Apr 21 • 33M

Stop Apologizing For How You Cook

Good Enough Cooking for our real, messy lives, with cookbook author Leanne Brown.

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Virginia Sole-Smith
Weekly conversations about how we dismantle diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting, health and fashion. (But non-parents like it too!) Hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of THE EATING INSTINCT and the forthcoming FAT KID PHOBIA.
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“Sometimes I’ve just shoved some granola in my face, because I knew that I needed to have some fuel in my body. I didn’t really enjoy it. And that’s okay. That’s absolutely appropriate for that moment.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I am chatting with Leanne Brown who is the author of the cookbooks Good and Cheap and Good Enough. Leanne focuses on making cooking more accessible and affordable. She also does a lot of important work challenging our perceptions around what cooking should be and how we can make it into whatever we want it to be, including stuff on toast or bowls of cereal.

If you’re feeling stressed about family meals or about feeding yourself, or if cooking is feeling hard for you, whether it’s because of who you’re feeding or your relationship with food: Leanne’s work may be a helpful starting point in terms of growing your confidence around food and cooking and recognizing what’s useful and what’s not useful.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

PS. The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is almost to $9,000! We are so close to our goal. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.


Episode 40 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Leanne! Why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Leanne

I’m a cookbook author, but at the same time, I don’t think that that really describes what I do. It’s certainly a huge part of what I do—I love the creating cookbooks aspect. What I really want to do is welcome anyone and everyone into the kitchen. And I think I have a particular soft spot in my heart for people who don’t really think of themselves as cooks or aren’t necessarily as naturally attracted to cooking. I believe that they have a place in the kitchen. Becoming comfortable with cooking—not even cooking but simply making food for oneself and for those in your life that you want to make food for—brings so much empowerment. My passion is in connecting with people, and finding a way to make peace with food in your life. 

Virginia

I am someone who loves cooking, but I’m also very big on not putting cooking on such a pedestal, because it’s so often held to these impossible standards. So I went on this little journey reading your work where at first I was like, Oh sure, cooking solves everything, fine. And then I was like, Oh, wait, but she’s also saying it’s okay if you don’t like cooking!

Leanne

When I introduce myself as a cookbook author, it puts me into the world of food media. Which is all these videos, TV shows, and beautiful magazines, and it’s all this glorification of food. There’s obviously a place for that. I think it adds so much to our lives and our culture. There’s this artistic aspect to it, and there’s so much beauty in it. 

But at the same time: I hear from so many people who say, “Oh, I’m a terrible cook.” Why are any of us judging ourselves like that? So long as you’re able to feed your body every day, that’s really all that matters.

I’ve been going through a lot of family emergency stuff and that means that I don’t have a very big appetite a lot of the time because I have a nervous tummy. So sometimes I’m just like, well, I just shoved some granola in my face, because I knew that I needed to have some fuel in my body. I didn’t really enjoy it. And that’s totally okay. That’s appropriate for this moment. There are so many times in life like that and I shouldn’t internalize them as ‘I’m a failure,’ or ‘what kind of a cook am I?’ But I’ve gone through periods of life where I’ve felt that way. So I really want to share this message with others, because I think it’s such an important balance to all that beautiful, curated stuff that we see all the time.

Virginia

As you’re talking, I’m just thinking: Why do we expect ourselves as home cooks to live up to this standard? It would be like expecting to do your taxes as well as a professional accountant or solve your own medical crisis. We need professionals! Cooking is a professional skill. And it’s this thing we have to do day-to-day. But why do you expect yourself to execute it like someone who’s had years of training and has a whole team and a huge budget? I feel like this has to be somewhat rooted in the way we devalue cooking as women’s work. We’re socially conditioned to have cooking be a default part of our gender identity, so it’s not valued or made visible—and yet we’re also expected to be effortlessly great at it.

Leanne

We could absolutely do a whole episode trying to unpack that.

