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9 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 8:31am

Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up is a manifesto for freedom that targets the cult of wellness

Part-Delia Smith, part-Irvine Welsh; this isn’t a recipe collection full of soft-focus food pornography.

By Laurie Penny

They say that if you can make a cake, you can make a bomb. Food writer and former Great British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh was never much bothered about making her sugar icing perfect – and good for her – so I might not trust her in munitions. But she has written a hand grenade of a book.

What I love most about Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want is all of the books that it isn’t. It isn’t a recipe collection full of soft-focus food pornography, the author lifting something glistening to her perfect lips, alone in an immaculate kitchen. It isn’t a manual for how to save your soul by way of micronutrient-inflected mortification of the flesh. It is not a memoir of one young woman’s emotional journey, served rare with a side of gawking and a comforting, sweet finish. Like Tandoh, it refuses to be anything but what it is: a strange, special, occasionally repetitive book that is somehow so much more than it was meant to be.

Food writing and broadcasting has always been the domain of women as much as men, and it is perhaps for this reason that the political significance of cooking and eating has been so sneered at. But the politics of the body are inescapable – therefore food is political.

Eat Up is not just a book about food. It is a book about desire, about lust and hunger, and how frightening and vital these things are, especially for women and LGBT people. We live in a society that is suspicious of desire and disgusted by the human body, a culture that seeks to impose control on both these things. This may well explain the proliferation of the wellness and diet industries as the wider world disintegrates into malevolent chaos: so many of us try to control our bodies when we lack agency elsewhere in our lives.

Tandoh’s performance on the Bake Off was a masterpiece of muted millennial rage with sugar on top. The viewing public were impressed by Tandoh’s cakes, but it is never enough for a young woman simply to be good at what she does. She must also be good herself, grateful for any and all attention. Instead, Tandoh served up every tasty but slightly unfinished-looking traybake without a smile, and lost in the wedding cake finale to a nice lady who managed not to say, as Tandoh did in front of an audience of millions of Middle Englanders, that she thought the institution of marriage was outdated.

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The abuse that Tandoh continues to face is all about ingratitude, wrapped in a crisp crumb of sexism. She is young, talented, successful, beautiful, and has met Sue Perkins. What gives her the right to be such a sourpuss? What more does she want? What does she have to be cross about?

Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Tandoh is also a 25-year-old, queer, mixed-race woman who has spent some time in the public eye, being relentlessly harassed in the way that any young woman who dares to be talented or ambitious can now expect. Tandoh refuses to be likeable, or to pretend to be happy, which is still a brave thing for a young woman to do.

The most glorious thing about Tandoh is how she simply refuses to be what the world wants her to be, what she so easily could be: a pretty girl who makes cakes. Instead, she takes graceful aim at the cult of wellness, front-loads the economics of food poverty and provides a recipe for a can of fizzy pop, cold from the fridge.

Eat Up discusses, among other things, the violent history of the sugar trade, the Black Panther Party and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure – swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh”). It also digs into the meat of bodily functions – I cannot think of another food book that contains so many references to shit: part-Delia Smith, part-Irvine Welsh.

Eat Up represents a broader cultural moment in which we are all re-examining the politics of desire, of hunger and anger and lust, especially if we are women. From the wellness industry to the cult of nostalgia, we use food as a way not only to control our bodies, but to stop ourselves wanting things we might not get. Wouldn’t it be easier, wouldn’t we feel better, or even be better – if we could just stop wanting those things at all? Ruby Tandoh doesn’t think so, and nor do I. 

Ruby Tandoh will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Saturday 13 April.

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry