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Image / Editorial

The Virtuous Tart: An Interview With Susan Jane White

by Jeanne Sutton
04th Mar 2014

Susan Jane White is the sassiest food revolutionary you’ll ever meet…

Some may call her Ireland’s answer to Gwyneth Paltrow but Susan Jane White’s one-woman campaign to cut our nation’s cane sugar addiction does anything but conjure up concepts like macrobiotic and four-hour gym sessions. Quite the opposite – she makes being a self-styled virtuous tart who whips up dairy, wheat and sugar-free dishes on the reg sound like fun. How does a ?F%*k Me? Salad followed by a slab of Banana Toffee Ice Cream sound?

Last month saw Susan Jane release her first cookbook The Extra Virgin Kitchen and since then there has been a food revolution brewing. A former academic, who in between writing works in the home she shares with her husband, museum director Trevor White, she’s now one of the go-to health food experts in Ireland. The book is brimming with amazing recipes and they are all doable for us fumbling masses. Susan Jane even has a handy shop directory at the back of the beautifully designed hardback to make this new living easier. In a world where the western diet is doing us genuine harm The Extra Virgin Kitchen is a much needed arrival for Irish kitchens. ?So many people are told… it’s so frustrating. They go to a dietician or a doctor and they’re told ?Yeah come off wheat, sugar and dairy and I’ll see you at your next appointment.? And then that’s it. They’re booted out of the consultation and with no support whatsoever. And that’s what drove me to do this. The last seven, eight years I was so annoyed that there was no resource for people like me and at the time it was pretty serious.?

While such dietary deprivation used to be the preserve of doctor’s advice, it is now emerging as a viable and enjoyable lifestyle choice. One which Susan Jane originally had no choice but to embrace. A model student – she ended up at Oxford after her undergraduate degree in Trinity – and an actual model, Susan Jane was surviving on a diet of refined carbs and caffeine. Aged 25 she became inexplicably ill and spent her twenties blighted by lengthy hospital visits, inconclusive test results and a parade of maladies accompanied by courses of antibiotics that did not work. Her body was broken. It was only after a woman in the same ward as her passed away that she realised she had to change her life to save it. Junk food could have killed her. After visits to the Galway-based specialist Dr. Joe Fitzgibbon she cut out all the nasty stuff. Within two years she was back to her full health. She never looked back, started a blog, and became president of Oxford University’s Gastronomy Society and is now one of Ireland’s leading specialist food writers.

?So I knew I had to change my diet and that made me do it. But it was only because I felt like I was on death’s bed that I did. And I just thought what about all the others? I just thought there must be a few more people that could really do with all this research that I’m pouring my time into so I’ll throw it up on a website and maybe someday it will be useful.? After her post-grad she went on to do a doctorate in medical anthropology in Oxford but didn’t finish. ?In truth it was really intense. I loved it and learnt so much in that year, but in a doctorate you work on your own. You’ve got all your work inside your head and the ideas are bouncing around. I was 28 at the time and between having doubts about whether I was able to continue and my work picking up in the food area I figured I’d give it a bash.? Susan Jane’s blog led to her scoring a column with the Sunday Independent, where every week she shares a new simple recipe in the pages of Life magazine.

What a turnaround. How hard was it to first cut ties with all that familiar snacking and embrace quinoa? ?I’ve been doing it for so long now. When you’re knee deep into anything that you’re doing you have to draw yourself back and think okay what was I like the first week of going on this diet. And in truth it took me months to part with a fiver for a packet of hemp seeds. Even after a year I was furious at the idea that all these healthy foods cost a lot of money. But no decent food has a chance against the mass produced food of supermarkets, so I naturally always compare any food to the cheapest crap, and it’s very expensive. But then I realised it was only a change of mindset that was required for this diet to work. It wasn’t a physical thing it was actually a mental thing and it’s all up in your head – I think diet always is. I think mastering how you approach food is not a physical thing, but something emotional. And luckily, eventually I caved in.?

Susan Jane sees the wilful ignorance of Irish people when it comes to food as one of the biggest barriers – and our national reticence. ?We don’t question what we eat either. That’s what happened me in college. Everyone else seemed to be eating the same thing so I didn’t feel that i was mistreating my body. I just wasn’t able to cope with all the junk food. Maybe other people could or maybe I wasn’t aware of their health problems. Everybody, your friends your family, we all have our own personal health problems but they’re not aired. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors so its very difficult to associate bad diet with ailments because its not like your friend is going to sit down and tell you “God my hemorrhoids are so bad!”

Susan Jane is not a food zealot of GOOP proportions. She’s just advocating a small change of mindset that delivers endless benefits. ?But saying that I think it would be bonkers for anyone to come off wheat sugar and dairy because it’s virtually impossible unless you have to do it for medical reasons. I wanted a resource for people to tap into if they wanted to reduce the amount of bread and pasta and sugar and dairy. If you think of the amount of all that we eat in the Irish diet – I mean it’s borderline pathological isn’t it??

And what about present-day students caught in that fast-food rut, is there a quick-fix recipe to set them on the healthy path? ?I don’t think there’s a gateway recipe sadly, and because again it’s mindset, it’s approaching how you eat that needs to change. One recipe is not going to change how you eat lunch or how you eat dinner as a student.? ?A good way to set the change in motion is start with a team. ?I find sharing helps. We used to have this little group when I worked outside the home – we called it Dining al Desco – we’d have our lunch in the office or in the library but a group of us shared the responsibility. It was lovely and we got really great grub. I’d cook enough for five people and I usually did a quinoa dish every Monday. Really easy dishes but the idea was none of us were going to succumb to the cheap sandwiches around the corner at the petrol station or, even worse,?a can of cola and a packet of Tayto. We’d have something nourishing and actually cheap.? (This is the part where you email the article to the colleagues you like lunching with.)

And how do her two kids feel about a pantry stocked to the brim with tahini and quinoa – do they ever sneak a packet of Monster Munch into the shopping trolley?

?They have no idea what Monster Munch is. It may as well be a brillo pad in a packet to them!? However Susan isn’t a food tyrant. Think more down-to-earth than earth mother. ?It’s not like I cut sugar out entirely. I just use alternatives like maple syrup or honey or brown rice syrup. So they still get sweeteners and love fruit, but I’m not a mother who walks around with hummus and carrot sticks in her bag.?

Positive about her modelling days, Susan Jane has nothing but praise for the Morgan Agency who took her under their wing. She describes herself as ?’someone floating – I was tenacious! I was someone who was driven and it was an industry where there was a lot of money for very little work and i thought ?Well, I can do this as a job…? That’s the way I looked at it. I went to every casting. I really pushed. So for that reason the job description suited me.? She has spoken in recent interviews about how that career route no longer appeals to her. ?I guess the older you become the more comfortable in your personality you become. You get to know yourself better. I was a very different person then. That kind of lifestyle would repel me now because I’m not in any way concerned about my looks. I know that sounds ridiculous. I sound like a sixty year old grandmother now who’s led a really happy and fulfilled life! I’m embarrassed that I thought that my looks were valued to make money to be quite frank. I think that I placed too much value on how I looked. It’s not something I’m proud of. Not to be confused with looking well and I always admire women who make an effort and look fantastic. But I think I’ve found something a lot more nourishing.?

Are you converted yet? Well, Susan and her lovely publishers have decided to share a recipe from the book with us. A divine ?I Can’t Believe It’s Beetroot? chocolate cake. ?That’s really damn special. I get about two emails a day from people having tried it.?

Start changing your mindset with chocolate; we have a feeling you won’t look back…

Follow Susan on Twitter here and buy The Extra Virgin Kitchen here.

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