Great British Bake Off contestant and Guardian columnist Ruby Tandoh’s book melding food, memoir, and life philosophy, Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, has been a UK bestseller since its 2018 release, and apparently is getting a US release next month, although the Queens Public Library already had it. I read it during some dark winter days and I really recommend it for a time like that.
I wasn’t familiar with Tandoh, having never watched the show that prompted her stardom, but I love the idea of anyone’s musings on food and life with recipes woven through. This worked well: Tandoh wants to encourage you to use cooking and food as medicine in healthy ways — of course as nourishment, but also as a source of happiness and connection. Sounds simple enough, but with all the anxiety and guilt that’s long been tied to food, never actually that simple. Yet she makes a compelling case for reminding yourself of those basic facts and rewiring thinking to enjoy it, however that looks for you — learning to strip the complexities and overthinking out of it.
Food is the point where our bodies merge with the vast universe outside, and that’s scary.
Tandoh writes about how cooking helps her during depressive episodes if she can just force herself into the kitchen. I noticed that during and after reading it, if I was feeling anxious, stressed, sad, or too overwhelmed to cook, if I pushed myself and did it anyway — just preparing something simple, it always was pleasantly distracting and really did help. It made me more enthusiastic about cooking in general. I already like to do it, but feel similarly to Tandoh – sometimes you just let life and moods interfere. It’s almost like pushing yourself to exercise when depressed or not motivated – you know it’ll make you feel better if you can just bring yourself to do it. I’ve been able to draw on her stories and force myself into it to positive results.
Somehow, the most elemental, easy, joyful thing we can do has become a chore and a source of anxiety, and we begrudge these blurry boundaries that encroach on us when we take the outside world inside us, and make ourselves from the inside out.
It’s also wonderful to have the voice of a queer woman of color in foodie lit. Although it skewed too heavily philosophical for me to fall completely in love with it, and it gets very twee at times, it had some stellar moments. I like her realistic, non-judgey style of thinking. Especially for anyone who’s had an unhealthy relationship with food in any way.
I was suspicious of some of it – she pulls out that old chestnut about beaver anal glands being used for vanilla flavoring, which has been debunked and explained a million times years before this book ever came out. It’s also a bit dated – there’s a line that I couldn’t tell was sarcasm or not, about Kim and Kanye’s love being the only real one in the world. Awkward.
I’m complaining a lot but it’s because the beginning was just so, so good and when it was that genuine, down-to-earth Laurie Colwin-esque style it’s wonderful and I wanted it all to be that good and not feel like watery philosophy and a million different scattered ideas, some of which didn’t feel as food-related as they were meant to. Used or new @SecondSale.com
On the topic of unhealthy relationships with food, Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite is such a unique book, in my experience, in that it’s a food-centric memoir around anorexia. Freeman writes about how losing herself in books that described the joy of food helped her claw her own way out of the eating disorder. This felt like nothing else I’d read before, which I guess at my age and volume of reading feels like a pretty significant achievement.
This is such a wonderful (and brave) concept to tackle, and Freeman seems careful not to provide any “tips” of what she ate during her illness — always a touchy area in telling these stories. She skirts the worst of the illness-related details in general, although succeeds in capturing how life-altering and debilitating it was, which makes the way she managed to save herself all the more impressive.
Freeman’s taste in literature for the most part doesn’t overlap with mine, which was the biggest drawback for me. I liked her explorations of classic food writers M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David (especially Fisher – really one of the most delightful topics here) but I’m less enamored with Charles Dickens or some of the stuffier older English writers, so you’ll definitely need some old-fashioned tastes to appreciate the full experience of it.
But that’s the magic of this: it’s what spoke to her in a desperate time of need and she makes a good case for why it worked. I especially loved the simplicity of some of it, which takes on such significance when slowly making your way back to a healthy relationship with food after many years of disordered eating. She describes the joy of “skirling” butter across a pan in preparation to cook eggs and I could really feel how delightful and transformative it was for her.
She also emphasizes that what most helped her in recovery through reading was learning, that feeling of being able to throw yourself into learning something when everything else is failing you, and I think there’s so much value in that concept. Used or new @SecondSale.com
Film critic/food writer Alissa Wilkinson’s Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women is a group biography peppered with memoir founded on the question: “If you could have a dinner party with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?”
She selected nine women for hers: Ella Baker, Alice B. Toklas, Hannah Arendt, Octavia Butler, Agnes Varda, Elizabeth David, Edna Lewis, Maya Angelou, Laurie Colwin, who have occasionally surprising culinary connections. Each chapter gives some background on the subject, her place in her era and historical significance, and what life and kitchen lessons Wilkinson has drawn from her work.
Some worked, some didn’t. It wanders far from that opening question, which didn’t strike my fancy all that much, to be honest, but I was on board enough just based on the women included. I somehow never knew Angelou had published two cookbooks, which sound utterly delightful, like everything she did. But the culinary connections of other selections are pretty tenuous (Varda, Butler) and I wasn’t swayed by the bits of wisdom she drew from them, although she definitely succeeded in showing how each was revolutionary in her own way.
I was surprised to read about Colwin: “Her recipes are not terribly interesting or original or, in some cases, very appealing.” Speak for yourself! Every Colwin recipe I’ve made has been wonderful, and three (her tomato pie, black bean soup, and “green sauce” for vegetables) are staples in my kitchen. And tell that to the people hosting Colwin-themed dinner parties! I guess in some cases, sure, they’re not all very appealing but that applies to every cookbook I own or have read.
But this makes a good case for each woman’s unique contributions and I learned a good bit. There’s a recipe with each chapter, based on the subject’s own cooking or preferred tastes with Wilkinson’s twists, although they were also a bit too New York Times cooking section-inspired for me. published June 28 by Broadleaf Books. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Used or new @SecondSale.com
What great foodie nonfiction have you been reading lately?