Virginia

Well, let’s talk about the new cookbook. So it’s called Good Enough and it is so much more than a cookbook. It’s a different genre of book because you have recipes—and the recipes are wonderful—but then you have just essay after beautiful essay. Many of them are about why it is okay, and even necessary, to lower the bar and to lower our standards around food and ourselves. You’re giving us permission to do less. Tell us a little more about what made you want to write a cookbook that essentially gives people permission not to cook.  

Leanne

That’s such a great way of framing it. That’s exactly what I’m doing! So my last book, Good and Cheap was a book created for people on a very, very tight budget, people who are on a food stamps budget. It was this surprise hit. It sold really well, a ton of people were interested in it. It was also this project that was created to be freely available for people. So I ended up traveling all over the country and getting to meet so many people from so many different kinds of backgrounds. And I kept having this one experience over and over and over, where someone would come up to me and they’d say, “Oh, I love what you’re doing. This is so cool. But I am hopeless. I’m a terrible cook.” This really, really struck me and I just couldn’t stop thinking about this. I would try to have a deeper conversation. I’d say, “What makes you say that? Why have you judged yourself this way?” And it was almost always something so innocuous, like, “My kid doesn’t like my food,” or I’ll never forget this woman who said she put on a dinner party, and she said, “I poisoned someone.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds terrible.”

Virginia

That, you could carry with you for a bit. 

Leanne

I get that. But then I delved deeper into it and it turned out that a person was allergic to something and they just hadn’t disclosed that to her. 

Virginia

Oh, well, that’s not on her!

Leanne

Right? I know! Oh, it’s so heartbreaking. But there are these experiences that we carry around with us. There just needs to be more to support these people. Because I can see this longing. They are walking toward cooking, toward food. They want to have a good and healthy relationship with it. And yet they feel less than for some reason or other. My heart went out to them.

I also had to notice that I was seeing myself reflected in that, to a certain extent. I’ve always been, I think, naturally gifted with cooking and food. But a year or so after Good and Cheap came out, I got pregnant and I ended up being really, really sick, for longer than the first trimester. I was really ill, really nauseous everyday. Throwing up a lot of the time. Food was just not a fun place for me. And I found myself having an identity crisis. If I can’t do this, who am I? What do I even have to offer? What do I do? How do I approach this? Everything I’ve ever said to people, is it all a lie?

And then, in the early days of parenting, when life changed so much, my relationship to cooking and to how I fed myself was also changing all the time. I realized we need to change our approaches to cooking all the time, depending on which phase of life you’re in, and what is going on. No one really talks about that. It’s all about like, you’re good cook or you’re bad cook and that’s just such nonsense. It’s so disempowering, and it leaves us so confused. I wanted to create something that talked about cooking as a part of our real messy lives.

Virginia

I want to spend a little more time on this thing you noticed, of people feeling like they need to apologize. I interview people a lot about their relationships with food, and I see this all the time too. We’re all conditioned to apologize for how we eat, whether that’s our cooking ability or the fact that we’re eating someone else’s food. It’s that thing of apologizing with, “I can’t believe I’m having the third brownie.” I would love to hear more on how you’ve been working to break that cycle for yourself?

Leanne

I think the journey begins in the noticing. Noticing and then asking, why do I feel compelled to apologize when someone is offering me food? What if I didn’t do that? What if I believed that this person who is offering this genuinely wants me to have it? What if I took them at their word and just did what my body is wanting right now, which is to take another brownie? And then I can appreciate that and thank them for it. What if I did that, rather than apologizing for how I’m not showing up in this gendered, sort of perfectionist way where we’re supposed to “only take one” and not eat indulgent food and not be a bother to others or not be an inconvenience?

The last chapter in the book is about putting on a dinner party. I think having people over is often what we’re motivated by when it comes to cooking. Like, “I want to put on a big show for others.” But I think it should actually be one of the later steps. It’s really important to learn first to feed yourself, in your life. Because otherwise, you’re only seeking others’ approval around food, and that it’s never going to really feel good enough, right? Like, no matter how much they say, “We love that it’s great,” if something inside you is like, I don’t know if I deserve that, it’s never going to feel like enough.

