Ruby Tandoh’s New Book, ‘Cook as You Are,’ Pushes Back Against Cookbook Conventions
It’s March 2018, and Ruby Tandoh is worried. Worried, as she writes in her newsletter, “whether I have been inclusive, moral, accessible, affordable and understandable enough. I have so much hope for a food media that is, as it stands, absolutely awful. And somewhere between the reality of the world and hope I harbour, this old familiar feeling begins to grow, and I become sad.”
Her third book, Eat Up!: Food, Appetite, and Eating What You Want, has just come out in the U.K. Through essays and meditations on pleasure, diet, and feeding in art and on film, it crystallizes her philosophy of appetites, unencumbered by societal expectations of what they should look like and how much of them are acceptable. As she says in an interview that year, “we’re in the middle of an age of this incredible anxiety around food at the moment — the world is so scary and so grim and one of the few ways that most of us can actually control our lives is to control the food we eat.”
Eat Up! is also an opportunity to break away from the limitations of the cookbook. Five years after being propelled into the public eye on The Great British Bake Off, a formative launchpad that sent her to unforeseen heights as a shy 21-year-old student, Tandoh has published two cookbooks: Crumb in 2014 and Flavour in 2016. Both were designed to capture the rocket fuel of opportunity that comes from appearing on television, but that initial success quickly burned out into ambivalence about exactly where those opportunities had taken her. She says in an interview that she feels disillusioned by the way cookbooks in particular are “a very limiting form [that] gets framed as the One Way to share knowledge about cooking and food traditions.” And even though she’s published Eat Up!, the hope she holds for embracing people’s various appetites has morphed into those fears of not being enough. Even the architect of “the foundations of something good — the desire to nourish yourself, and eat well, and disengage from food world bullshit,” as she says in that newsletter ringed by sadness in 2018, can’t escape that bullshit all the time.
Now it’s September 2022. Eat Up! has just been published in the U.S. And Ruby Tandoh, despite her fears, has written another cookbook.
Cook As You Are will arrive in the U.S. this November, a year after it came out in the U.K. After the publication of Eat Up!, Tandoh remained curious about how its theories might translate into culinary practice. This meant that writing Cook As You Are necessarily meant asking to what extent the pleasures of cooking are inadvertently but inherently manacled by the cookbook as a form. “The cookbook as a 20th- and 21st-century artifact is so deeply embedded in specific ways of distributing (and often withholding) capital, prestige, power, knowledge, and taste,” she says.
Recipes often promise liberation — in teaching people how to cook, in expanding horizons, and providing new moments of joy in eating. But they’re also an inherently dogmatic text when written down. “It’s hard to imagine [the cookbook] outside of these contexts,” Tandoh says, “but at the same time I’m naturally attached to cookbooks as objects and everything they represent.”
That paradox is the central tension of Cook As You Are. Freedom for the cook comes at the price of following the rules, whether or not their maker has even thought about the cook following them. Freedom for the author, to publish the recipes they want, can come at the cost of being asked to be an avatar for an entire cuisine or culture, required to embody a plurality of kitchens no one person could possibly understand. Tandoh touched on this problem in a 2019 piece she wrote about the perils of being the “next big thing,” and has continued this line of thought throughout the development of the book. “I had to figure out a way to write [a book that] didn’t make any of those assumptions,” she says. “And while it will never be a skeleton key, because in Cook As You Are, I am still cooking as me, I wanted to do that as far as possible.”
It was a stint at the Guardian as a columnist, following her time in the GBBO tent, that crystallized Tandoh’s ambivalence toward the feigned neutrality of recipes. As she told Food and Wine, “I realized that I was actually less interested in writing recipes, and more interested in the context that surrounded those recipes: the stuff that informs the ways we eat food, and the ways we pass on culinary traditions.” The restless thrum of newness troubled her, too. Writing in her newsletter, she questioned why novelty so often subsumed subsistence: “There’s no room for a recipe for plain old tomato soup, or porridge, or heavily buttered toast with raspberry jam. We live in a time of unfettered access to infinite recipes, and in this hungry, curious world, it’s newness that excites us.”
