Title: Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want (2018)
Author: Ruby Tandoh
Publisher: Serpent’s Tale
Read: 10th – 19th June 2018
Genre: non-fiction; cookbooks
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“Think about that first tickle of hunger in your stomach. A moment ago, you could have been thinking about anything, but now it’s thickly buttered marmite toast, a frosty scoop of ice cream straight from the tub, some creamy, cheesy scrambled eggs or a fuzzy, perfectly-ripe peach. Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Food nourishes our bodies, helps us celebrate our successes (from a wedding cake to a post-night out kebab), cheers us up when we’re down, introduces us to new cultures and – when we cook and eat together – connects us with the people we love.
In Eat Up, Ruby Tandoh celebrates the fun and pleasure of food, taking a look at everything from gluttons and gourmets in the movies, to the symbolism of food and sex. She will arm you against the fad diets, food crazes and bad science that can make eating guilt-laden and expensive, drawing eating inspiration from influences as diverse as Roald Dahl, Nora Ephron and Gemma from TOWIE. Filled with straight-talking, sympathetic advice on everything from mental health to recipe ideas and shopping tips, this is a book that clears away the fog, to help you fall back in love with food.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
Eat Up is part-memoir, part-cookbook in which once Great British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh charts her attitudes and history with food and cooking, advocating listening to your body’s appetites and wants rather than what some pre-ordained diet plan tells you your body wants. As someone who isn’t particularly well-versed in cookbooks, or food writing, I found Ruby’s tone and attitude extremely accessible and enjoyable to read, and you certainly also get sprinklings of memoir-esque vignettes that give you some idea as to her life and why she has developed certain attitudes towards food. Interestingly, though, these memoir moments never feel over-done or shoe-horned into what would otherwise be a cookbook; instead, Ruby’s carefully chosen anecdotes help to explain the idea that simply the scent of someone cooking a stew could take you back to being a youngster and smelling the same dish being lovingly prepared by your grandmother whilst you were busying playing with toys on her living room floor. It’s in these connections of food to memory that I think Ruby’s Eat Up really shines.
“Our memories are patchworks of taste.We might remember a particularly golden slice of lemon cake before we recall the birthday it celebrated, or be flung back to the fluttering happiness of being six years old by a bite of a Milky Way.”
Of course, the book is also wonderfully designed and packaged. My edition was a naked hardback and its cover is a bright and colourful pink background dotted with cartoon illustrations of everything from hot dogs to a watermelon, emblazoned with the declarative “Eat Up!” order that Ruby advocates throughout the entire book (her manifesto of sorts). The end-papers echo these illustrations which are also found as header illustrations for the recipes sprinkled throughout the book – I didn’t expect to see a cute cartoon illustration of a Cadbury’s Creme Egg of all things in a “cookbook”, but here we are. The structure of the book is a little strange, but firmly marks it out as more of an (admittedly casual) essay-based book rather than anything resembling the cookbooks Bake Off contestants often churn out like clockwork after entering the talent show. In fact, it’s clear from every page of Eat Up! that neither Ruby nor the publisher wanted to produce anything like this expected format and it’s probably the reason why I found myself interested in this book, as someone who isn’t particularly fond of cooking but loves to eat and appreciates homely cooking over anything overtly fancy. There’s no pretension to Ruby’s book, it’s very much the personality which I expect from her – honest and uncaring about the accepted “rules” or “norms”, I mean she calls eating a Creme Egg eating seasonally, for goodness sake, and the book’s epigraph is from Common. This isn’t your Delia Smith or Nigella Lawson.
“Tea with sugar is a blood sport. It is a cup of colonialism brewed strong with the labour of other people, in other places, drowned out by the sound of our tea morning chatter.”
That is not to say that Ruby denigrates the big hitters of the food and cookbook world – far from it, in fact – but she also pleasingly peppers through the book historical, socio-political, and cultural examples which highlight some of the changing history of food and our attitudes towards it. For example, she points out that in Victorian Britain white bread was in favour with the elite but wasn’t with the poorer classes because it was uneconomically made – they preferred heavier brown bread instead, bread which nowadays could be aspirationally coded as “artisan” or “farmhouse” and targeted at those shoppers with more money. It’s obvious even from small select examples like this that Ruby not only knows her food history, but she’s not afraid of confronting a lot of the class-related discourse surrounding food and “healthy eating” and agreeing that food, and our attitudes towards it, can have the power to divide as well as join together communities of people in past societies as well as today’s society. I didn’t expect anything less from Ruby but I’m very glad to feel its undercurrent very much running throughout every page of this book.
“When sugar was expensive and alluringly rare in Elizabethan England, it was the wonder of the ruling classes; now highly sugared, processed drinks, sweets and treats are considered the vice of the poor, as the wealthy turn increasingly towards low- or no-sugar diets.”
In conclusion, if you’re already a fan of Ruby Tandoh from her Great British Bake Off appearance (or her Twitter), I would certainly recommend you give this a read. If you’re not familiar with her style or her tone, I would recommend you approach this with some caution but with a willingness to listen what she has to say. In reading this, I felt like I confronted some of my own experiences with food and was able to identify several behaviours that are learned from society to regulate, rather than enjoy, food. However, the overall message to take away from this book was certainly the ways in which food serves to build memories and bring people together – a person cooking you a meal, or you baking a cake for a colleague’s birthday, or a friend even just making you a cup of tea after a hard day at work, is how we all communicate and show care and affection towards others, whilst discourses of strict health and constant regulation only serve to strangle what should otherwise be a moment of enjoyment.
“It is a miracle that you are here, and that you are here now in this most auspicious moment in history. Because in the 200,000 years that modern humans have walked this earth, waffles have only existed for a few minuscule, sparkling moments in all of history. […] The flash of life that is you, your life – it coincides with the age of books and waffles. What a time to be alive.”