Read an extract from Ruby Tandoh's new book, Eat Up!
Ruby Tandoh's latest book, Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, is a celebration of food and eating that cuts through fads, crazes and guilt to focus on the joy and pleasure to be found in mealtimes and cooking.
Read an extract, including a recipe for Chickpea Pasta, below.
On living and dying in a time of waffles
We live in a time of waffles.
I feel dizzy when I start thinking about chance, because the chances of anything happening, or having happened, seem so tiny. This book might never have happened – I could have taken a different fork in the road at any one of the million infinitesimally small, trivial decisions I’ve made in my life. I could have missed a crucial phone call, or met a different group of friends, been late for a train. I could never have existed at all. You could never have existed either. But when the odds are stacked against you, it makes the tiny little coincidences even more remarkable. It is a miracle that you are here, and that you are here now in this most auspicious moment in history. Because in the 200,000 years that modern humans have walked this earth, waffles have only existed for a few minuscule, sparkling moments in all of history. Waffle irons that were used to make unleavened oublies – an ancestor of the waffle, and a little like a communion wafer – have existed since the ninth century, but leavened waffles, as we would recognise them today, have only been around since roughly the sixteenth century. That’s less than a quarter of a per cent of the span of human history. The flash of life that is you, your life – it coincides with the age of books and waffles. What a time to be alive.
There’s nothing special about waffles when you flatten them to a few words on a sheet of paper: they’re just a simple batter, usually wheat flour, water or milk, egg and some kind of raising agent, such as baking powder or yeast, cooked between two irons. But waffles don’t exist on the page, they exist on the plate, and it’s here that they take on a life of their own. There are heavy, caramel-lined stroopwafels in the Netherlands, set over a steaming mug of coffee until the toffee is sticky and warm, or thick, sugar-lump-studded Belgian waffles, little toaster waffles so sweet they hurt your teeth. There are Vietnamese pandan leaf-infused waffles, rich with coconut milk, and American-style breakfast waffles heaped with scrambled eggs, maple syrup and bacon. They can be chewy and thin, bread-like and savoury, cakey, gooey or crisp.
But somehow their magic isn’t even really about how they taste. Of course, they taste good (particularly – trust me on this – topped with ripe raspberries and soft mild goat’s cheese whipped with double cream, drizzled with honey and finished with a liberal handful of chopped pistachios), but there’s more to it than that. Why, whenever I eat breakfast out, do I linger forever on the waffle option, no matter how overblown or underdone I know it will be? The answer has very little to do with what waffles actually are, and everything to do with what they stand for. Nora Ephron knew this.
I Remember Nothing is full of food. It’s the director and screenwriter’s last published book, and in it she talks at great length about a meatloaf that was once named after her, and how the mushroom sauce with it ought not to have been served on the side, after all. There’s an entire story about who should have made the dessert, and another on chicken soup. In the final essay of this final book, Nora gives us a list of things that she will miss when she dies. She will miss her husband and her children and the park, but she will also miss butter, dinner with friends, pie, ordering ‘one for the table’. She will miss not just waffles but also, in an entry all to itself, ‘the concept of waffles’. Just two years after the book was published, Nora died of an illness that, it turns out, she’d known about all along, while she wrote about the things she would miss: waffles, the concept of waffles, pie.
The concept of waffles is the idea that breakfast is there to be savoured, slowly, on a Sunday morning. The concept of waffles is that you can pile indulgence on top of decadence and finish it with a drizzle of hedonism, and that this constitutes a real and valid meal. The concept of waffles is that a waffle will never, ever be a staple food, or a convenience food, or a health food, and that it is all the more special for this uselessness. They are just there to be enjoyed.
When I Remember Nothing was first published, it had mixed reviews. Reviewers asked one question again, and again: where is the substance? But this stuff – that they called ‘fluffy’ – was never just fluff. When Ephron talked about a silly row with a friend, or hating email, or waffles, she wrote the minutiae of her life big and bold. These things aren’t particularly political, and they don’t have the same feminist clout as Ephron’s earlier essays on sexism, but these are the things that give life colour. It’s important to care about handbags, going on dates, waffles, emails – all of the silly, forgettable, delicious little things that make up life and make life worth living. The bulk of our lives is scrawled in the margins. This is the stuff that matters.
Of course, it’s not just waffles that we’re lucky to coexist with. Think about Wotsits – at what other point in history could you have bought a crinkly packet of luminous orange cheese dust, blown up into featherweight little nuggets? Viennetta is a modern miracle! (How can ice cream be so intricately shaped, and be so soft, and taste of nothing at all?) We can eat popping candy and fake meat and foods from every corner of the earth. All of these things that are silly, and tasty, and completely unnecessary: we live in the age of these things. What a shame it would be if we didn’t try our best to taste every last weird and wonderful product on the supermarket shelves, and take a moment every now and again to step away from sensibility, necessity, nutrition, and just taste something good. Look around at how lucky you are to be alive right now! But enough … I’m waffling.
Weeknight chickpea pasta with peppers and tomato
As a kid, I loved the sweetness of the peppers in this easy pasta dish. Chop four yellow, orange or red peppers into chunks, and throw into a large saucepan with a sliced onion, three crushed cloves of garlic and a couple of tablespoons of oil. Cook over a low heat with the lid on, stirring occasionally, until the pepper is perfectly tender. Add two tins of chopped tomatoes, two drained tins of chickpeas, a teaspoon of dried oregano, a teaspoon of smoked paprika, and a good pinch of chilli flakes. Simmer for 10 minutes. While the sauce cooks, boil 600g of pasta shapes in plenty of salted water – penne or fusilli work well, but truly this isn’t Italy and nobody’s going to report you to a nonna if you just use the mixed dregs of whatever pastas you have in the cupboard. Season the sauce with plenty of salt and pepper, drain the pasta, and mix the two together. We always used to beg for grated Cheddar with this, although frankly it is not necessary and it doesn’t go. It’s fun, though. Serves six.
Ruby Tandoh is an author and journalist who writes for, among others, the Guardian, Elle and Vice. A finalist on the 2013 Great British Bake Off, she has published two cookery books, Crumb and Flavour. She lives in Sheffield.
Follow Ruby on Twitter @rubytandoh