A Conversation with Ruby Tandoh | LOLA OLUFEMI

Ruby Tandoh is a food writer and 1D fan. She lives and works in glorious Sheffield, where there are almost as many Greggs bakeries as people. She has recently released a new cookbook called Flavour: Eat What You Love. She let me ask her a few questions about everything from food to feminism. 

Lola:  I think you’re a great example of someone who makes food & cooking seem genuinely accessible, acknowledging how race, class and gender affect what and how we eat. Why is food important to you and how do you think about it?

Ruby: I think that a lot of the significance of food, for me, is tied up with self-care. Obviously I love cooking – I literally go to bed at night thinking about food and flavour and all the magical things there are in this world to cook and eat – but what makes food more than just a hobby or some academic pursuit is the way that eating plays into the way that I feel about myself and the people around me. In the past, my mental health issues and my responses to trauma were really negatively tied up with food. So depriving myself of certain foods became a way to assert a kind of new, hunger-less, ‘pure’ me – a me that wasn’t burdened with all the shame that comes with having an appetite. Now, food is still really intimately bound with my emotions, but in a way more constructive, healthy way: I’ve tried to challenge those destructive impulses that drove my eating disorder, and instead I focus on how the simple act of feeding myself is a radical, vital act of self-care. It’s so soothing to know that you’re doing something, eating something, that will keep you well and strong and able to exist fully on this earth. I fucking love eating.

Lola: Do you think it’s harder to reshape your relationship with food as a woman or non-binary person/ person of colour or if you’re queer and even harder if you are all of those things at once?

Ruby: I think that it is really difficult to achieve a happy, nourishing relationship with food as a queer woman of colour. There are so many different forces that tug you in different directions. For women and non-binary people, the demands made of our bodies are so huge they can tear apart the way we see ourselves. That obviously has a bearing on the way we approach food. Queerness is a big factor too, because the kitchen is traditionally such a ragingly heteronormative environment – whether that’s the trope of genius, ballsy male chefs or women nurturing their families through home cooking. Embracing the joys of cooking, and feeding people, and playing out these ‘domestic goddess’ style baking dreams: that can all sit weirdly with the reality of my life as a queer woman in a same-gender relationship. Because the home environment has maybe historically been a really stifling, insular, exclusionary place of queer people, a lot of queerness and queer culture seems to flourish outside of the domestic world – in art and music and clubs and the wider queer scene – but I think there’s a lot to be said for queering the kitchen, and reclaiming that space too.

In the food world as it stands at the moment, it’s really difficult for people of colour – especially queer people of colour – to find space, and obviously that has a huge bearing on the ways that we approach (or avoid) the food scene within our communities. There are white people opening restaurants that give an ‘authentic Asian experience’, and Joanna Lumley showcasing the food and culture of Japan, while POC are so often relegated to newspapers’ biannual novelty ‘ethnic food’ column. It’s really disappointing. Add to that the really limited (read: white middle class) ideas of what it is to be mentally ill, or to have an eating disorder, and we’re left with a food scene that just doesn’t really seem to care about how POC feed and nourish themselves.

Lola: I think that people of colour are taught a lot of shame in regards to food as well, especially if they’re trying to assimilate in all white environments. Food from the global south is either made to seem exotic like you said or ridiculed, that ties in a lot with a nervousness or even unwillingness to learn to cook “traditional” dishes.
On a slightly different note, could you talk a bit about how feminism informs your food writing – it seems a bit of an obvious question but has your love of food had any influence on the kind of feminism you advocate or choose to engage in?

I think the idea of food as nourishment becomes quite important here – because looking at food as a way to make you strong is inevitably linked to the idea of productivity (capitalism) Do you ever find that the way this idea is presented to us is at odds with the notion of self-care and caring for your mental health?

Ruby: I’m really not well read at all when it comes to gender/race and feminist theory, so you’ll have to forgive me talking kinda clumsily about this, but I guess what I’d say about the kind of feminism that is invoked in the stuff I write and deal in is that it centers on self-care, and fostering nurturing relationships. I don’t know much about grassroots political action or protests or complex theory stuff, but what I do know is that the people who do that work – and those who benefit from it – all need to be nourished. That nourishment isn’t just about eating enough, nor is it about ‘fuelling’ your body to get work done, in – as you said – that kind of conditional, work-focused nourishment that maybe we’re pushed to pursue under capitalism. It’s not about being big and strong and productive. What I’m concerned with is how to keep individuals, their friends and their families together, ensuring that they can access nutrition (and importantly, pleasure), and pushing for a less colonialist, sexist, retrogressive approach to food now.

