"Great British Bake Off" veteran Ruby Tandoh: "I see the show and I feel a pressure from it"

The "Eat Up!" author on the perils of wellness culture, and learning to listen to our appetites

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 13, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Ruby Tandog (Photo courtesy of the author)
Ruby Tandog (Photo courtesy of the author)

Maybe you wouldn't expect a former "Great British Baking Show" finalist to write a book that includes advice on how to eat a Cadbury creme egg. Or describes the pleasures of existing in the same era in history as Cheetos. But as Ruby Tandoh writes in "Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want," "All of the silly, forgettable, delicious little things that make up life and make life worth living…. This is the stuff that matters."

Tandoh has not abandoned her passion for homemade brownies and breads. But she has, over the nine years and several books since she first appeared as a self-deprecating university student in that famed tent, emerged as an articulate advocate for wider inclusion in the food world — both in the things we eat and the people we turn to for guidance.

"Eat Up!" arrived in the UK four years ago, but is only now finally being published in the US. It is a simultaneously challenging and forgiving manifesto, one that combines memoir, research and recipes in a call for us all to be skeptical of fads, inviting of others, and gently confident with ourselves and our tastes. Salon spoke to Tandoh via Zoom recently about wellness culture, playing with her food, and life after competitive baking. 

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

It's interesting revisiting this book because I was in the UK a few years ago and read it while I was there. Then the whole world changed. I'm curious what you initially wanted this book to be when you published it four years ago ,in such a different world and different environment?

Around that time, 2017, 2018-ish, in the UK at least, wellness culture was reaching this absolute crescendo. It really built up a head of steam. It was so popular, and it was manifesting in these myriad ways that looked really different superficially, but all boiled down to one premise, which is that there are ways to be certain of health. There are ways to make sure that you are thin. I saw in that culture so many weird and quite unsavory veiled and not so veiled references to fatphobia and ableism and all of that stuff.

I just didn't really like it. I started looking into some of the more spurious claims that these people were making. I realized not just that there were problems with what they were saying. The reason that these books and Instagram accounts were able to channel into people's psyches was that they were already fault lines in the ways that people were thinking about food and feeling about their bodies. "Eat Up!" was an attempt to address those fault lines in the first place and to question how we feel about food. What do our own appetites feel like to us? How do we read them? What do they remind us of ?

In this world where we of necessity had this seismic shift, so many people were approaching the kitchen for the first time or had never been really in their own kitchens. Or they were in the kitchen, but they were now suddenly cooking three meals a day. We were having to understand food in a way that a lot of us never had before on that extreme level. The fear around it, the anxiety around it, but also the comfort in it. And you tap into all of those things in this book.

I have to say, I like being at home. I'm very often in my own head. I like cooking rather than going out and stuff like that. In a sense, I had the jump on some of the patterns that we would get used to during the pandemic. So I wrote this book from my own personal perspective before everyone else would be forced, unfortunately, to live a little bit like the sad way that I tend to live in my daily life. The pandemic definitely brought a focus onto the domestic for a huge number of people. For a lot of people, it's stripped back a lot of the ceremony around food and eating, especially with not eating out, and probably for a lot of people, not eating with company, with friends, with family. You are not as distracted as you would ordinarily be from what's actually in front of you on the plate, what it feels like to cook that food, what it tastes like to eat that food, and all of these things.

Without the ceremony, I think sometimes the intensity of the focus on food when all that's stripped away can be quite a lot for people. Some people felt quite overwhelmed by just having to face up to the sensations of a stomach grumbling and having to then cook the food. Within that perspective, the book might have particular resonance. I can see that.

You are known to us because you were on this show that is so beloved and so aspirational and so comforting and outside of a lot of our experiences. I think for a lot of people it's like watching sports. They love shows like "Great British Bake Off" because it's not anything they would actually do themselves. It's a way of experiencing it vicariously. And this is a book that is encouraging people to do it themselves.

Because I was obviously in "Bake Off," I see the show and I feel a pressure from it. I feel the pressure to perform. That's just a product of being part of it. But it hadn't occurred to me just how detached it might actually be from a lot of people's expectations of themselves, that they might see it like sports. Nobody's watching the women's Euros in soccer, and thinking, "Yeah, I think I'm going to score a howler from the halfway line." It hadn't occurred to me people are watching it like that.

What has changed for you as a home cook over the last two and a half years? How do you approach it differently now?

Honestly, not much has changed at all for me. I was never someone that would entertain or anything like that. I'm not particularly sociable. Maybe I'm slightly easier on myself in the kind of recreational cooking that I do. I'm more prone these days to do a cooking project. Like recently I made cake donuts. I bought little hopper thing that dispenses a perfect ring of batter into the oil when I did them. And they turned out terrible. But I just enjoyed it in a way that I think I might not have done before. I was a bit more immersed in the processes and the sensations. In a way it did force me to slow down a bit within the cooking that I do do.

I wonder if some of that is also a product of just time passing by in general. I think the beauty of getting older is letting go of perfectionism.

