An Appetite for Connection

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Issue 309
July/August 2018
The Food Issue

Reviews

An Appetite for Connection
by

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Cover: Photograph by Leela Cyd www.leelacyd.com

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Clare Finney enjoys a provocative book on what and how we eat. Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want by Ruby Tandoh. Published by Serpent’s Tail, 2018. ISBN: 9781781259597

Perhaps it is because I was so hungry for it. Like the canapés at a wedding, Ruby Tandoh’s book Eat Up! has appeared at the moment our collective angst has reached tipping point. Drunk on the respective champagne flutes of clean eating, meal-replacement drinks, food porn and food poverty, there has surely never been a better time for “an antidote to all these confused, disjointed approaches to food”.

“There is no single ‘right’ way to eat, and you should be duly suspicious of anyone who tells you there is,” Tandoh writes with trademark directness – and, remarkably, she steers clear of doing so. Eat Up! is the whole of her sermon. Eat up, to misquote E.M. Forster still further, and both the recipes and the food will be exalted. Live in fragments no longer. “In order to eat well, we need to eat with every part of ourselves,” she writes – “see, feel, sense, taste, touch, predict.”

But how, Ruby? I whispered urgently, flicking greedily to the next page and feasting my eyes on her memories of blackberry picking – her words rivalling Sylvia Plath’s with their evocations of the “herbal smell of dirt … the precious warmth of a berry picked straight from a patch of midday sun”. How can I block out the noise of media food scares, the glare of Instagrammed brunches and bodies, and reconnect with the food on my plate in a way that is pleasurable and free of judgement?

Her suggestions are many and varied and, seemingly, follow no particular order. Some, such as the blackberrying description, are her personal experiences of food, shared to prompt you to engage your own taste memories. Others are more practical: vignette-style recipes, snippets of “kitchen chemistry” – why beef browns; why milk burns – and basic body biology. How do we taste? Why do we taste? Did you know that people in countries where malaria is common are often slightly desensitised to bitterness, so they can tolerate plants with a small quantity of parasite-killing cyanide? That sweetness has been proven to reduce the pain perception in small children – hence the ubiquitous banana sweets in nurses’ rooms?

These factual nuggets are studded throughout the book, lending credence to Tandoh’s arguments and grounding her colourful descriptions of savouring a square of chocolate or eating a cheeseburger, “tessellated snug with the composition of Renaissance painting” in the quotidian world. Some are fun facts, to be repeated immediately to the next person you see after reading them; others are weighty, important, myth-busting things. “Only 1% of the population is estimated to suffer from coeliac disease, and a mere 5% can lay claim to a less severe kind of gluten insensitivity,” she states simply. “There are no human studies showing that more proteins in the diet translate to more dopamine levels in brain tissue.” Such (evidence-based, accredited) facts fly in the face of a diet industry that has grown fat on the public’s media-stoked anxiety around food. Many food writers would – and indeed do – laugh behind their napkins at the people who fall for stories that gluten is ‘glue’ for the gut, and adopting the diet of a caveman will cure you of cancer. Tandoh however shows only empathy. “We live in a really scary world, and it seems to get progressively more terrible and dystopian… It’s not surprising that we hold tighter and tighter to the few things we have control of: namely, our bodies, and the food we put into them.”

Few food books are so inclusive, so joyfully welcoming as Tandoh’s. Even if her exploration of food through film doesn’t move you – I’m a filmistine myself – I’m sure there are chapters that will. With a facility for words to rival our most famous food writers, she treats a chip butty, “glistening with salt and cut with vinegar”, with as much reverence as she does “the mahogany sheen of an egg-glazed brioche”, and discusses obesity with the same even-handed directness as ethical sourcing.

The section on eating disorders particularly resonated with me. As a former sufferer myself, I tend to bypass others’ accounts for fear they might start me off again. I almost shirked this one. Yet something about the way Tandoh describes the gnawing chasm between anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, and that holy grail of nourishment, in which “you are a whole person, mind and body, body and mind, not knotted or conflicted or anxious,” snagged my attention. Even now, years of therapy and a career in food-writing later, I find such blessed harmony between meal and mind occurs but rarely. “The cruelty of eating disorders is that they strip us of one of the few certainties we have in a deeply intangible difficult world: that our bodies know what we need and our appetite will guide us there,” she writes – nailing in one fell swoop why disordered eating is so… well, so disorientating.

For me, this book was remedial: a stepwise guide to being “a human animal, feeling your way through all the goodness and badness of this world with a hungry belly”. From the broad sweep of the perspectives and subjects – eating as friends, eating as lovers, eating for depression, heartbreak and grief, eating as ethics, politics and communication – I would venture to suggest that it will be for you, too. Tandoh takes her reader by the hand; talks, coaxes and, through her simple, heartwarmingly written recipes, feeds the way through the edible minefield of clean eating, cultural appropriation, artisanal bread and industrial meat production.

Whole chapters are devoted to Cadbury’s ethically tragic arc and the pain and pleasure of supermarkets and McDonald’s. For a while I felt Tandoh was a touch too soft on these rapacious conglomerates and the environmentally devastating systems of production they perpetuate, but she more than justifies this in her final pages. “I’ve avoided telling you what to do here,” she writes, “not because I don’t have a private set of moral convictions, or even because I don’t think there are things we could all do to be a little better, but because I want you to read these authors who know all about the ins and outs of food, inform yourself, and make decisions that will help those around you.”

Tandoh suggests that changes must be made – but the onus for making them should fall on governments and corporations, not me and you. This doesn’t absolve personal responsibility from those who can afford to exercise it. But it skims off the judgement and restores food to its rightful place: a source of discovery, fuel, delight and communion. Only connect your food and your body. Eat up. It tastes good.

Clare Finney is a freelance food writer.

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