I have struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember and food has long been a scary commodity for me. I used to track every bite of food I put into my mouth on a desktop web page by the name of My Fitness Pal. But, it was far from a friend. It was a leech, sucking every ounce of pleasure out of each bite lifted to my lips. A buttery crunch from the peanut butter toast my mom made me for breakfast filled me with instant regret. A sharp fizz from the carbonated bubbles of a Pepsi disintegrating on my tongue was that many more calories I was going to have to burn off on the elliptical at the YMCA and left a film on my teeth that I had to instantly brush off or I would think about how weak I was all day long. I rewarded myself after three hours of dance practice with 100 calorie snack packs and Special K bars. I didn’t know what it was like to let myself fall in love with food. I separated all food in my mind between “good” and “bad.” I attached every ounce of my self worth to what I was
putting into my body and it was exhausting. I can recall every time in my life where someone has called me fat. A boy in my class called me fat for the first time on Earth Day at Southgate Elementary next to a wheelbarrow of wood chips. Two girls in middle school tagged a picture of me on Myspace holding my newborn nephew with “thunder thighs” and “double chin.” In college, a man outside a bar called Cowboy Jack’s in downtown Minneapolis cat-called my friend and when I called him out on it, he screamed at me you wish a man would try to cat call you but you’re too busy being fat. In Atlanta, visiting after I had moved away and was back in the city I loved dearly for the first time, I wore a white t-shirt tied in a bow in the front that made me feel cool and beautiful until the moment a man outside a bar in Buckhead told me I was too chubby to be wearing that. My college roommate politely said I was too fat to share cardigans out of her closet any more. My dance teacher did not change the two-piece, belly-showing costume in a lyrical routine to make me comfortable enough to dance on a stage so I was forced to quit. I still have a tendency to hide myself in photos with the nearest object I can put in front of my belly, like a throw cushion or a blanket. I went through my old diary the other day and found an entry from 2003, at ten years old, where my older brother jokingly called me fat and I said “I only weigh 77 pounds.” The amount of times I have been asked how far along I am is outlandish, and another problem all wrapped up in one. I dressed up as Hannah Montana once for a kid’s birthday so I could make $50 in high school and a six year old told me I couldn’t possibly be Hannah Montana because I was too fat. Sometimes I still go into a dressing room at Target with pants I know are too small, hoping that they might fit and knowing they won’t and cry in shallow, yellow light when they won’t even slide over my hips.
Ruby Tandoh’s book Eat Up: Food, Appetite, and Eating What You Want is a love letter to food and to your body. It is a manifesto of sorts, one that puts on display the sheer joy, pleasure, stories, and meaning that can be found in food every single day. It is littered with enticing recipes, heart-straddling pep talks, critical analysis of the politics and profundity of food, and radical wisdom that will make you look at food in a completely different light. The internet right now is flooded with articles, tweets, and public broadcasts of fatphobia due to quarantine from COVID-19. There is even a hashtag online called #covid15—similar to the Freshman 15 and in regards to the 15 pounds every person is going to gain from quarantining themselves. It is upsetting to me that while we are all having a collective traumatic experience during a global health crisis, so many people are anxiously and frantically panicking about their weight. My mother has been agonizing over how much she has been eating, my friends are guilt-tripping themselves over the amount of snacks they have consumed out of boredom, and people who I normally love interacting with online are flooding my timeline with crippling panic over how many pounds they just might gain from a global pandemic. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves? In a time where joy and comfort are hard to come by, why are we adding unnecessary negative connotations to the one thing that many of us are now finally having more time to invest in and fully enjoy? No matter where I look or what I do, I see a lot of people worrying about getting fat during quarantine. As a fat person, I want to try and put your mind at rest and tell you that it’s really not that bad. Except for the part where you have to deal with everyone talking about being fat as though it is the worst thing in the entire world.