Lola: The beginning of the answer ties perfectly into my next question – I think people are constantly apologising for not having immersed themselves in academia as if that is the only legitimate form of knowledge production. Which is really unnecessarily stifling because there is a huge disconnect between academia and real life, obviously. It’s that same disconnect that makes a lot of people (young and old) look down on pop culture. It’s a very classist way of thinking and a reaction to the idea that celebration of pop culture doesn’t necessarily have to be rooted in a traceable history in a way that much of academia does. Your Twitter is full of pop culture references and I wanted to ask why you love it and why it’s important you? How does it link back to your writing?

Ruby: I think that because pop culture is so rooted in the here and now, so contingent on fashion, there’s a sense that it has this contextual specificity that supposedly ‘ahistorical’, ‘objective’ academia doesn’t have to deal with. And you end up feeling like the transience of pop culture is somehow a weakness, or a sign that these things were never that good to begin with. You hear it all the time when dudes contrast some ‘timeless’ fucking orchestral number to the fun of less serious cultural output. But the bottom line is that we do exist in the here and now, and I want to root myself in the context that spawned me. I want to align myself with the music/books/films that run parallel to my own experiences, and find culture that I relate to. Most of all, I want to have fun. That’s what pop culture offers me. Also, it’s comparatively democratic. That’s not to say that pop culture doesn’t have serious issues with (under)representation, appropriation and stereotyping, but I guess that’s what happens in a populist media – the prejudices of society are replicated, even intensified, under the glare of the spotlights. It’s tricky.

Lola: I love the idea of just wanting to have fun. Because of history and systematic oppression, the lives of women of colour are always seen through a lens of grief and sorrow. It’s vital that we engage with that pain and understand it and not try and romanticise our experiences by pretending that pain is not a part of them but I think the potential joy in our lives is always overlooked. Trauma is a big part of our collective history. What do you think of movements that are seeking to affirm the positivity of blackness in particular on social media (carefree black girls/ black girl magic) especially in light of your belief in the necessity of self-care?

Ruby: I think those movements are fucking glorious. I agree that it’s crucial to own, unpack and critically engage with our trauma, but there’s also so much power in saying ‘You know what? I’m here and I am having great fun and living a beautiful, glistening, shimmering life. I am magic.’ That kind of confidence is like an elixir, and it’s absolutely rooted in self-care, taking time to address and fulfil your needs, and valuing the other women and non-binary people of colour around you. In a world that’s really reluctant to bestow a narrative of confidence and contentment on people of colour, putting yourself in the middle of the picture and demanding that joy for yourself is so empowering. A huge part of that is about pleasure: considering yourself worthy of pleasure and happiness, and allowing yourself that joy. That’s just one of the ways that food can factor in black girl magic.

Lola: With freshers week approaching – do you have any advice for women of colour and non-binary people navigating majority-white spaces? Did you find that safe spaces and events that highlighted gender/race were important to you as student or young person?

Ruby: To be honest, I made no use of the support and safe spaces available to me when I was at UCL. I was really nervous about joining any kind of society or putting myself out there in a meaningful way, so I just kind of drifted along with the people on my course. I look back on that with regret now, because I feel like I missed a real opportunity. The few QPOC friends I made, though, were amazing – they completely changed the way I had felt about grandiose, stifling, intimidating UCL. It sounds massively hypocritical, but I guess the main thing I’d recommend to people entering these majority-white university spaces is to try to find those safe spaces and join the clubs that will give you support. It’s something you deserve, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to go out and get it.

Lola: Do you ever feel overwhelmed or anxious about the pressure of your own words and the impact they may have? As someone who has released a book and has a large social media presence, is there ever a balance that can be made between defending/sticking to what you know to be true but also being aware and responsive to criticism?

Ruby: Yeah that’s always difficult. It’s hard forging a space where there’s room for both personal self-assurance (which can be really tough for me given my mental health and nervousness) and an openness to criticism and debate. I try to be responsive when people call me out on X or Y, and I’ve learnt loads from my mistakes in that way over the years. That can mean skimming really close to things that are sensitive issues for me, like how best to deal with eating disorders and so on. In those cases, I guess all I can really do is say ‘this worked for me and my friends, I hope it works for you, too’.

Lola: To end, I think a lot of people are drawn to how vocal and playful you are about queerness – both your own and Harry styles’ haha. Do you have any advice for people who might be struggling to embrace it? How was this process for you?

Ruby: I think the playfulness is really crucial, actually. Obviously there’s a lot that’s really serious, difficult and even dangerous about being queer in this world, and I wouldn’t want to downplay that, but holding on to your right to have fun with your queerness and to let that manifest in playful, lighthearted, extravagant ways is really something special. It can take the edge off the narrative of, and common reality of, suffering projected onto queer people. Whether that’s imagining the details of Harry Styles’ love life, or constructing an intricate diagram connecting the queer worlds of Kendall Jenner and co., you’ve just got to try to engage with the things that are fun and interesting to you, and find queer friends who are there to support you in that.


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