So I think it’s important, when you have people over, to be honest about “this has been a lot of work for me.” And to really welcome them into your home and really offer with full openness, that you want to love them. For me, having people over and feeding them, is an act of love. And I think I’ve always tried to minimize that act by being like, “Whatever. It’s no big deal.” Because it’s uncomfortable. It’s vulnerable to be like, “I love you so much that I went to the store and got all these things and obsessed over this. And I worked really hard on it and here it is. And now I hope you like it and if you don’t, I still love you and that’s okay.” That is just a lot to hold!

So, I think about, in that moment, when I, as the visitor, want to do that thing of, “Oh, I won’t take too much,” it helps to remember that when I’m in their shoes, I want people to take it! I want them to like it! I want them to feel that joy, I want to feel that connection. We’re so often doing this dance of connection where we all long to be in true, intimate connection with others, but it’s terrifying. There’s this will-you, won’t-you, do you like me as much as I like you? All that comes up. It’s hard. 

Photo by Alex Potemkin via Getty Images

Virginia

I’m thinking about that standard we talked about where not only do we expect ourselves to execute meals like professional chefs, we also want the work of it to be invisible, right? That’s what you’re talking about when you have people over but trying to hide how much that is an act of love. You don’t want them to know that actually your kitchen was a wreck an hour ago. You don’t want them to see the dishes. You don’t want them to know how much you stressed about whether the sauce turned out right. Is this the legacy of Martha Stewart? We feel like we have to effortlessly present a meal to communicate love. But all that really does is devalue the labor further. Because we’ve made it invisible.

Leanne

And it puts up a wall, too. It’s a way of shutting people out from the truth of your experience. Because it makes you look anxious or it makes you look like you care too much. It’s so self-defeating. Because I actually want people to know how much I care.

Virginia

So do you leave the dirty dishes in the sink before people come over? Or do you still ry to get it all cleaned up? 

Leanne

I think for the longest time, I absolutely would always clean up. And to be honest, I think sometimes I still do, just out of practicality. Because I do tend to clean as I go when I’m making food. But I’ve really tried to make it a practice that when people exclaim over a meal, I don’t say, “It was nothing.” I say, “Thank you so much for noticing. I worked hard on it.”

And I try to allow people to help. It was my daughter's fifth birthday a couple of weekends ago. I was trying so hard not to do everything myself. We had some friends from out of town over a little early and I tried to keep stuff aside for them to do when they would arrive and to allow others to help me. It kind of worked. But it was hard. Because when you don’t do everything yourself, you also have to release your own standards and your own perfectionism. When you ask others for help, they may not do it the way you want them to. And that’s okay, actually! It doesn’t mean they don’t care and they don’t love you. That’s part of being in community.

Virginia

And maybe the end result is better for it. Even if it doesn’t align with that Instagram version of the meal that you felt like you were supposed to be executing. Maybe there’s something more beautiful in that fact.

Leanne

Yes. Why did it need to be that way for it to be okay? The answer really is just building more awareness around all the ways in which food is just so inextricably linked with connection for all of us, with connection with ourselves, and then so much with others and the way that we want others to view us.

Virginia

Since you mentioned your daughter, there was a quote in a profile of yours in Input Magazine that I loved:

People tell me, ‘Oh, your kid must eat so well because you’re a cookbook author,’ but I eat takeout all the time,” she adds. “I frequently skip meals. My daughter eats way too much mac and cheese, just like every other kid. There is no “right” way to feed yourself.

Where do you think your ideas about the “right” way to feed yourself have come from?