This year, I started to cook through an entire cookbook. On a random day in February where I got cut early from work, I spontaneously decided to watch Julie & Julia for the first time. It’s a movie that has been out for more than a decade based on a true story of a woman who cooked her way through Julia Child’s entire french cookbook in one year and blogged about it. I was instantly intrigued by the idea and figured I would give it a shot. I made an extravagant Instagram post about it and thought I would for sure at least accomplish a couple recipes to make it seem like I semi stuck to a goal for once in my life that I set for myself. I started with the easiest recipes and slowly grew acclimated to my own kitchen that I had neglected for the majority of my life out of anxiety and fear and disgust. I’m currently at a pivotal moment in my life where a lot of people in my life are wondering what the fuck I’m doing. I quit my successful job in foodservice last year and moved across the country to a city I had only lived in for about three months previously, three years before, with no real plan whatsoever. I went from dreading food because of my body struggles to dreading food because my entire job was centered around it and treating it more as a convenience, than a delectation. When I first moved back down to Atlanta, I landed a software sales job for about three weeks to get a landlord to agree to rent to me, which I promptly quit when I discovered I already hated the work I was doing. I went to have a beer and re-do my resume at a local brewery I loved and ended up applying for a bartending job. I heard my coworkers talk with excitement about their accomplishment of making homemade curry and cooking extravagant meals for their significant others, and even making nicer homemade meals for their dogs than I had probably made myself for years. With the encouragement of my brewery friends, even after I had cooed to them over my desire to complete a sprint triathlon and start getting back into yoga, and other goals I get revved up about and forget, I dived headfirst into my new cookbook. I started with Chrissy Teigen’s Dump & Done Ramen Salad that took ten minutes to make and the refrigerator and vinegar did the majority of the back-breaking work. I started dating a guy and introduced him to this goal I had. I made him sweet chili and mustard glazed salmon and even convinced him to knead sweet potato gnocchi with me and dirty up his kitchen counter with flour and butter sauce. I now had a fun, little hobby to focus on as I grew more comfortable in a new relationship with a man I really liked and a job that didn’t burn me out, but made me feel simple joy.
And then my boyfriend broke up with me and the next week, I lost my job due to the pandemic. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to focus on. I slept for days and days. I asked myself “who am I without a job title, my family, and a partner who asks me how my day is?” Who are you when you have nothing to do other than worry about who you are?
I started to cook through my cookbook again to grapple with my anxiety of losing my job, the worry of potentially losing my high-risk parents across the country, and to come to terms with the idea of living completely alone with no human connection for the next few months. I began posting videos of me cooking in my kitchen. Mincing garlic until my fingers became waxy, stuffing hollowed out cucumbers with soy-infused pork, delicately wrapping prosciutto around juicy cream-cheese stuffed chicken, sizzling thighs under smoldering foil-wrapped bricks I had to explore Home Depot for, chopping potatoes until I developed debilitating cramps in my wrists, bubbling roasted tomatoes in my puny oven until my fire alarm erupted, stirring creamy homemade dressings for lavish salads, and dancing while I do it. Lots of dancing. But then I started to have fleeting thoughts of “Are people going to be judging me, a fat woman, for cooking so much during quarantine?” So, from the recommendation of my friend Hanna (IG: @bathing_in_books), I ordered Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh and it completely saved me.
I am now about ⅓ of the way through Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook Cravings, cooking about 5-6 recipes a week. Prancing through the grocery store with a mask on with a checklist of items scribbled on a note pad has added absolute euphoria to my life. Every single day I feel accomplished, I feel happy, and above all, I feel nourished. Ruby said to me:
“Cookbooks have lots of advantages over novels for fueling your dreams: first, there’s a gross charm to food splatters and stains and sticky bits in the pages of cookbooks, that no margin scribble could ever match. Second, recipes are short - these are psalms for the ungodly, little doses of goodness in the most bitesize chunks. Third, the very nature of a cookbook means it is a glance into a coveted life, and a literal instruction manual on how to seize a bit of joy for yourself. Any cookbook worth its salt isn’t just a dry how-to, it’s an immersive, bossy, companionable, seductive thing. A good cookbook is a friend in the kitchen.”
