Food today is confusing. Well, perhaps not food itself, but the exhausting narratives of diet culture, wellness, good fats and bad fats certainly permeates into our brains and dictates to us, like a toxic friend, what we should be eating. In this landscape, I’ve often wondered why I’m craving a simple cheddar cheese sandwich on puffy white bread, like the ones from my childhood, when according to these insta-accounts and food blogs I should be craving something more refined, something ‘purer’, something that will make me feel light. I wondered why my appetite suffered so badly on my year abroad, when my anxiety had reached its worst point; I would forget to eat for half the day, come back ravenous, cook a complex meal sure to nourish me, and then after one bite I’m full and feeling a strange nausea come over my body. On top of this, Instagram furthers my confusion: why are some people allowed to eat fast food but others not?
With this in mind, it was with joy that I managed to see Ruby Tandoh talk about her new book Eat Up!: A Book About Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want in a Q&A with Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff of Gal-dem in London. This book delves into these questions with gumption and joy. Stories of berry picking on a summer afternoon, the perfect soup for a cold, how your stomach and mind are intrinsically linked, and even how to eat a cream egg. Ruby made it clear from the start that one of the main objectives of this book was not to tell anyone how to eat. She just wants us to enjoy our food on our own terms.
My friend and I were early to the event, so we managed to have a chat with Ruby before the talk. We shared university experiences, laughed over anecdotes from my friend’s job in a juice bar frequented by B-list celebrities, and discussed the gentrification of food that is spreading across London. You can tell that Ruby truly does care about her readers; from her unfiltered demeanour that feels protective and her time spent chatting to everyone after the event. She has no time for snobbiness when it comes to food. Against the negative press surrounding fast food, she notes that “if food is popular, it’s good”.
Her book, deemed a ‘manifesto’, is in stark comparison with most food books, who “potter along in an a-political world”, something she heartily rejects in Eat Up!. A huge follower of Pop Culture, her book citations include Rihanna and the Kardashians, and food on film, including Moonlight as an example of tenderness and food. She also shared her deep love for mums and their quirky behaviours. The whole event felt down-to-earth, with Charlie and Ruby bouncing off each other and regularly making the whole room fall into laughter.
This loving atmosphere radiates in the book too; fat-phobia is exposed, unpacked and dismissed (“if I wasn’t thin I would not have this platform”) whilst the short stories that are peppered across the chapters like dream sequences really do make you fall in love with eating again. After reading the first few chapters I wanted to bake a simple apple pie, I dreamt up the poached eggs for breakfast the following day, and I planned the next curry my flatmate and I could devour.
Although a fan of Ruby’s work in general, I was also there for research. I’m currently working towards a dissertation on food in post-colonial literature, and questions of ‘authenticity’ and cultural identity that are wrapped up in what we eat. This is especially apparent in the appropriation of ‘ethnic’ food as being somehow more ‘authentic’; even if it is being served in a white-owned restaurant with no links whatsoever to the food’s origin. Ruby notes how there is no one, absolute, authentic version of a dish – food is complex, messy and in all cases a mixture of influences and variables. “Every time you make the same recipe, it comes out slightly different”, she celebrates. She tells us of a painful experience where she took her Singaporean friends to an Asian restaurant, where a white waiter said he wanted to offer them an ‘authentic Asian experience’. Ouch.
As the discussion turns to the gentrification of food, especially around London, Ruby notes how important it is to think about how your restaurant works with the surrounding neighbourhood. If you are white and want to open a ‘Bangladeshi style’ restaurant, it is crucial to hire people who come from that community and to charge food in accordance with local wages. In most cases it’s best to question your motives and just go to a real Bangladeshi restaurant. Having a life-changing trip to South Asia does not mean you can now exploit a culture for your own gain. As Ruby concludes, “just because you can make rice properly, doesn’t mean you can tell a community how to be themselves”.
If you have any friends, mums, significant others who have struggled with or adore food, this book is a real gift.
– Victoria Pownall