Ruby Tandoh Just Wants You to Eat What You Love

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SHEFFIELD, England — Come January, everyone’s an expert on what you should, and should not, be eating, and in what quantities you should, and should not, be eating it.

Not Ruby Tandoh, who is standing in her kitchen in South Yorkshire, sizzling plantains in an inch of oil until they’re a deep brown all over and tender inside.

Ms. Tandoh, a 24-year-old food writer with a cult following in Britain, doesn’t endorse a set of rules by which you should shop, cook and eat. Instead, she champions the miscellaneous delights, the quiet quotidian pleasures, of cooking without rules.

“I can hear the voices of aunties in my head,” she said, sliding across the linoleum to flip the sputtering plantains. “They’re telling me not to overcrowd the pan.”

Ms. Tandoh lives here in Sheffield, a city once known for its steel industry, where locals never seem to tire of saying there are more trees than people. She came into the public eye a few years ago as a college student, when she competed on the popular television series “The Great British Bake Off.”

Since then, Ms. Tandoh has written two cookbooks; essays in The Guardian, Elle U.K. and other publications that tell complex stories about our relationships with food; and fast-food reviews for Vice U.K. In her writing, she seems almost allergic to food snobbery.

Her second cookbook, “Flavour: Eat What You Love,” was published last summer in Britain and will arrive in the United States in February. It celebrates the repertoire of a skilled and enthusiastic home cook, as interested in the feminist concept of “shine theory,” which values female friendship over competition, and how it might apply to cake, as what Harry Styles of the band One Direction orders for dessert.

Ms. Tandoh’s paternal grandfather, who immigrated to Britain from Ghana, died two years ago, and since then, her interest in Ghanaian flavors has grown. She rolls up the sleeves of her oversize orange sweater to pull whole tilapia from a garlicky marinade, which she will pan-fry and serve with the browned plantains, a salad of raw onions, tomatoes and herbs and a homemade hot sauce. She warms groundnut soup on the electric stove until the windows fog up and the whole room is swaddled with the scent of peanut butter and chiles.

It’s an unshowy blowout of a lunch, alive with heat and depth, utterly delicious.

“The language of some of our most beloved food writers has gone from flavor and feasting to cleanness and lightness,” Ms. Tandoh lamented in an essay written for Vice U.K. last year. Taking a closer look at the trends toward gluten-free and sugar-free foods, toward clean eating and wellness, she sometimes found a moralizing and restrictive message hiding between the lines, making unscientific promises about the benefits of certain foods and the damage caused by others.

“I saw diet culture creeping into general food writing, and into the lives of friends who weren’t seeking it,” she said, scooping a fresh mango and lime sorbet at the wobbly table against the wall.

In particular, it was the sweet potato brownies. Wheat-free, sugar-free versions were blooming on food blogs and in Paleo forums, embraced by eaters without allergies.

“I made them,” said Ms. Tandoh, who was initially curious. “They were rank.”

Marian Burros wrote about the “clean food diet” in The New York Times in 1996, when it was just starting to gain steam. The diet was then packaged as a new though vague standard for health food that went beyond the organic label. Followers were focused on maximizing nutritional value in foods they generally defined as “pure.”

The term clean eating has since ballooned into a buzzword that describes tea cleanses, liquid detoxes, raw foods, superfoods and a variety of other wellness-related diets.

Ms. Tandoh is not interested in presenting her own counterdiet. She won’t play the part of a guru, or prescribe any single dogma. “Some of the most delicious cakes I’ve had have coconut oil in them,” she said, “but I just don’t believe in the evangelism of ingredients.”

Bee Wilson, an author and a columnist for The Guardian, said Ms. Tandoh’s broadside on Vice U.K. “took everyone by storm,” starting a conversation among writers who were glad Ms. Tandoh had articulated the misgivings they already had about clean eating.

“People got a sense that she was much more outspoken than most baking writers,” Ms. Wilson said. “She was scrappy and clever and had things to say that were at an angle.”

Ms. Tandoh grew up in Essex, the eldest of four children, with parents who often cooked burly soups and stews from the vegetarian Moosewood cookbooks. Her father worked for the Royal Mail, her mother was a school administrator, and the family subscribed to The Observer Magazine, which featured Nigel Slater’s elegant, almost poetic food column.

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“We didn’t have a lot of money,” Ms. Tandoh said. “The recipes were quite special compared to what we had day to day.”

Though a stint in a London restaurant kitchen lasted only one day, she worked for months in the kitchen of a youth hostel in Lisbon. Cooking daily for 30 people, on a budget of just 25 euros, she learned the value of one-pot meals that make the most of cheap ingredients and feed a crowd. She now cooks sweet and savory at home, for herself and her girlfriend, every day.

“Flavor makes food a pleasure,” Ms. Tandoh wrote in the introduction to her new cookbook. “It is taste then — not presentation or prestige, health or fashion — that shapes the recipes in this book.”

Those recipes roam across the country: There’s a luxuriously creamy English fish pie, made with smoked haddock and peas, topped with a thick layer of mashed potato.

There’s also a lentil soup spiked with lime juice, and an opulent meringue rolled up with cream and cherries. Ms. Tandoh is a skilled baker, and her recipes draw from a rainbow of cheap sweeteners that are easy to find in Britain: honey, dark brown sugar, golden syrup and treacle.

Other dishes come from surprising places. Daydreams about the dessert menu of a high-end London restaurant that Ms. Tandoh has never visited led her to create a toffee-muscovado tart. An unconventional pizza topped with ground beef and a runny yolk is her imagined homage to the secret recipe in the 1988 movie “Mystic Pizza.” (“I wanted to do something that was really special, that you couldn’t get from a takeout place,” she explained.)

Ms. Tandoh’s spaghetti Bolognese, laced with melted anchovies and bacon, is inspired by a character from the French film “Blue Is the Warmest Color” who slurps spaghetti throughout the film, uninhibited.

Food writers don’t often acknowledge the ways food can be tied up with anxiety for their readers, all of the complications that can get in the way of pleasure. But Ms. Tandoh has written about her struggles with an eating disorder as a teenager, and she offers support to those who struggle now.

Over the holidays, she sent positive messages via Twitter to buoy followers who may have been feeling vulnerable, nudging them, with words and emoji, to be kind to themselves. “Christmas can be tough if you have a troubled relationship with food,” she wrote, “take care of yourself!”

Self care is also at the heart of her approach to cooking, the central message of every recipe. Whether she is baking a honey cake, frying anchovy-stuffed sage leaves or poaching a whole chicken to make soup, she believes that taking pleasure in food is an inherently nourishing act, that to cook yourself dinner is to be good to yourself.

But rules? “Eat what you love” is the closest thing Ms. Tandoh has to one. Spend an afternoon with her, or follow the recipes in her cookbook, and it’s clear that the phrase is a call to follow your own sense of the delicious.

It is also a reminder that there are many ways to kick off good habits in the new year. One of them just may be to put all the voices of self-proclaimed experts on mute, and to turn up your own.

Recipe: Cider-Spiked Fish Pie

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