The translation of theory into practice necessarily means that there are some commonalities between Cook As You Are and Eat Up! “Those ways of thinking about food, taste, and appetite … were still reasonably distinct from cookbooks as a genre,” Tandoh says. “And I was curious about what it would look like to work some of those ideas into the fabric of a cookbook — the aesthetics of food, moral judgments, following appetites, all of these things.” Both books eschew the promise of a magic formula for enhanced self-actualization; the new cookbook’s title very literally and immediately tells its cooks that it is ready to meet them where, well, they are. But the real strength of Cook As You Are lies in what proves to be its defining characteristic: a productive, inclusive form of self-doubt.
The book is an exercise in creating room for every kind of recipe and every kind of cook. But to begin, Tandoh actually undermines her title. “I’m not claiming that this cookbook will accurately capture every aspect of every reader’s life,” she writes. “I’m a cook like you, with my own likes and dislikes, cultural reference points, strengths and weaknesses.” As the book progresses, this deconstruction of its foundations continues, with Tandoh always hyper-aware of the bind she has put herself in by writing it. “As much as I’m trying to make this accessible to as many people as I can, it’s still the perspective of just one person.”
Though the imperative, the stock voice of any recipe, is present in Cook As You Are, it doesn’t fall into the cold command that can sometimes pervade the way recipes speak to their cooks. Tandoh instead nourishes her recipes with conditionality, not telling cooks what they will do but instead reveling in the potential of what they could do, according to where they find themselves, at any time of year, at any time of day, in any part of any country, but localized entirely within their kitchen. Embracing that plurality involves doing away with the notion of a perceived “Ideal Reader.” “If I’m writing about plantain, I wanted to avoid saying something like, ‘You won’t have heard of this,’ ” Tandoh says of how ingredients are often pruned from their cultural origins in favor of a more vacant, supposedly neutral perspective. “Because the belief implicit in saying ‘you won’t have heard of this’ is that your reader is a white person.”
Tandoh also made a foundational decision to crowdsource the book’s format by putting out a Twitter poll. It’s not a new practice: Her long-running series of food pleasures, or Good Food Things, lived on the platform. But that choice created a kind of useful chaos, out of which the book would eventually find a form.
“One of the most striking responses to the poll was that most people cook between two and five recipes from even their favorite book,” Tandoh says. “And I knew those recipes wouldn’t be incredibly clever sauces; they’d be dinner recipes. What they tend to do in an emergency, at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday.” People were also completely at odds over what a recipe should look like; when ingredient quantities should be detailed and how often. Within the book, this translates into chapters set out by mood and vibe rather than by dishes or occasions: “Feed Me Now,” “More Food, Less Work,” “Wild Appetites.”
This variety of inputs, and the subsequent recipe testing, mean every entry offers myriad substitutions. They aren’t just for principal ingredients but smaller, kinder things like whether pre-chopped foods will work just fine. (A silky, smoky eggplant stew, however, brooks no argument: “Don’t even try to replace the eggplant, you cheeky bastards. It’s an eggplant stew.”) Even the smallest gestures speak of empathy. While some introductions invoke the sunny language of remembered meals and wistful moments, others speak of being a “petulant” cook, reframing the idea of “good cooking” as about “which corners you can cut.”
Tandoh’s inviting generosity also extends to how she showcases the cooks and kitchens that have made her the cook she is, too. Citation in cookbook publishing has long been a thorny issue (ask James Beard); today, the internet, Instagram, and TikTok have deepened the mythic import of the recipe creator, turning attribution into a parasocial pursuit more than a sociocultural one. Who made the recipe is more important than where it came from.
Tandoh pushes back on this by referring to inspirations in headnotes, providing reading lists for each chapter, and noting when recipes belong to other published authors, like Rukmini Iyer of the bestselling Roasting Tin series. Even the easy-read version — which visualizes every single step and item required for 10 simple recipes through photography — suggests other charity cookbooks to try if this one doesn’t work for the cook using it. (Publisher Serpent’s Tail, with whom Tandoh also worked on Eat Up!, has distributed this version of the book to community centers and kitchens across the U.K.)