Leanne

From the sea we swim in. From diet culture and food culture. And I think for me, personally, I have long wanted to be seen as a good person. What I’ve had to reckon with is: That idea comes from outside of me. It is a performance for others.  Say I’m with a group of other food industry people. To be a “good” eating performer there would be to be an adventurous eater, to eat everything that’s there. And say “It’s no big deal. Of course, I’ve had this a million times.” That might be the way that we perform goodness in that space. Maybe at a children’s birthday party, at least in certain socioeconomic situations, it would be about making sure you have a lot of veggies and really healthy snacks. So we’re all performing how much we care about making sure children eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. That is the the way in which nutrition absolutely has become conflated with morality. They have really nothing to do with each other.

Virginia

You said your daughter is five now. Does feeding a kid look different than you would have expected?

Leannne

You know, I’m doing my best. I try not to get hung up on what she eats in a given day. I really, in general, try not to analyze it too much and to trust. I think that’s something that I’ve learned from my daughter over these last years: To trust myself and to trust her. So often it can feel like, oh my gosh, they’ve been doing this behavior, they’re not eating something, or they’re not sleeping—you know, sleep is always such a big thing. And it feels like something is wrong. But when you look at it, it’s really that this is inconvenient. For me, as a parent, this is challenging. Like a kid being like, “I literally only want to eat mac and cheese.” Yep, that’s very challenging for us. So often we think this has to be a problem because I’m feeling so challenged by this. I’ve found that I have to ask, “Is this really just challenging for me? Or is this an actual problem?” And mostly, it’s “This is really challenging for me, but this is also normal.” And it’s okay. It’ll shift. And it always does!

Virginia

Yes. It’s often helpful to step back and say, “Is it a problem for me? Like, is there a real health concern with the way they’re eating? Or is it a problem for me because they’re not eating in the way I wanted to perform my child eating?”

Leanne

Is it embarrassing to me that my child will only eat white and yellow food? Does that make me feel like I’m a bad parent?

It’s so normal during this age, and even a lot older, for them to restrict the amount of foods that they’re eating and to be really easily disgusted by new foods. It’s just exactly what their bodies are supposed to be doing because of this biological imperative that’s millions of years out of date. And it’s very annoying, but it’s still there. It’s a real thing they’re feeling in their bodies. Millions of years ago, if they were off in the woods and they ate an unfamiliar food, it could kill them. And their bodies still have that programming. So when you see your child’s nose wrinkle up and they look scared, they are! They’re not faking it. They’re not pretending to have that “I’m almost going to throw up” response. That’s real.

I think that can bring a warmth and compassion, frankly, to the hearts of parents. Like, Oh, right. This is hard for them because this is a real thing that they’re experiencing. That, I think, is what brings in compassion and patience, which is really what parents need more than anything.

Virginia

This makes me think of where we started this conversation, about apologizing. Because so often we feel like we have to apologize for how our kids eat.

Leanne

Yes! And how does your kid feel if you’re always apologizing for them? Because they’re listening all the time. You’re giving them that message of something’s wrong with them. And I think something’s not wrong with them almost all the time. 

Virginia

Another thing I want to talk about was meal planning. You talked about, in the book, how you almost never meal plan. I love this. I have a lot of complicated feelings about meal planning. Do you still not meal plan? Do you aspire to do it? 

Leanne

I do aspire to do it. I lately have been building more and more drive towards that. For simplicity, and to relieve some mental load, honestly. When I was younger, I loved to cook. It was such an important part of my life and it was something where I expressed my creativity, and it was fun. And I had a regular nine-to-five and so I could dream about what I was going to make for dinner. It was really meaningful to not decide and to just go with the flow.

But where I’m at now, it would be so helpful to just not have to stress about that for multiple hours in the day. I would really like to get my my act together, and just have a basic meal plan figured out. That’s the place in my life that I’m at now, where I want to relieve myself of so much overthinking about food.

I think recognizing that in the past, I really relied upon food as a source of pleasure in my day. And now, I am finding a wider variety of places to find pleasure. I’m not as reliant on food as the only place for pleasure. 