I've just turned 30 and I wrote the book when I was 25-ish, which isn't a huge amount of time to pass, but it's significant in my lifetime. It's weird reading it back now. If I'm being honest, it's an uncomfortable process in a way, having to confront that text again and be like, did I write that? But that is just what it is to put a little bit of you out in the worl,d and hope that it ages well.

You describe the "exotic, expensive and rarefied mentality around cooking and food." There are so many psychic obstacles that people have to cooking and even more so to baking. Even people who cook often feel intimidated around baking.

You talk about different sized bodies, you talk about marginalized communities, you talk about the LGBTQ community in cooking and the ways in which different populations don't have a seat at the table or don't have a place at the stove. Who do you want to be reading your books and who are you thinking of when you're having this conversation with the reader?

When I first wrote this book, I was probably, without really realizing it, writing it for a younger version of myself. When I was a teenager and into my early twenties, I had an eating disorder. Even when I wasn't in the throes of that at its worst, I was just so bad at taking care of myself. Really, really just bad at it, messy, disorganized. And so everything had so little grace, nothing came with an extra flourish. If I was going to have chickpea pasta, it'd be the plainest version of that I could do, because anything that would bring joy just felt either not worth it or just too much to face.

I wrote it for that version of me. And also just for anyone who enjoys food or wants to enjoy food, and just feels, as you put it, I really liked what you said, the psychic obstacles to actually really embracing it and getting in the kitchen. Or even if you don't want to get in the kitchen, just to enjoying whatever foods you do find on the plate in front of you. I think that's a huge number of people. I don't think you have to have an eating disorder or anything that is kind of exceptional about the way you approach food in order to struggle to reconcile yourself with your appetite.

It's very, very American, but also very English, this idea that everything should be efficient, should be maximized, should be the most nutritious and the most beautiful. I talked to Nigella Lawson very early in the pandemic, and she talked about that too, that enjoying food doesn't mean, "Go drink a jug of heavy cream."

Walking that balance, it's a really difficult line to tread and I'm really curious how you manage that in your life of "How do I like what I like? How do I cook what I cook? How do I listen to my appetite while also understanding what feels good and what feels bad?"

That's such a big anxiety that people have, whenever you say anything about enjoying food or the idea that foods don't have different intrinsic worth based on how healthy they are or not. People get so panicked that it'll be a runaway train. That speaks more to people's relationships with their own appetites than anything to do with the food itself. I think if you feel that having permission to enjoy your food and having permission to like what you like means that you will never be able to stop eating or never be able to start eating or whatever it is, then that speaks to something that's probably worth addressing and addressing with some amount of compassion and patience. I definitely used to feel that way. If I had a big bar of chocolate in the house, I would start it and not be able to stop. That's just my particular vice. It'll be different for everyone.

There are some lessons to be taken from schools of thought around intuitive eating. I'm not saying it's the cure, but there's some interesting things there. The more you expose yourself to these things, the less you are tormented and haunted by them, the less they wriggle their way into your brain and set up camp. And yeah, it's tricky because you only need to spend five minutes in any workplace, for example, to hear like 350 comments about feeling guilty about eating something, looking at other people's lunches, making little comments and stuff like that. These pernicious influences are everywhere, but that's why you need to be able to find some kind of calm and some kind of understanding of what you like. And it gives you a little base, a little piece of resilience that helps you weather those storms.

A lot of people like the dogmatic approach of, "If I just follow these rules, then I will be saved. Then I will have salvation." Instead of thinking "What do I like? What do I want?" I loved when you talked about people wearing avocados on their shirts like they're band names. For a lot of us, when we become more sophisticated in our taste and our eating, when you reach that point where you go, "Wait a minute, maybe I don't like avocados," it can be really scary.

As a food writer as well, it's something that I feel like I see all the time, that like when a lot of particularly acclaimed food writers are people who take a strong stance and have quite clear opinions on what they like and what they don't. And we enjoy that. Sometimes it comes across as matronly. Sometimes it comes across as bossy or just very clearheaded. Like you're an arbiter of taste. And I think people like that tone in food writing sometimes.

However, it does lend itself to these hierarchies of taste. I found it difficult when I was writing it up because I wanted to take that tone, I wanted to be this decisive person who was really sure of what they like, and happy to tell everyone else what to like. But that's exactly what the book is not about. I had to take a softer tone and risk, potentially in the eyes of some people, seeming a bit soft or a bit non-committal and a bit wishy washy. But I would rather that than try and make up everyone's minds for them about what to eat.

And if you don't like eggplant or whatever, it's okay. So let me ask you one last question, Ruby, what are you cooking now?

What am I making? At the moment I've been making life extremely difficult for myself trying to develop this recipe for a yeasted cake. It is a staple of lots of central European and German cooking in particular. It is a thing that is done, but I just can't nail it. I've spent days, hours, weeks, trying to perfect what is essentially a bread that feels like a cake. This is exactly the kind of folly that takes up my time and kind of puts me behind deadline on other things. But it feels fun. I feel like in a sense I'm playing with my food when I do these just experiments, which is nice.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Great British Bake-off Interview Ruby Tandoh Wellness