Friday 26 December 2014

Susan Jane White: Born-again extra virgin

Before she gave up sugar, dairy and wheat, life's Susan Jane White thought she was dying. Now a glowing advertisement for her conversion, she tells Ciara Dwyer how it brought her life, love and babies. And how she's not the nightmare, militant dinner-party guest that you might imagine.

Jumper, Whistles; jeans, The Kooples, both Brown Thomas. Necklace and gold bracelets, Seoidin. Black bracelets, Loulerie. Shoes, Susan Jane's own
Jeans, The Kooples, Brown Thomas. T-shirt and hat, stylist's own. Children's clothes, their own
Dress, Valentino, Brown Thomas. Jeans, The Kooples, Brown Thomas
Top; skirt, both JW Anderson, Brown Thomas. Bracelets, Loulerie. Rings, Susan Jane's own

"People assume that I'm a vegan and that I'm militant about food," says Susan Jane White. "That's not true. If I'm invited to someone's house for dinner, I eat everything. This always comes as a surprise to them."

As I listen to her, I nod understandingly, but, really, this gesture is hiding my guilt. Walking into town to meet LIFE magazine's Eats Shoots and Leaves food columnist – whom I have never met before – I thought about her new book, The Extra Virgin Kitchen.

I had spent two days browsing through her healthy food beliefs, and the accompanying recipes, but, all of a sudden, I couldn't remember if the book contained any dishes with red meat. (It's my preference, I know, but I could feel the resentment gradually building up). There were lentils and lemongrass, hemp and hake, but where was the meat? Moments before she arrived, I flicked again and found meals for shoulder of lamb, chilli con carne and beef stew.

Phew. I relaxed a little, but not enough to order a coffee. I had a strong mug before I left the house, but opted for orange juice in front of this self-confessed health geek.

There is nothing worse than feeling that you are being judged silently for your food choices, especially by someone who has written a whole book about escaping from the shackles of wheat, sugar and dairy. But then, the minute this statuesque apparition stood before me, all glowing skin, long limbs and impossibly glossy hair, I was quick to make my own judgements. When someone looks this good on a Saturday morning at 10 o'clock, having been up since six thrashing around with her two young sons – Benjamin, 3, and Marty, 2 – beforehand, you'd be a fool not to ask the obvious question: "What are you on?", followed by: "Can I have a swig?"

To hell with coffee – well, not quite – but bring on the double shots of spirulina, goji berries and quinoa (whatever that is) if you're going to end up with Susan Jane's glow. Unlike hefty health food writers, such as Dr Andrew Weil, Susan Jane is a living example of her good habits. She is what she eats – wonderfully lean and very lively, too. She is loud and she laughs a lot. This may sound silly, but any time I see lentil-eating customers in vegetarian restaurants, I'm always struck by the joyless expressions on their slim faces. Susan Jane White makes her wheat-free, sugar-free and dairy-free recipes seem like some delicious, illicit sin.

It's that glint in her blue eyes. It's the way she told me that, when she was breastfeeding her babies, she invested in expensive Elle Macpherson maternity underwear, so that she'd still feel sexy underneath her clothes and give her husband, magazine owner turned museum director Trevor White, a thrill. Her healthy appetite is not just for good food, but for life – and for squeezing all the fun out of it. That's a good enough reason to sit up and listen to her.

But Susan Jane stumbled upon this career as a food writer by accident. The original plan was to be an academic, and had her life events not taken a certain direction, she would be, for sure, knee-deep in research and publishing papers in academic journals. It was not to be; not that she is complaining.

The clean-living, non-coffee-drinking woman who sits opposite me is nothing like her former student self. Time was that she was anything but evangelical about healthy eating. Yes, she grew up in a wonderful home in Rathfarnham, where her mother, Olive, an artist and great homemaker, brought her creativity to the kitchen. There was no packet soup in their house. Olive taught Susan Jane how to cook and bake and so, logically speaking, she should have carried on with these healthy-eating habits, but life got in the way. Suddenly, it was all very busy and so fast that good food took a back seat. She became a student – first, in Trinity and then Oxford – and with deadlines and a hectic social life, Susan Jane didn't have time to eat (well, not properly) and certainly none to cook.

"I was having the best time of my life," she says. "I was eating crap and getting away with it. I was grabbing sandwiches and white rolls with stuff in them. I would eat cereals, like cornflakes, and I drank criminal amounts of caffeine. But I was still functioning and my skin looked good."

I bet she wasn't the only one.

"I think, when a lot of people become students, their health starts to dip," she says. "In the beginning, I was living at home, but, when I moved on to campus, I wasn't eating a balanced diet. Also, I think there's something anarchic about it: you've left home, and you feel you can do what you like."

While Susan Jane was doing her sociology degree in Trinity, she was modelling to earn some money. Gobbling sandwiches on the go didn't do any harm to her appearance and she was booked for plenty of work.

"I was a terrible model, but it was so much fun," Susan Jane recalls. She laughs at the memory. "I was lanky and gawky, but that was the fashion at the time. I had a big mouth like a dinosaur, so they loved me for advertisements, and it was great money.

No longer infused by caffeine-fuelled energy, Susan Jane became so drained that she would need to sleep for 10 hours. But, when you're young, it's normal to burn the candle at both ends and keep trying to get away with it. There were deadlines and she was driven. In Oxford, Susan Jane carried on eating in this haphazard fashion.

As well as working on her Masters, she was on the pentathlon team, which meant she was partaking in five sports – swimming, running, shooting, showjumping and fencing. Nobody could accuse her of not having a work-life balance.

But, gradually, her body began to break down. "I was still handing in my papers," Susan Jane says, "but I was a walking mess. I had no energy in my limbs to walk."

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