“I made this dish on a cool day. Overcast and breezy, windows open. No other condition would have led me to turn my oven on during mid-summer. My kitchen still got balmy while making the socca and this roasted eggplant and squash dish. I admit I was sweating through the whole process. Though in some way that makes me feel like an Italian mama. Crafting with heart and love in heat and cold alike. Piling my hair on top of my head. Wiping my face with a rag. Tasting a bit of this and that and checking the different elements of the dish as I bustle to a fro. Grinding spices in my mortar. Listening to the pan sizzle and spurt as I pour in the socca batter, quickly setting it in the blistering hot oven. The physicality of cooking is so juicy and satisfying, it tires and elates me all at once.”
After reading that, it probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that Renee Byrd, the writer, photographer and chocolate maker behind Will Frolic for Food, loves yoga, and a walk in the woods, just as much as she likes cooking. The gal likes to move.
Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, 26-year-old Byrd shares vibrant vegetarian recipes on her blog, many of them also gluten-free, dairy-free or made without refined sugar. The recipes reflect the eating style she’s arrived at after dealing with some health issues. She juggles the blog – she usually shares several recipes a week – with freelance photography and recipe writing, yoga teaching, and running a chocolate and coffee business, Frolic Chocolate, with her husband Logan.
We chat to her about developing a healthy attitude to eating, why food that brings us joy helps us feel like the best version of ourselves, and what she’d cook if we invited ourselves over for dinner (enchiladas! Chocolate sheet cake with ice-cream!). Plus she shares four great recipes, including indulgent and nutrition-rich hemp tahini date caramel bars and a spring pea and broccoli soup with cashew cream.
You dance around the kitchen; when you find a bar of chocolate melting in the summer heat, you decide the only sensible thing to do is dip a muffin in it; you describe your recipes as “hippie dip” – food is so much fun for you, isn’t it?
Food is fun for me. It’s a natural place for me to play. I love moving my body and using my hands. So the physicality of being in the kitchen is really satisfying to me. I get to explore new flavors and food combinations, experiment. Cooking is one of the easiest outlets I have for creating things that are entirely new in the world. It's amazing that food is so fun for me now because I was once obsessed with what I ate. But I stopped focusing on what not to eat. And now I focus on what I love to eat. What makes me feel vibrant. What tastes amazing. That’s made all the difference.
Most of your recipes are gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan or vegetarian. What’s your thinking on how special diets and ‘free-from’ foods fit into a healthy way of cooking and eating?
Healthy cooking and eating are, fundamentally, about happiness. We want to live well and live fully. We want to be prosperous and accepted and loved. And we want to feel good. Special diets are at best tools to orient people in the right direction. “Free-from” foods are in the same boat. Neither are the end goal. Food is integral to living. We need it to serve us in many ways. We need food that nourishes us and that’s non-harmful. But we also need stories with our food, culture. We need flavor and love and passion. We need process and tradition. Most importantly, we need food that brings us pure, unbound joy. We hit a sweet spot when we learn to relish foods that make us feel like the best versions of ourselves. Special diets and free from foods offer doors to that, depending on how efficacious they are for each of us.
Give us five words to describe how good food makes you feel.
Vibrant. Joyful. Aware. Connected. Satisfied.
When did you discover you felt better when you avoided certain foods and when did you start the blog?
I became a vegetarian in 2008. I was 18. I tried a lot of different diets during that period, and nothing quite “clicked”. Then I went vegan for about 2 years. And I developed a sensitivity to wheat. I started experiencing IBS symptoms and decided I needed to change something. So I cut out wheat and my symptoms went away. It’s so difficult to live both 100 per cent vegan and gluten free. Especially when one choice is optional. I was eating quinoa and vegetables and that's about it. So I brought eggs and goat cheese back into my diet. I’m allergic to cow (and sheep) dairy, which I discovered after going vegan. I find goat dairy is much easier to digest.
I spent some time studying nutrition as a hobby after college. I had to as I was exploring different ways of eating. I didn't just want to feel ok. I wanted to feel great. So I learned how to do that. I even considered going into holistic nutrition for my career. But I realised I was more interested in being in the kitchen, getting my hands into the food itself. So I turned my focus back to making real food really delicious.
Currently I do eat (sustainable) fish, seafood, and free range eggs. I eat 95 per cent plants, no (cow) dairy, and no wheat. My goal is to eat well and live kindly. And to eat what is right for my individual system.
On the blog, you mention you were raised “all over”? Did that expose you to a lot of different ways of cooking?
I grew up in a bunch of different places in the USA. It taught me how to eat when you have to improvise. When you move a lot (and don’t have access to fancy grocery stores) you have to make do with what you can find. My mother is the queen of making a delicious meal out of what seems like disparate elements. I picked up a lot of that from her. It instilled in me an appreciation for making something out of nothing. And for being creative with what you’ve got.
Given passages like the one about the physicality of cooking, other posts about playing basketball in the summer heat, heavy breathing while hiking or dancing at concerts, and of course yoga, we get the feeling movement is important for you.
I love movement. It’s not something I became aware of as essential to my happiness until the last couple of years. I’ve always been somewhat active. I grew up dancing. I got into yoga in college. I now practise 6 times a week. And I walk or bike just about everywhere instead of driving. I find I need movement to be happy, for my body to feel calm and at ease. And in my writing prefer to show than to tell. I focus on the environment, the action. Exploring the visceral and physical in writing is more engaging than telling you how I felt about my day.
Your writing has a wonderful fluidity, it feels like you’ve pulled us right into the moment you’re describing. It seems almost off the cuff – does it come easily or is it something you craft the same way you do a recipe, making sure it’s just right before you share it on the blog?
My writing process starts with free writing, usually. I rarely have a specific theme in mind when I start putting words on the page. Whatever floats to the front of my mind as I’m pumping out sentences becomes my essays. I sometimes write pages and pages of material only to scrap the whole thing and write a short piece about exactly what happened over breakfast. Or I’ll take a couple of sentences I like and expand out from there. I usually have to go back in and weave some dubious thread of connection between the recipe I’m posting and the thoughts I’m expressing! Ha! I do love a well-crafted sentence. I edit in detail before publishing. I would call myself a perfectionist when it comes to writing. But I enjoy editing so it doesn’t feel that way.
If we came over to dinner, what would you cook for us?
Oh, I always make something easy and delicious when people come over. Usually my take on comfort food. I might make black bean, chèvre, and zucchini enchiladas. And a gluten-free chocolate sheet cake with mint cacao nib ice-cream. Or my favorite red wine and chocolate vegetarian chili, with jalapeno corn bread. I try to keep it simple and satisfying.
COOK THE BLOG: FOUR RECIPES FROM WILL FROLIC FOR FOOD
Kitchen farmacy editor: Kylie Walker
Kitchen farmacy is our food lover's blog where good health and great taste come together. Each fortnight we'll feature a health and wellbeing foodie blog, with recipes to nourish the soul and body. Here's to eating well (and satisfying all kinds of cravings). View previous Kitchen farmacy blog entries.