Anyone who watches The Great British Bakeoff will remember Ruby Tandoh from a few years back. She is a brilliant baker and food writer with several cookbooks to her name, not to mention my personal favourite recipe for sweet bread dough. With her latest book, she ventures away from the cookbook format to talk more generally about food and eating.
I’ve been looking for this book for quite a while. It seems that Ruby Tandoh’s manifesto on eating is pretty popular; it’s been sold out at a couple of bookshops I’ve tried, and is always out on loan at the library. All this served to increase my anticipation and I finally got hold of a copy last week.
Much more than a square meal
This is a book that knows that it is about much more than just food.
Initially, Tandoh draws you in with chapters that focus purely on the joy of eating. Descriptions of sticking your finger into a creme egg or buttering hot toast will have you drooling in no time; so much so that I had to restrict my reading to breakfast time so I wouldn’t be desperately hungry as soon as I put it down.
The chapters are littered with easy, simple recipes which Tandoh has devised to illustrate her arguments.
But if you thought this was going to be a nice easy read about the sensation of taste, think again! Within a few chapters, suddenly we’re into the history of foodstuffs, food as a political weapon and the discrimination of the class system expressed through food.
We are also deep into discussions about diets and food allergies, restricted eating, calorie counting and eating disorders.
This was one of the things that interested me about Tandoh’s book. It’s a kind of anti-diet manifesto, imploring us to eat what we want, when we want and to try our best to avoid the anxiety and paranoia that pervades the food and diet industry.
Entering the food fight
If you follow Ruby Tandoh on Twitter, you will know that she doesn’t take prisoners when it comes to setting out her views. In fact, she took on the positively terrifying Lucy Watson from Made in Chelsea recently over her assertion that everybody should be vegan:
I will not stand by while yet another privileged-beyond-belief a**hole tries to tell people that they’re living their normal, kind, happy, healthy lives all wrong.
Tandoh makes no secret that her opinions are formed from her ‘working-class’ upbringing and part Ghanaian heritage. She lampoons so many ‘bougie’ chefs, diets and approaches to food in ‘Eat Up’ that it actually becomes quite dizzying. To Tandoh, almost every aspect of the food industry seems to represent white privilege.
Indeed, she withdrew from her column in The Guardian saying that the food industry was ‘élitist’.
In ‘Eat Up’, celebrity chefs, cookbooks and whole-food stores are all in the crosshairs. But mostly this is a book about food, class and money. Tandoh argues that a lot of the wellness messaging and drive towards this mythical notion of ‘health’ that expresses itself in toned abs on Instagram is to do with privilege and wealth.
Making out that anyone who doesn’t follow a regimen of yoga and protein yoghurt is unhealthy is inherently classist and discriminatory, because plenty of lower-income households can’t afford quinoa or almond milk or any of the other pricey health foods we now consume.
She also claims that millennial ‘wellness’ is a trend with little basis in fact. Heavily marketed ‘superfoods’ have little to no actual benefit to our health, and many of the foods we have demonised (refined sugar, carbohydrates, tinned rather than fresh vegetables, frozen food) is actually perfectly fine for us to consume.
This down-to-earth attitude to food is a welcome respite from one celebrity diet book after another. But I have to say I don’t feel any closer to understanding what actually is a ‘healthy’ diet. Ruby Tandoh is a salmon swimming upstream in her attitude to fast food joints and junk food.
What’s eating me?
I have been struggling since I finished ‘Eat Up’ to understand the reaction that it provoked in me. While I agreed with a lot of what Ruby Tandoh said, I found myself getting slightly frustrated while reading this book.
As most of the things I’d heard before reading were positive, I even went searching for validation on GoodReads and was met with a raft of five star reviews. Is it just me? Why was I wound up by a book that I largely agreed with?
After thinking it over I have come to the conclusion that reading this book was slightly alienating for me because I felt it oversimplified society’s problem with food and eating, especially for women.
I’m female, so I’m pretty familiar with the daily pressures on women to eat ‘healthily’ and lose weight almost constantly. I know how it is to be judged on how you look and what you’re eating. I’m middle class, so I have undoubtedly had an easier ride than others, but there’s still a lot going on that affects our attitude to eating beyond class.
Bringing almost everything back to class and money doesn’t really take into account all the gender politics associated with food and eating, or the messages that are constantly pumped out in the media telling us to hide ourselves away if we’re not thin. It doesn’t cover the sexualisation of eating for women, or the shame associated with eating in public.
It also doesn’t cover the insidious nature of the dieting and wellness industry. Rather than calling people ‘snobs’ or implying that they’re stupid for falling for this kind of messaging, I think it would be kinder and more productive to criticise it for what it is: the product of an industry which relies on telling us we’re not good enough so that we can buy our way back to acceptance.
People who are tricked by messaging like this are not stupid – there are so many other influences and societal pressures that push us constantly in that direction and promise us happiness, beauty and longevity if we lose just one more kilo.
In my opinion, it’s a bigger issue than just a poor decision made by a silly individual – and it’s something which affects all women and many men, albeit in different ways depending on their circumstances.
My quibbles aside, though, ‘Eat Up’ can only be a force for good in the world of food writing. It’s nice to hear someone talking about eating chocolate and chips occasionally without falling immediately into spasms of guilt and self-recrimination. And it’s certainly very different in tone to most food writing you can get hold of these days. Not a chia seed in sight!
I can see this being a useful tool to rely on when in doubt about diets and would make an especially good gift for a teenager, I think, as it provides lots of counterpoints to very hackneyed myths associated with dieting and our bodies. I would have appreciated having this information when I was younger.
Have you read ‘Eat Up’? What did you think?