This philosophy also defines the book’s aesthetics. There is no photography in Cook As You Are. Instead, drawings from illustrator Sinae Park — who also collaborated with Tandoh on Eat Up! — capture myriad cooks in myriad kitchens in minute detail, the cat hair on the floor or a tea towel slung over a radiator. The person who finds comfort in sitting down to chop. The real lives that cookbooks can gloss over in pursuit of an imagined ideal.
All of this together fundamentally undermines the idea that in order to gently let someone flourish in the kitchen, the guiding voice needs the weight of certitude. That might, she says, make some readers doubt her as someone to listen to, but she’s entirely okay with that. “I tend to err on the side of uncertainty, which might give people less confidence in me as an instructor when it comes to cooking,” she says, “but I think it’s the only way that I could be honest.”
Throughout both Cook As You Are and Eat Up! it’s easy to see those fears from 2018 resurface: There is ambivalence, skepticism, and (sometimes) horror at the ways in which food and eating, recipes and cookbooks, ask people to contort themselves into other people’s beliefs about the world. But if Tandoh’s approach is in one way an antidote, it is also deeply aware that the forms it takes are just as much part of the poison, or, as she memorably put it in 2018, “the stinking depths” of institutional food media.
She’s aware that the idea of a cookbook for everyone is, itself, a trap. “You need to target who you’re trying to cook for, you can’t be the cook for everyone — that’s how you end up bulldozing other people and other cultures,” she says. Tandoh is alive to the responsibilities of her form, and considered enough to be able to have a little fun in explaining them. In a section titled “The Recipe Tree,” an explanation of the need to pay respect to recipes’ cultural origins, she writes: “Brits will spend a lifetime arguing about the correct condiments to have with fries, and then make some dismal culinary mashup that breaks every rule of someone else’s food culture.”
She’s right, she should say it, and she also knows Cook As You Are is not a solution. It’s not radical, because it is still a cookbook, and “radical” is too often another hidden trap, a form of acclaim that scans as admiring but also reinforces the norm it tries to push against. If anything is radical, it’s the way in which Tandoh, who has written a thoroughly empathetic cookbook, conceives of breaking away from the form’s constraints, which includes relegating her own sense of authority below a more generous sense of what food knowledge encompasses, of which her book — and cookbooks themselves — are but one tiny part.
“This cookbook is trying to be something a little bit different. We’ve fallen into a rut in cookbook publishing,” she says. “But then there’s the temptation to overegg it. I don’t want to claim that this has reinvented the wheel; I don’t want to say this is a cookbook that can reach everyone. If it’s a cookbook about realism, then I want that realism to acknowledge its necessary limitations. The word ‘radical’ and words like it … it just overpromises. This is still a cookbook, a cookbook that people have to pay for. That in itself doesn’t even feel right; is this even how the sharing of knowledge about cooking, something necessary for nourishment and survival, should be? It can’t ever be radical in a meaningful sense, and I would like to reserve the word ‘radical’ for things that are disrupting the system in a big way.
“I like the idea of a layered, multifaceted and diverse food canon, a kind of knowledge that spills over,” she writes later over WhatsApp. She adds that she is of late cooking “fucking nothing” and staging a personal protest against washing up. Her good food things of the moment are a plate of tofu, aubergine, and rice at the Chinatown canteen Wong Kei; Colombian ice creams picked up from a store and a polystyrene box of rice and plantain. No cookbook, no recipe, no kitchen. No cooking at all; just herself.
Tandoh also acknowledges that some readers might be seeking a voice with less doubt, a voice in another book that’s “a matronly one, a cheffy one, or one that declares itself an arbiter of taste,” as she says. That would mean they’d be cooking as they are — even if it means cooking without her, or closing the book entirely. Sometimes, part of cooking as you are is not cooking at all.
Don Caminos is a visual vaquero providing editorial illustration from Mexico City.
Fact-checked by Kelsey Lannin
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