Recent Foodie Reads: Food as Philosophy, Healing Technique, and Revolution

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?

15 thoughts on “Recent Foodie Reads: Food as Philosophy, Healing Technique, and Revolution

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  1. I love the sound of The Reading Cure and discovered as I was reading that the Kindle version is on sale here, so I bought a copy before I even finished your review! Salty sounds good too, but like you I disagree with her comments on Colwin. (I have an extra soft spot for Colwin because she’s the only American food writer I’ve read who wrote about British food without needlessly and inaccurately slagging it off).

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    1. Oh how wonderful, I’m so glad I could convince you and that you were able to get it so quickly! I forgot to mention in the review that she’s from the UK and the book was never published independently in the US, so actually I had a tricky time tracking down a copy. Which is a shame because it’s great and very thoughtful and helpful, it deserves to be better known. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

      Salty was ok for me, it wandered a bit off track (the dinner party thing seemed gimmicky and I forgot about it until it came back at the end to wrap things up) and although all of the women were fascinating their food connections didn’t always gel. The author appreciated Colwin most for her willingness to make mistakes and be ok with kitchen screwups, which I love too, but it was such a weird criticism of recipes that are actually beloved, as far as I can tell! I don’t even remember Colwin’s writing on British food, but that makes me think I’m overdue for a reread 🙂

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  2. The dinner party list is interesting, though I don’t feel interested enough to want to read the book. I remember Ruby from the Great British Baking Show — and I’ve read her Guardian columns occasionally, so she seems a good possibility for a book. Nice list.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  3. This is timely as I just wrote a post about my own relationship with food. My food options have gotten so limited and constricted due to health issues that it’s led me to be suspicious about what is really going on there. This is taking me on some interesting paths of discovery and I am hopeful about the outcome and about being able to enjoy food again, or maybe for the first time, since I have resolved to quit using it as a distraction from other issues.

    I would especially like to read The Reading Cure (books are my personal solution to everything after all) but my e-library doesn’t seem to have it, not even on the recommendations list. Darn. I still have Laurie Colwin on my to-read list and a couple of hers are available, fortunately.

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    1. Your comment came through! 🙂 I have so many issues with WordPress commenting too, no idea why!

      Our relationships to food really do get so thorny and complicated. Correcting is easier said than done, especially once health issues like you mention get tied up into it too. When I was cutting out certain foods for chronic health issues, I found it gave me such a fear and aversion that lasted for years — it was horrible and so difficult to shake once I realized that the information I’d used to cut those foods was misguided or at least not scientifically sound. Food is just such a fraught area! But I also find it really helps to read about others who have overcome disordered eating or unhealthy food relationships. I would really recommend these first two in that case and I hope you can get to a place of enjoying it again and feeling better in general as soon as possible!!

      The Reading Cure was tough for me to find too, I think it’s only had a UK release. I ended up ordering a copy through Book Depository but it was quite awhile ago. None of my available libraries ever had it. Maybe try some UK bookshop sites that ship internationally? It was really a lovely and reassuring read.

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      1. Sorry to hear you’ve also had trouble with food-related “fear and aversion,” I hope that has gotten better for you. I’m just starting to get into reading in the field and I do find it helpful as always to connect with stories from those who have come through. I do sometimes order books from the UK; I try to limit that expense but this looks quite tempting…

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      2. It’s improved entirely but it was a very, very long road. Still, there is a light at the end of the tunnel of food issues, I can promise you! And I hear you, I try to limit the expense too and held off on this one for quite awhile since it wasn’t library-accessible for me either. I really thought it was worthwhile though, and if you use Kindle see the comment above – she was able to get it on a deal right now, so that could be an option!

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  4. I almost did not read this because I am not a foodie, my cooking is on a needs must shut the family up basis. But so glad I did for the “ beaver anal glands”; there’s a phrase I did not expect to come across today. Priceless. Also surely vanilla flavour comes from vanilla pods? And who the heck did the taste test on the beaver and thought, mmmm, vanilla?? I can never think about Davy Crockett in the same way.

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