Ruby Tandoh was a contestant on The Great British Bake Off during its 2013 season, riding to a top three finish with her original flavors and wry sense of humor. While many of the show’s contestants returned to their day jobs and maintained baking as a weekend project, Tandoh has parlayed her star-making turn on Bake Off into a burgeoning publishing empire. She’s already written two cookbooks, Crumb and Flavour, a zine focused on mental well-being called Do What You Want, and she’s a contributor to The Guardian. She’s also focused much of her post-television work on demystifying stigmas around eating and combating the aggressive marketing of the “wellness industry.”
Her new book, Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, a wide-ranging tome that combines reported essays and recipes with personal memoir, came out this month. The Takeout spoke to Ruby about its origins, comfort-eating, and food’s role in pop culture.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. British spelling has been changed to American spelling for consistency.
The Takeout: A lot of readers knew you from The Great British Bake Off, where you made it to the final episode. Did you feel the show represented the baker and person you were and are now, and how do you feel like your time on Bake Off kicked off the path you’re on now?
Ruby Tandoh: Yeah, it definitely did, as far as any reality show can represent a person. It’s so weird to see clips from the show and that time in my life now though because I really don’t feel like that person anymore. In the four, five years since Bake Off, I’ve changed so much. But I am really grateful to have had the opportunity—I was just a working class girl struggling with my university degree, and now I’m doing food writing, which is this amazing job that would’ve been so much harder to get into if I hadn’t had that amazing launchpad.
TO: Are you keeping up with the Mary/Mel/Sue-less edition of Bake Off? Or are there other food shows—reality or otherwise—you keep up with?
RT: I haven’t really watched the most recent series! I watch a lot of food TV though—I find it soothing and infuriating in equal measure. I love Ree Drummond’s strange fantasy ranch life, and I love Guy Fieri’s over-the-top enthusiasm and Nigella’s specific brand of whimsy.
TO: Eat Up! is expansive, ranging in genre from history to personal essay to food science to self-help to recipes. What was the book’s original conceit?
RT: I was really keen to avoid writing a straight-up food memoir. I’ve read a load of books like that, and I think there’s a huge amount of value in them (especially because so many women of color use the format as a means to document their experiences), but that’s not the book I wanted to created—I just haven’t lived enough life yet. That’s why I went so deep with research, reading and citing the work of other authors. I wanted it to speak to a whole range of experiences, and to write in a way that mirrored the plurality of food experiences we can have: So there are personal essays rooted in emotion and nostalgia, recipes about the processes of cooking and eating, explorations of food cultures and histories. Food is such a big subject; you gotta cast your net wide to do it justice.
TO: What was your favorite discovery you made through your research?
RT: I absolutely loved learning about the weird ways that we conflate food and identity. Like we have these magical beliefs that run through our worldview even though we think we’re so damn logical all the time. There was this amazing study, for example, where people were asked to describe what they imagined to be the attributes of a (fictitious) tribe based on what they allegedly ate. When told that the tribespeople ate boar, people described them as stocky, bullish and resilient. When told the tribe’s diet was turtle, they described the eaters as wise and good at swimming. It’s so astonishing just how susceptible we are to these ways of thinking.
TO: Much of what Eat Up! accomplishes, regardless of the form it takes, is try to demystify and deconstruct the moral and psychological and economical trappings people fall into as they try to, well, eat. You’ve also published a zine called Do What You Want, which captures a similar philosophy. At what point in working on cookbooks and personal writing did you feel motivated to take up this charge?
RT: Something I really want is for people to feel empowered to follow their own appetites. That’s the heart of it. We’re in the middle of an age of this incredible anxiety around food at the moment—the world is so scary and so grim and one of the few ways that most of us can actually control our lives is to control the food we eat. So we plow a ton of energy into ‘perfecting’ the fine details of our diet in this misguided hope that somehow it’ll give us new life. But food doesn’t work that way. It can’t guarantee health, it certainly can’t give you happiness. It’s just this thing—often fun and delicious and nourishing, sometimes boring, sometimes mundane, always vital—that sustains our bodies and minds. Accepting that food can be all of these things is the foundation of having a good relationship with food: You gotta follow your appetite, listen to your own body and prioritize your well-being. Eat what you want. Take care of yourself. No one else can tell you what’s best for you.
TO: Do you have a go-to, fail-proof comfort meal?
RT: I love my girlfriend’s chicken adobo so much. It’s meant to be made with pork, but she doesn’t eat pork so we make it with chicken drumsticks and thighs. It’s so sweet and sour and savory and nourishing, and it reminds me of where my girlfriend is from, and what she’s made of. It really grounds me.
TO: There are a ton of references to food in pop culture, from Moonstruck to Moonlight, and how what foods we see on screen and how they’re used often nourish us in real life. Were there any particular moments in pop culture—in film, or TV, or otherwise—from this past year that feel memorable to you?
RT: Call Me By Your Name! That notorious moment when Elio fucks the peach, of course. But also the other food moments: the whole film is full of food and nurturing in this amazing queer Eden. It’s brilliant. It’s so refreshing to see queer people just existing in a warm, rich, nourishing space. It’s beautiful.
TO: Thinking back to this tweet of yours, who are some of your favorite writers in industry who are non-white/wealthy? What was your biggest takeaway from the flood of responses here?
RT: I was so delighted to see how many people got in touch. There’s an army of food writers out there who are nontraditional food types. Some are [people of color], some are queer or trans, some are fat, some are disabled, some are poor. All these people are working to diversify the demographics within food writing and also to lend a voice to chefs/restaurants etc who don’t typically get coverage. That’s so important, because the food world is so often so privileged. I particularly love the writing of Tejal Rao, Mayukh Sen, Michael Twitty, Kat Kinsman, Yemisi Aribisala and Meera Sodha. All these people have points of view that are different from the time-old stereotypes.
TO: So you’ve now written two cookbooks, a zine, now Eat Up!, to your tinyletter, to truly one of the great Twitter accounts (that also highlights all the best parts of eating all different kinds of foods). Are there more forms, genres, projects that you want to work on next?
RT: That’s so difficult to know! I just wanna work on making the food industry more inclusive for the moment: It’s a really stiflingly white space right now, which is a shame because there are so many people of color out there cooking and writing amazing stuff. That’s without even starting on the classism and homophobia, and the restrictive ideas about ‘good’ cooking that push disabled and disadvantaged people to the sidelines. I wanna play a part in making things better. I don’t know how, but that’s what has to happen.