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.
"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.
"I was 17 when I started modelling, and I was so excited about doing it. It was all about attention. 'You mean you're going to put me in nice dresses and make me pose? I love it!' Now, that's the kind of thing that would repel me," Susan Jane says.
Eventually, her erratic eating habits caught up with her body, and they started to show. She got psoriasis, mouth ulcers and earaches. When cold sores started to appear, she would contact the modelling agency and tell them that she wasn't available for 10 days or so. All of a sudden, the double espressos weren't working their magic.
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."
There were weeks of high temperatures and the shakes, and, finally, she would find herself in A&E. This happened several times. Doctors prescribed one dose of antibiotics after another, but all to no avail. Eventually, she faced the music and decided to come back to Dublin. It was 2005, and Susan Jane realised that she was too young to feel so sick for so long. Something was seriously wrong, but the only problem was that nobody could diagnose her illness.
While waiting for the results of a bone marrow biopsy, Susan Jane became convinced that she was dying.
"I was waiting for the results for two weeks. It was the most strangely beautiful time because I had already accepted that I was going to die," she says. "I wasn't bitter. I thought, 'I've had a wonderful life.' I had a strange sense of calm about it and my senses rocketed. I know it sounds so twee, but I had two beautiful weeks of listening to nature, of feeling the wind whistling through my fingertips, and simple things that you'd never be aware of, like walking on wet grass. It was very seductive. I could hear birds from very far away. The strangest thing happened to my body when I accepted that I was going to die. Of course, I wouldn't feel that way now," Susan Jane adds. "I'd be furious if I was told that I was dying."
Susan Jane wasn't on death's door, and yet the hospital could not give her any definite treatment to restore her to her former glory. Instead, she was simply told to quarantine herself and take rest until her body came around. She tried to do this, but it wasn't enough of a recovery. Finally, Susan Jane found a doctor called Dr Joe Fitzgibbon, who specialises in food sensitivities and fatigue, and they talked about a food-elimination diet. She went back to basics and, very gradually, introduced different foods in her diet. By doing this, they discovered that Susan Jane's body cannot take sugar, dairy or wheat. And so began a journey of eating and cooking without these foods, and a career in food eventually followed.
Susan Jane is keen to point out that she is not urging everyone to cut these things out of their diet. Quite simply, this was what she had to do to get better. Now she says that her energy levels are insanely good, and she credits her new way of eating with these changes.
"I gave them up and I felt amazing, like someone was sucking the illness out of my body," she says. "I kept a photo of when I was really ill, with cold sores and with bags under my eyes like somebody drew them on with markers. I used to carry that photo around with me just to be grateful and to look at it. I used to think that this was normal, but I never really questioned my diet. In the book, I am not telling everyone to give up wheat, sugar or dairy, but anything in excess is bad for you. It's about healthy eating, but not sacrificing your taste buds. This isn't a no-sugar book; it's a book without cane sugar. There's a difference."
Foodies are a different breed, and talking about food can be a drag. But the proof is in the pudding. Halfway through our chat, Susan Jane points to a parcel on the table and tells me that it is a present for me. I assume that it is a notebook, but, on leaving, she tells me that she has made me this slab of chocolate soldiers. She has listed the ingredients on the label – coconut flour, cacao nibs, goji berries, raisins, dates and maple syrup, among other things. I expect it to look nice, but taste bland. Instead, in the days following our meeting, I devour it. It is delicious and I feel very virtuous, as I know that it must be healthy, too. I am converted.
While still living in Oxford, Susan Jane started to write a food blog for her own amusement. She also began experimenting in the kitchen with her new way of eating. Susan Jane tells me that she loves learning and wanted to share her recipes with others who had the same food restrictions in their diet. And so the food writing began to spiral.
She came home to Dublin for a visit and her modelling agent, Rebecca Morgan – who became a firm friend – suggested that she contact Trevor White, who owned The Dubliner magazine. Rebecca suggested that Trevor would do an interview with her. Then the agent called Trevor and told him that one of her girls wanted to meet him. She didn't mention an interview. And so, Susan Jane's first meeting with Trevor was an odd encounter, full of silences and awkwardness, as both were wondering what was going to happen. Trevor invited Susan Jane to a party that night and she went alone.
They chatted and, later, met up on several occasions, but without a sniff of an interview. Finally, she asked when he was going to do it, as she was heading back to Oxford, and Trevor told her that he knew nothing about an interview. By that stage, they had clicked. He visited her in Oxford and their romance blossomed.
Trevor had just sold The Dubliner and, being a pragmatic soul, he made a suggestion to Susan Jane. They would go on a six-week holiday to Melbourne – this was his first holiday in eight years – to see if their relationship had a future. After that, one of them could decide to move country. The holiday was a huge success. He also told her that he would like to have children, so she could think about it. (She agrees when I say that he sounds delightfully upfront.)
Susan Jane returned to live in Dublin, and she became engaged and pregnant within the year. She and Trevor married three years ago. She chose to have home births for both of their sons, and it worked out very well. Benjamin is three and Marty is two.
"Having boys is great fun. It's high octane, but such fun," she says. "You hear the thud in the morning and you know they're up. It's so nice to be here with you just talking and not jumping around like a lunatic. This morning, I was up at six doing Lego, jigsaws, Play-Doh and singing Barney songs. Motherhood has made me a lot calmer, which is very surprising, because it is so testing. You have to be calm and collected to organise a brood around you. Before I had children, there was the touch of the Miss Piggy diva to me, but now I'm calmer."
In her book, Susan Jane refers to her husband Trevor as cranky. "He is stubborn and very cranky, and I love that part of him, but he's never cranky with me. He treats me like an absolute queen, and that's very sweet."
She marvels at his entrepreneurial skills, and the way he is always coming up with new ideas (The Little Museum of Dublin was one of Trevor's brainwaves). One night, when she was heavily pregnant and in a deep sleep, he woke her up with his brainwave for a new tourist initiative – City of a Thousand Welcomes – where everyone who came to Dublin should have a cup of Bewley's coffee or Guinness for free while meeting a native Dubliner. It is now a huge success.
"Thank God he didn't listen to me on that one," she laughs. Her sleepy response may not have been very encouraging.
"We're both very driven and we have separate identities. That's very important. I've found something that I love doing. I experiment in the kitchen, I feed my family and then I write about it. If I could spend the rest of my life doing this, I'd be very happy.
"I love feeding people and watching their faces light up when they realise that something they've just eaten is healthy, as well as delicious."
Sometimes, you can have the best of both worlds.
LIFE readers can buy Susan Jane White's new cookbook, 'The Extra Virgin Kitchen', published by Gill & Macmillan, for just €20 (RRP €27.99), including free p&p within Ireland. To order, tel: (01) 500-9570 and quote LIFE magazine
- Seoidin, Westbury Mall, D2, tel: (01) 677-5007
- Loulerie, 14b, Chatham St, D2, tel: (01) 672-4024
- Photography by Kip Carroll
- Styling by Nikki Cummins
- Assisted by Hannah Corkey
- Hair by Paul Davey, DaveyDavey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel (01) 611-1400 Assisted by Alan Adderley
- Make-up by Vivien Pomeroy, Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967
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