think people who have the luxury not to see food as political at all are very lucky, because food is political. If you have to go to a food bank to get your groceries, then food is political. Or if you're in prison and you have to rely on the food you're being given there, that's political. Or if you're delivering supplies to protestors somewhere, then it's political. In a lot of senses it's overtly, explicitly political.
But more in general, the stuff that we eat creates the people that we are, so of course that food is imbued with the same symbolic kind of power politics and class markers as we are.
In the book you talk about how certain values of food culture, like dedication to fresh ingredients or making things from scratch, mean something different to people who don't have the time or money to do it that way. How do you look at values like this, which can be both helpful and an obstacle?
There's definitely something to be said for re-democratizing food. It has become very divided along class lines, and along lines of income, race, gender, all of these things. But the bottom line is: what you like is what you like, and if you really enjoy getting a ready meal, then get that ready meal!
Like, you do not have to construct, you do not have to do some kind of semi-romantic slogging away over the stove making a risotto, if what you really want is to just pierce the film on top, put it in the microwave, and have your risotto straight away.
For me, it is about pulling apart these layers of snobbery that say that cooking is either everything, or it's nothing at all, and acknowledging the fact that there are so many delicious middle grounds. That where sometimes you have fast food, sometimes you have slow food; sometimes it's healthy, and sometimes it's not. And just taking what you can get and really enjoying it.
Do you think those extremes come from a positive place, and are just overdoing it? Or is it something else?
I think there's definitely loads of good intentions behind the snobbery sometimes. For example, some people talk about how you shouldn’t buy cheap chicken cause it's not had a good life, right. And I completely understand, and I agree with that in a sense, but for me the difference is between saying, "If you can afford to buy a £20 chicken, buy it, because you know it will have been happier," vs. saying, "You shouldn't eat any chicken unless you can afford the great one."
That is the difference. And I think some people are really sensitive in the way they talk about these things, and other people bulldoze a bit.
Now obviously we have to ask: but have you seen the latest season of Bake Off?
For a long time I couldn't; even hearing the theme music brought me out in hives. You know how it is, have you ever listened to recordings of your own voice? It's horrifying, isn't it? But more recently I've been able to watch it, not the whole series, I just kind of like dip in and out. I find it quite fun now. It no longer traumatizes me, I'm pleased to say.
Did going on Bake Off change how you saw food and eating at all? It's a pretty unique position to be in.
I was forced to confront people's reactions to me, and to the other bakers on the show. It was a really important life lesson: as someone who is desperate to be liked, it was a very important reminder that you cannot preempt people's reactions to you, and sometimes people are not gonna like you, and other people will, and that is just life.
Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, $10 on Amazon
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.