Not only does Ruby cite the Cravings cookbook in her book, she emphasizes that sometimes cooking alone can make you feel lonely. But when you throttle yourself into the sticky-noted pages of your most precious cookbooks, you are not alone. You have a friend, sitting attentively on your dirty kitchen counter, telling you that it’s okay to feel joy and it’s okay if that joy comes from food. Oftentimes, the diet and wellness industry tries to slither its way into your anxiety mindset, one that is often looking for control. They yell at you “If you eat THIS thing and do not eat THIS thing, you will control your weight which will help you control your life!” but they are wrong. 70% of books about food on Amazon are dieting books. These books want to belittle you, make you small, cause you to hate yourself, and have you empty your wallet. They do not care about you. Ruby reminds you that food is important because it fuels your mind and your mind is more than capable of knowing when and with what you should fuel it with. Trust your appetite. Know that sometimes a dainty, pretty salad will do. And know that sometimes, you are going to need to sit in front of your TV and do a watch-through of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and eat an entire tray of butterscotch cookies while you do it. Trust yourself.
Ruby also offers a peek into the complexity and storytelling of food. She sends us down a journey of food in film and the significance it provides in our daily lives: from the sandwich in When Harry Met Sally and that famous table-shaking orgasm, to the dinner scenes in Moonlight showcasing that food is love and love is food, to the extravagant indulgence in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. She emphasized that we use food as a tool for celebration at weddings, as a tool for comfort at funerals, as a tool of showing someone we love them with a hot plate of goodness that took hours hunched over a stove-top. Instead of preaching at you, she gives you a conversation to have with yourself over the connections with food to sex, race, gender, worth, privilege, morality, and power. For years, I viewed food as the agonizing box of carbohydrates, sugars, calories, sodium levels, and nutritional value versus the authentic connection it forms with you mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Not only did Ruby free me, she also humbled me and constantly pushed me to recognize my privilege. Yes, I have suffered from body dysmorphia, microaggressions, fat harassment, and hurt feelings. But, I am what you would consider a “small-fat.” Yes, I lost my job. But I also have enough money saved up to last me for a few months and have access to food. Yes, I am alone. But I have virtual support from a large group of people.
The most impactful part of the book for me was with Ruby sharing her personal experience with overcoming disordered eating. She eradicates the myth of “clean eating” and destroys fad diet culture. She politicizes food when she brings up the class implications behind the food on our shelves and the marginalized and oppressed people who help get it there. This is even more present now as our grocery store workers are at the frontline of the pandemic, being paid little to nothing. Food writing has a bad rap for being elite and patronizing and pretentious and Ruby partook in none of that. She reminded me that a lot of our memories are wrapped up and intertwined with food and when we let diet culture stand front & center, we overlook these memories. I think of the time my college roommates and I got blitzed in our bath robes and ordered both donuts and McDonald’s and had one of my favorite days laughing in bed together. Or that my family would always stop at Famous Dave’s on our way home from the Twin Cities on I-35 because it was our idea of the best barbeque in southeastern Minnesota. We used to split an order of bread pudding across the table at the end and my mom would always dig in and burn the roof of her mouth because she couldn’t wait.
Because of this book and because of Ruby Tandoh, I wake up every morning, make a bustling hot pot of coffee, and plan out my cooking for the day with excitement. She has reminded me that even though I am alone right now, at the end of each day, I will still be nourished. I show myself love and tenderness with every bite of glorious, handcrafted heaven because all food when you really think about it, is comfort food. And that is enough for me. I refuse to listen to the voice in my head of “Am I too fat to publicly enjoy food?” and raise you a goddamn slice of banana bread, extra butter.
“To hell with toeing the line. Our bodies are magical things. We go through our lives taking little bits of the world into us, bite by bite, and turning all that matter into us. We get bigger, stronger, brighter, bolder, taking up more space - asserting the primacy of our existence - with every morsel we eat. Fat bodies are big and perfect, and deserve plates of meatballs made with the most tender care. Thin bodies are small and lithe - feed them until their bellies swell strange and round against their little frames... Nourish yourself as though you’re taking care of the most precious thing in the world: strengthen your bones with milkshakes, patch up cuts and bruises with cheese on toast. Eat for your life.”
Eat Up: Food, Appetite, and Eating What You Want
248 pages. 2018.