Ruby Tandoh thinks food is more than mere fuel. It touches all areas of life, she says, from politics and fashion to love, cutting to the core of people’s identities and the way they view their bodies.
But the Sheffield-based food writer’s new book argues there is no single right way to eat.
Described as a ‘radical manifesto’, Eat Up calls on readers to surrender to enjoying the foods they like without guilt, be it ice cream, pizza or cake – eating, within reason, what they want.
A cross between a personal memoir and a series of short academic essays, with some recipes thrown in, the book is a departure for Ruby, a Great British Bake Off finalist in 2013, following her two cooking guides Crumb and Flavour.
“At the moment there’s so much anxiety and confusion surrounding food – a million different messages hurtle at us about what we should and shouldn’t be eating, to the extent that we often forget that food is pleasure,” she says.
“We get so hung up on calories and carbs and what the ‘right’ thing to eat is that we end up completely glossing over all the ways in which food makes us feel good, connected to our culture, at home within our families and so on.”
It’s a wide-ranging book, and it’s worth wondering whether Ruby was surprised at the topic’s reach when she began her research.
“Definitely,” she agrees. “I’m a food writer so obviously a lot of the people I meet and the things I read are really closely focused on food, how to cook and the finer details of gastronomy. But what I discovered when I started writing Eat Up was that I was barely consulting these ‘foodie’ sources at all.
“The resources I used, the things I took inspiration from and the references I cited were this really eclectic bunch of films, music videos, novels and history.
“I found that what really excited me were the ways that food factors into politics, love, the arts, fashion, history and activism. That’s so much more interesting to me than just the art of Michelin star cuisine.”
Food ‘stretches wide across the cinema screen’ in the 2016 movie Moonlight, she writes, and even the Cher vehicle Moonstruck depicts the singer-actress feeding Nicolas Cage a steak, ‘whether he likes it or not’.
Meanwhile Ruby dedicates a good proportion of the book to explaining how food can be politicised, from the proliferation of food banks in Britain as poverty increases, to the affluent using food as a way of asserting superiority.
What does she think is the next big battleground?
“Vegan food is huge at the moment, which I think is pretty cool in lots of ways – industrial farming is obviously not an ideal way to be feeding ourselves, and there are plenty of ways in which a plant-based diet puts less strain on the environment. That said, we’re all going to have to be really careful over the coming years that we don’t promote veganism at the expense of ordinary people just trying to live their lives.”
Ruby, who grew up in Essex, struggled with an eating disorder when she was younger, and is wary of movements that might encourage people to restrict their diets unnecessarily.
“If you can be vegan some or most or even all of the time, that’s fantastic, but there are so many reasons why not everyone will want to or be able to do that.”
She also believes the food industry is overdue its own Harvey Weinstein-style sexual harassment scandal.
“It’ll definitely come out at some point, but I don’t know when. So many women in food – TV personalities, chefs in professional kitchens or waiting staff – have stories about sexual misconduct and abuse from high-profile male chefs.”
Ruby, 25, lives off Abbeydale Road with fiancée Leah Pritchard, and last year briefly worked as a pastry chef at a local café.
“I genuinely got a buzz from waking at the crack of dawn and heading into the kitchen to make cakes and ice creams and desserts... in so many ways it was a dream job.”
One day she would ‘love to have an ice cream shop’.
“I don’t know when that’d happen, but Sheffield seems like such a perfect venue for a business like this because the food scene is so lively here.
“I eat as much good food here in Sheffield as I ever ate when I was living down in London.
“A radio host actually asked me the other day: “So, do you find it hard getting good food up north?”. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“I’m eating better than I ever have in my life, and Sheffield is feeding me well.”
n Eat Up is out now, published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £12.99.