Queen of Tarts... superfoodie Susan Jane White
Susan Jane White isn't as perfect and proper as people think, and LIFE's superfoodie knows that sometimes, a spoonful of (non-refined) sugar helps the medicine go down. Her own route to super-clean eating was painful at first, but with her new book of 'saintly but sweet treats', she's making it a pleasure for the rest of us
Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30
Ugh," groans Susan Jane White, "I'm so over quinoa."
What? This is Susan Jane White, the quinoa queen, the person who I'm willing to bet taught many LIFE readers how to correctly pronounce the name of the superfood from South America. It's keen-wa, in case you haven't kept up. But don't worry about that, now, because Susan Jane is over it. She has moved on from quinoa and, she confesses, she's never really got the whole kale craze. She has tried and she has included kale in her new book of saintly sweet treats, The Virtuous Tart, but in the form of a Pina Kale-ada.
"If you blend it with enough other good stuff, and strong stuff, like pineapple, then you can't taste it," she says, which will reassure people further that, in fact, the super-clean-eating cook is just like the rest of us. She doesn't relish the flavour of raw kale, she's bored with trying to inject flavour into quinoa; hell, as she confesses later, she even hides vegetables in her children's food.
None of this should be music to our ears, I know, but it is. Something in all of us seeks the flaw in perceived perfection. The joy of Susan Jane White is that while she is more virtuous and good than most of us, there is a cheeky streak in there, an inner rebel, that makes her, and her cooking, intriguing and irresistible.
She is smart and sharp enough to know that there is always a danger that she'll come across as over-evangelical in her mission to make us eat mindfully. Hence her new book, The Virtuous Tart, which is a bible of "saintly but sweet" recipes.
One always leaves the house she shares with her husband - Little Museum of Dublin director and former publisher Trevor White - and their two sons, Benjamin (5) and Marty (3), with something sweet. Something rolled in cacao or infused with coconut sugar, but also with secreted spirulina, or protein-rich barley-grass powder, or one of the health-boosting multi-coloured powders and potions that line the walls of her kitchen in a collage of Kilner jars.
"Organised chaos," she says, gesturing towards the kitchen shelves. "I love it."
What Susan Jane is always keen for people to understand is that the chaos of her life wasn't always organised. There was a time, after school, and all through her college career, when she hoovered up white bread, butter, chips, takeaways, alcohol, sugar and chocolate. "I mindlessly consumed everything that came my way," she says.
"Food was just flavour and fuel, and there was an anarchic quality to it, too. I was in college, out of home; food was just something you grabbed to fill up before a night out and it had to be cheap, so that you had money for booze. And if you were tired or sick or felt dreadful, you didn't connect it to what you were eating; you just thought it was the effects of your last night out."
The tiredness and illness and feeling dreadful went further and deeper for Susan Jane - then Murray - than it did for most of her peers. When she finished her degree in Business, Economics and Social Studies in Trinity, she undertook further studies in Italy and Russia, before settling in Oxford to do a Master's in management. She rolls her eyes today at the dullness of her conventional path back then. At Oxford, she became properly ill.
"I had bloating and cramping to the point of being doubled over," she explains now. "But my body was so run down at that point that it was easy for me to have digestion problems and that was only the tip of the iceberg.
"I had burning in my legs if I walked up steps. My muscles always ached, like I had run miles. I had constant thrush, constant eye infections, kidney infections. I was a mess. My skin was awful. I was on antibiotics all the time and in and out of hospital for tests for everything under the sun."
Eventually, Susan Jane was forced to take a break from her studies and return to Dublin, where she had more hospital admissions and worried her mother sick and, ultimately, sought help from GP Joe FitzGibbon, who has written books on food intolerances and allergies and elimination.
Obviously, there was something in Susan Jane that told her that food might be her problem, and once the doctor put her on an extremely strict elimination diet, it was like a switch was flipped in her. It wasn't just that she felt physically better, it was that she had found her calling.
And that's not putting any melodramatic spin on it, because while she dresses it up with her quirky language and slightly saucy Mary Poppins manner, when it comes to nutrition and food, Susan Jane White is positively messianic.
When she began her elimination diet, the 26-year-old Susan Jane reckoned that she could never give up buttered toast and estimated that she'd stick with the programme for a week. In fact, the results were so remarkable that toast was repellent to her within a fortnight. And the food adventure she went on was so exciting, she says. Though she knew not to bore her friends with it, and shocked responses from extended family told her to shut up about it in general.
"I was brought up with very good but very standard food," Susan Jane says. "My mother was an artist, and the house always smelt of oil paint when we came home from school, so she was very into presentation and some experimentation, but our food was lots of pastas, roasts, chicken, no salads, I didn't really like fruit. We had dessert every day and, from a very young age, I took over the making of them. We had this book from Stork margarine, and I made every single recipe. But we used butter!"
Brought up in Dublin's Rathfarnham, she is the younger of two children and remains very close to her brother Gordon, older by two years. "He was very generous growing up," Susan Jane says. "I was a bit of a dork and not very cool, so he let me hang around with his friends a lot. But he was a bit dorky, too. We did a lot together: played a lot of board games; read Nancy Drew; wore those silky shell tracksuits. I had a bit of a monobrow for a while and I didn't discover a tweezers until I was 16."
She recounts all of this with laughter and ease, as only a quite confident person can. Was she always confident, I ask. "Yes," she says, without any characteristically Irish apology for it. "My dad really instilled that in us, and I always had it."
Susan Jane's father died when she was 16. Her younger son, Marty, is named for him. Her father's lymphoma was missed several times in the years before he died, she explains, and he was diagnosed only three months before his death. It must have been hard on her at that formative stage when a girl needs her daddy.
