For all the artful presentation and obsessive documentation of food that’s saturated Western media in recent years (especially since the dawn of Instagram), there’s infinitely less ink and fewer pixels deployed to describe the act of eating it. There’s the after, for certain, either in the almost fetishistically chronicled “wellness” claimed to be invoked by all manner of powders and pollens, or the cautionary tales of people who ingested the supposedly incorrect amount (read: excess) of food or “unhealthy” ingredients and suffered as a result. There are such vast, heaping portions of all of this served up across pages and screens that it’s almost impossible not to choke on it.
Thank goodness for Ruby Tandoh. In her new book, Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ($17, Amazon), the former Great British Bake Off contestant and Guardian columnist delves into the infinitely less exalted aspects of eating to create an empathetic, intersectional, sometimes celebratory, and often painful account of the complicated ways in which we feed ourselves today.
“How the hell did things get this way?” she asks in a chapter cocking an eyebrow at the especially moralistic components of the contemporary “wellness” movement. Tandoh, who writes openly of her own struggles with an eating disorder and the destructive, futile goal of “erasing” one’s own body, takes particular issue with marketers’ tendency to conflate their spokespeople’s (often lifestyle bloggers and Instagram influencers) thin, toned, expensively fed, and almost invariably white bodies with some sort of moral triumph in the service of selling pricey diet plans, foods, and supplements. “Our judgement is far-reaching,” she writes, imagining an onlooker conditioned by the strictures of this regime assessing the contents of a fellow shopper’s basket. “You are what you eat and what you eat is bad.”
Her antidote: Eat what you want in the quantity and quality you desire, and do not apologize. In fact, celebrate the act of feeding your body, whether that is with a Cadbury creme egg that’s been warmed in the depths of your pocket, a ready meal from the supermarket, the first or last biscuit from the office tin, or the humble stew that sustained your grandparents in their native land.
Tandoh is perhaps at her most insightful when she writes about want and shame and their inextricable link to food. In a chapter on LGBTQ+ influences in food culture, Tandoh, who identifies as queer, writes of the sublimation of carnal wants into the sensual pleasures of food—especially when those desires might be seen as taboo. In another, she explores of cultural fatphobia and the slippery language couching “health concerns” as a way to humiliate people into denying their bodies the sustenance they need and the pleasure they deserve.
It’s a lot to digest, but the serial essay structure of the book makes it endlessly easy to pick up, flip to the most relevant section for your needs—be that emotional eating, cultural identity, or body shame—and feel sated.
And yes, there are also recipes, but not in the glossy cookbook format that Tandoh has followed before in her previous volumes, Crumb and Flavour. There is no photographic or linguistic food porn, or suggested serving sizes—just small, grey illustrations, ersatz headnotes with guidance like, “If you can love these misshapen, lumpy, bumpy little rocks, you can sure as hell love your own wonderful body,” leading into walk-through directions for Toffee Apple Rock Cakes.
To salve the wounds of a breakup, Tandoh suggests an old-fashioned beef stew with the dumpling cooking timed to the romantic arc from the movie The Way We Were, and for depression and seasonal affective disorder, she offers an easily achievable salmon and sweet potato meal packed with vitamins and nutrients that are beneficial to brain function.
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By Tandoh’s reckoning, food culture is rife with problems, but the food is not to blame—it’s the way we’re going to find the strength to fix them. Eat what you want, but by all means, consume every word of this book.
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