Virginia

That’s interesting. 

Leanne

That is a growth for me.

Virginia

That’s kind of how they got me with meal planning, too. I still get very frustrated with the current culture of meal planning, and the performative aspects of it and how it can lead into all that perfectionist stuff, particularly for women. But yes, the reality of my life in a household with two working parents and two young children is that these decisions have to get made. And realizing that 5pm Me is so much happier when I’ve made the decision already.

Leanne

There’s this point where it’s not serving you. When you’re just doing it because you haven’t figured out a better way.

Virginia

Something else I’ve found helpful, and that you do so well in your work, is to distinguish between: When are we cooking for pleasure? Like, when is it a weekend of puttering around in the kitchen that’s relaxing and creative? And when is it just getting dinner on the table? Let’s recognize that one is work that has to happen, and someone’s got to do it. And it’s really valuable labor, but it’s okay to not find it creatively fulfilling,

Leanne

Totally. And if making it creatively fulfilling is something that you value, there could be a way to work with yourself, or your kids, maybe, in the planning part, to find some creativity there.

Virginia

Yes. And I’ve saved myself that work of having to figure it out in the moment when everyone’s tired and hungry.

Leanne

Right, which is so predictable. What universe do I live in where I actually think I’m going to get smarter and more creative the later it gets in the day? I’ve lived in this body for 37 years and yet I still haven’t figured that one out.


Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Leanne

I have gotten so into my yoga practice over the last year and a half. For me, what has been so beautiful about it has been developing a really different relationship with my body. I can notice more of the signals that are happening in my body because of that practice. And I have noticed how much it affects me outside of the actual time practicing. Like being able to notice and honor that I have a nervous stomach. And that makes sense because the stomach is a place where we digest food and we ask it to do that, but it needs to do that when it’s calm, and it’s not right now, so that’s okay. And of course, I’m not calm right now because there’s something difficult that’s going on. This practice happens to have been the place where I’ve really connected to that. For me, that’s been transformative because I’ve always looked so much outside myself. I love learning and want to connect to outside sources and learn more about the world and others, and what other people think and history and all of that. But there’s something so profound about being able to listen inward, and to trust our own bodies and our minds and to trust the wisdom that’s actually already there.

Virginia

My butter this week is libraries. I am a really big fan of our local library for many reasons. But the children’s librarian at our little town library just started a book club for elementary school kids. My eight-year-old is going and it is the happiest hour of my month, watching this group of seven- to nine-year-old girls. It’s all girls at the moment, but boys can join the book club, too! But for the moment, it’s this group of girls and they are all lit up talking about whatever book they just read. Seeing this love of reading thing is great, but also watching this group of girls find this connection and this confidence. They’re all talking over each other, they’re not waiting to raise their hand. They’re just so enthusiastic and this amazing librarian is cultivating this whole thing with them.

Leanne

They’re learning that books are not this solitary thing! They are a beautiful, solitary, peaceful experience and they are something you can talk about with each other.

Virginia

I’ve been working on this chapter in my own book about puberty, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how a lot of girls shut down in the middle school years. Just seeing these girls having this experience now of being loud and proud of their knowledge and taking up space with that. I’m just like, yes. Go Libraries! So shout out to local libraries for doing amazing work.

We’ll also say, as authors: Supporting libraries supports authors, too. I think so often, people are like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I got your book from the library instead of buying it.” But it is really helpful because if libraries know that people want this book, they buy more copies. It’s all helpful!

Well, Leanne, thank you so much for being here. I want everyone to check out Good Enough. Tell listeners where they can follow you and find out more.

Leanne

My website is Leannebrown.com. And I’m on Instagram from time to time @LeanneEBrown and I would just be oh so delighted to hear from you anytime. If you want to talk about more deeply about any of this stuff, please do reach out. I’d be thrilled to hear from you!

Virginia

Awesome. Thanks for being here!


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The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

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Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

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