"It was such a shock to the system that I was numb for a very long time afterwards. People would sympathise and I'd just brush it off: 'It's fine! It's grand! Don't worry about it!' she exclaims, laughing at her younger self. "It was this geeky teenage response, but the shock on people's faces at my dismissal of 'that old thing'. That was numb shock. I was almost out of body for a long time and I all I saw around me were people coming at me with a sympathetic head tilted at a 45-degree angle, and all I craved was normal. Even at school, if people were extra kind, that wasn't normal and it was awful; everything was a reminder that you were in a funk. It took a while to get out of it.
"At the time I believed, and I don't anymore, that there was a Heaven and it consoled me that he was there," she says, "but I also thought he was watching me from there. And that informed all of my decisions and made me a really good girl. I remember kissing a boy and it wouldn't have mattered at all if my dad was alive, but I thought, 'He can probably see me and he wouldn't like this; it's not right.' I was very good, very sensible."
Does she ever regret that she was so good and sensible in her youth, now that she's a married mother with far more reason to be sensible? "Of course I do," she laughs, adding, "I don't have regrets, but I would have done it differently. I've grown up a lot since then. And I probably made up for it a lot in my 20s."
By her late 20s, Susan Jane's personal food revolution was complete. She was back at her studies in Oxford, writing a food blog, running the Oxford gastronomy society and thinking about raising her profile. She was coming home to Dublin for a weekend and asked Rebecca Morgan, a close friend since she had been Susan Jane's modelling agent some years earlier, could she set up some interviews for her. Rebecca set up a meeting with Trevor White, then publisher of The Dubliner magazine and that was that. Sort of.
Susan thought Trevor was there to interview her; Trevor thought Susan Jane was looking for a job and, as result, both sat there waiting for the other to start the conversation. In the end, Trevor told a confused Susan Jane that he had to get back to the office, though he wasn't so confused by the encounter that he didn't see fit to invite her to a party later. And that was that. Sort of.
"I think I was very happily with someone else then," Susan Jane recalls, "but I found him intriguing. People do, because Trevor is so interesting. And we kept in touch and he came to Oxford a couple of times; but I had no intention of moving back to Ireland. And then he went to Australia for a while and he asked me to join him and I did and it was there we agreed that I'd move in with him in Dublin."
"And then he knocked me up," she exclaims with a laugh. Benjamin was born in March 2010, and Trevor and Susan Jane got married the following year. She made the wedding cake. The recipe is in The Virtuous Tart. Trevor, she says in the introduction to this, her second cook book, drives her "bonkers. (In a good way)."
Meeting Trevor obviously changed Susan Jane's life, but the manner in which she has helped to transform her husband into a paragon of good health has mirrored the effect she has had on her LIFE magazine readers since 2009. When she began her adventure with food, she couldn't find a cookbook to cater for her non-wheat, non-dairy, wholegrain habits.
When she wrote her first book, The Extra Virgin Kitchen, the ideas and ingredients within it - the quinoa, the buckwheat, the agave and coconut oil - were only just beginning to percolate down to ordinary people. As she publishes The Virtuous Tart this week, Susan Jane is catering to an actual demand for "recipes free from wheat, dairy and cane sugar" and she knows it.
"I knew I had a certain following and I thought they'd buy the book," Susan Jane says of The Extra Virgin Kitchen, which proved a best-seller.
"I thought it would be for people whose kids couldn't have dairy or coeliacs or diabetics. But I had no idea that the people who were really reading my column and making my food were mid-30s mums. It's women who say, 'OK, I don't want to feed my kids wheat five times a day. And the sugar. And the constant snacking on stuff you feel guilty about. And if they don't eat their dinner, what do I give them instead?'"
So do Susan Jane's boys eat all her food? Personally, I've seen them tuck into some pretty out-there stuff, but surely they exert their will in some way?
"Benjamin will try anything, but he won't go near animal milk or cinnamon," says Susan Jane, which sounds like small fry to any mother whose child won't eat anything but sausages. "Marty isn't great with vegetables, though," she says. I know, music to a mother's ears.
Susan Jane then lists off the ways she gets vegetables and nutrient-packed good stuff past her relatively picky son. There are greens whizzed into avocado - Hulk Dip. There's barley-grass powder stirred into yogurt - Octonaut Yogurt. She gets milled, "flavourless" chia seeds into a bowl of Weetabix and she has all manner of banana bread recipes that have vegetables hidden in them.
And even Susan Jane laughs at "child-friendly" recipes that have big hunks of vegetables on skewers and suchlike. Food doesn't have to be a pain to be good for you, is her message, and if anything sends that message loud and clear, it's her new book of delectable but do-good treats.
"Trevor has to remind me that people think I'm perfect and proper," she says with a laugh, "because I know I'm not. When I've been on Jamie Oliver's online channel, some of the comments compare me to Austin Powers or say I'm crazy, but that's just me having fun and saying stuff like, 'Shamazing!' But I don't think I am.I'm a bit different. I can see how people think I'm virtuous, but I don't see myself that way. I came from a background of take-aways and white bread and booze and fags."
Hold on a minute. Cigarettes? Susan Jane White?
"Yes!" she exclaims. "I loved them."
Would she ever be tempted to have one again? I ask, ridiculously keen on this badness on her part.
"If I was drunk," she answers.
Oh right, and when was the last time she was drunk? "Exactly!" she exclaims again, laughing loudly.
As I get up to go, it's dinner time. Her boys are hungry and their father is away, so Susan Jane is making "trash". She picks up two avocados and puts them on the table, ready to turn them into something fabulous once she's seen me out.
And off I go, a tub of Peppermint-Laced Energy Balls in my hands.
'The Virtuous Tart' by Susan Jane White is published by Gill & Macmillan on September 18