Unsurprisingly, Ruby Tandoh is an excellent eating partner. The first time we meet is at Padella, a pasta restaurant in Central London. We order three plates of pasta to eat between the two of us, plus a basket of sourdough bread, and later, chocolate tart and a bowl of salted-caramel ice cream. Tandoh gushes over the pillowy gnocchi with nutmeg and sage butter. “I can never make it like this at home,” she says.
Somehow, I doubt it. An accomplished cook who has released two cookbooks, Crumb: A Baking Book and Flavour: Eat What You Love , Tandoh is still best known for her appearance on baking competition show The Great British Bake Off in 2013. Since then, she has proved herself to be a sharp commentator who is carving a surprisingly radical path through the food industry, despite her twee beginnings.
Tandoh’s new book, Eat Up, is nourishing in the purest sense. Sitting somewhere between a manifesto, memoir, and recipe book, it sees her write lovingly about the things she cares about most in-depth: food, family, her fiancé, and all the cultural and social implications of eating in a world where we generally take a bizarre approach to what enters our mouths.
Eat Up’s mission is to tear down inaccurate rhetoric around consumption and lead us into a future where we can appreciate all types of food. Even the floppiest ham sandwich with a smear of margarine is elevated by her words.
Beyond that, Eat Up is a book spiked with brilliant food research—did you know, for instance, that castoreum, a compound found in the anal glands of a beaver, is sometimes used as a substitute for vanilla? It moves between the radical actions of the Black Panthers, who started a free breakfast club for children in the 1960s, to a “magical thinking” study in which students were told about fictional tribes and made assumptions on their character based on what they ate.
Nothing is too high or lowbrow for her pen and if the much-maligned Deliciously Ella is the goddess of “clean eating,” Tandoh is the antichrist. A bit sweary, a bit awkward, and with absolutely no pretence (plus a way with words that would make Jay Rayner cry), she’s an invigorating interviewee.
Ruby Tandoh: I think I was lucky, in a sense. I’d been vegan for a while. And I was like, “Some rules to restrict my diet, how delightful!” That lasted for maybe a year. But then I changed university course and met some new people and those things were enough to slightly nudge me out of that. Since then, it’s been a case of rebuilding a good relationship with food. My mum always took pride in introducing us to low standards early—because she said that way, we wouldn’t be disappointed. I think it did inform the way I felt about food more generally because I was always really delighted whenever there was a mealtime. I don’t know how my views are going to work in the bigger conversation, though. The diet industry is big business.It’s interesting you said at the end of the book you were cautious of even talking about veganism in Eat Up at all.
I didn’t want to be an ethicist. I don’t know the science, don’t know the industry, don’t know the history. So I can’t deliver judgements from above. All I can do is encourage people to make their own decisions. But it’s just such a loaded thing for me because being vegan did coincide with the worst of my eating disorder. I can’t really see it in a balanced way. I don’t like eating vegan food because I worry about liking it too much and slipping back into it.With talk of your eating disorder and your fiancé in the book, how do you feel about putting the personal into print and the longevity of that?
I hadn’t thought about it until today! But I do just feel quite settled in my life. I’m quite happy and confident that I’m going to have a good run of it. Even if I don’t I think there’s something quite valuable in writing down a story as it is, when it happens and not letting yourself rewrite history and write out certain parts of your life. Like, “Oh, I never had that bad boyfriend” or whatever.
I realised it was about respect, it’s about not abusing power, it’s about doing things in really thoughtful ways. If, as a white person, you really really really love Bangladeshi food and you want to start up a restaurant, no one is to stop you from doing that. But it’s up to you to do it in a way that’s respectful to the community.The book was pretty intersectional in general. How did you go about making sure you were recognising your own privileges when you wrote it?
So many problems with the industry are that it’s only thin, white, cis, middle class people. So obviously it was obviously important for me to talk about that stuff and recognise the privileges that I do have. I am slim, I’m not at the receiving end of fatphobia, and I’m cis. So, I think it was really important for me to recognise this stuff so I didn’t trample on other people.You mention Bake Off a couple of times in the book, but in the years since, what do you think you’ve learned about yourself?
At school, I was so desperate to be liked and if it was clear that someone wasn’t going to like me, I preemptively loathed them. When I went on Bake Off, I was very insecure and I didn’t have much confidence in my ability at all, but also I felt the need to be performatively meek. Because I thought that as a woman if you’re anything but meek, people are going to think you’re up yourself. But I was performatively meek and then people hated that as well. It was a very important lesson to learn that not everyone is going to like you, so get on with it. I still don’t know why I did it. It was so out of character. But at the end of the day, I was just this working class girl from Essex and I never finished my degree and there was no chance I would have ended up in this very cliquey food industry without this platform.
I would love to work with food in a way that’s inclusive. I love writing but it’s like, is it actually making a difference? Would it be more useful to spend my time on the ground, actually doing things? I’d love to have an ice cream parlour and pay people a good wage and train them to make the ice cream themselves. It would be affordable for everyone in the area and employ all sorts of people—get the waifs and strays in.And finally, in the book, you touch on the fact that as humans, we’ve always been a bit mad when it comes to food. Do you think it is possible that we can move towards a place where we look at food in a better way?
It is fascinating how absolutely barmy we’ve been with food forever. People used to think we have “humours” inside and you have a “wet” one, and a “hot” one and you balance it out. If you’re feeling lovelorn, have something moist. But what’s funnier is that we replicate that thinking now. We think we’re so logical and clever, we know our calorie counts. But when it comes down to it we make these value judgements based on the type of food people are eating. We think we’re so above it, and we’re not.