Cooking The Books

Bites & books with Cher Tan



Cook: Garlic mash with buttered brussel sprouts
Book: Eat Up! (Ruby Tandoh)

(*content warning for eating disordered behaviour)


I remember saying to a friend once that I knew what every kind of vomit felt like, and rice chucks were the worst. They'd come out in ugly clumps and threaten to choke you, unlike bread spews which came out smooth and refined, or noodle pukes which left my body with a wormy weirdness, a little gluggy but still kind of manageable.

To admit to having had an eating disorder as a femme person—especially in the #cleaneating, fitness-obsessed now—is a hard thing to confront. Gone are the days of pro-anorexia messageboards and “thinspo”; like overt discrimination the language has now evolved to accommodate something else. Maybe I'm not shaping my hand into a fist and bending it towards myself to check how bony my wrist is, but the performativity that underpins the desire for control huddles in the background. Of course, disordered eating has never not been defined by control, but now the implications surrounding weakness is eliminated as we enter a more complex time of neoliberalism.

An eating disorder never really goes away. I can say that I've "recovered": binges, amphetamines, heavy dietary restrictions, calorie counting, laxatives, self-induced purging, a manic compulsion to exercise while "running on empty" all a distant thing of the past, but being around talk of diets and purposeful exercise can still be a gentle trigger. My gag reflex is shit, and hunger pangs can come on too often or not at all, even if I've eaten what is considered normal, and regularly. The distinction between physiological and psychological has become incredibly murky from years of self-abuse—I have to literally trust my gut and follow a haphazard routine, because the boundaries aren't there.

But reading chef and food writer Ruby Tandoh's Eat Up! was like a lucid validation that feels sensible and caring. Her book is the antithesis of the diet cookbook, a book that underlines the fact that food means so many things: memory, emotion, culture, politics, neurosis. She writes about food lovingly, adjectives sprinkled liberally to conjure mental images of even the most bland food, but that which could mean something profound to the right person. "Mindful eating is something that will sometimes awaken a fierce hunger inside of you, and other times have you satisfied after a single square of chocolate," she writes, her prose equal parts self-help book and private correspondence. This style of writing lends a personable cadence throughout the book, whether she's quoting figures, relating to herself, or sharing a recipe.

Eat Up! is a book about food and cooking that is so necessary now. At a time when eating feels more confusing and conflicted than ever, the cultural weight surrounding food feels at once fraught with political connotations yet so over-simplified. Weaving politics, culture, science and lived experience together seamlessly, Tandoh writes as a queer woman of colour, an ex-vegan who has also had an eating disorder, which—despite this not being a book I'd normally pick up—feels relatable in so many ways. In a world where food writing is largely dominated by cis-het white folk, this is a unique, trailblazing tome. The five years I was vegan were also the five years I struggled with disordered eating, a veiled attempt at restricting as much as I possibly could, while also using its identitarian platform to assume an ethical superiority over others. Moreover, veganism was deeply linked to efforts to disassociate from the foods of my cultural heritage, as I crunched on a single raw carrot for lunch or made a point at the noodle shop that I didn't eat meat, dairy or eggs so what do you actually have? 

Six years later, I'm still introducing my palate to foods I missed out on during this time, as I discover new ways of honouring my body away from the gaze of a disordered mind. I'm choosing to eat a tuna salad because I actually love it; I'm gorging on a large bowl of pasta an hour before bed because I want to; I'm munching on an apple for lunch because I don't have time to sit down to eat, not because I'm restricting myself; I'm making a chicken curry or sayur lodeh with plenty of fat and that's fucking fine. And I'm making a huge plate of brussel sprouts on mash at six in the evening because I feel like it, not because I'm trying to eat white or eat right. 

It's strange terrain, and sometimes it still seems like I'm wading through the swamp. I won't deny that I still fight the self-consciousness that comes with eating in public or with company, because years of eating alone in shame has nurtured an irrational paranoia that tells me someone is looking on in pity. I still occasionally feel pangs of doubt from eating "too much", and have only just gingerly approached the idea of exercise for strength and well-being without feeling like it's a dead-set route to a controlled obsession. Like Tandoh writes, "I have a body, it exists in a fragile world, and I choose to relish it."