Heather Wyatt’s New Book My Life With(out) Ranch

According to her publisher, Heather Wyatt is a “teacher and writer by day and food-TV junkie by night.” As an undergraduate, she majored in American Studies at The University of Alabama and earned her MFA from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry has been published in a number of journals including Number One, Puff Puff Prose Poetry and a Play, The Binnacle, ETA, Writers Tribe Review among others. Her first book, My Life With(out) Ranch, is a collection of essays on food, body image, and self-esteem.

There are books that feature the “joy” of food those that feature the fear or loathing of food. How does My Life With(out) Ranch add to the literary conversation of food?

As we all know, self-help guides for losing weight show dramatic before and after results. The result of this imagery creates a dichotomy in our minds. Fat=bad. Skinny=good. This observation is not new, but it is problematic on a number of levels. If we grow up with the understanding that only one body type is acceptable in society, it causes us to believe that we are inherently failures. Because so much emphasis is put on appearance, we feel that if we are failures at our bodies, it trickles into other areas of life.

My book explores the best and worst impacts that food has had on my own life. For so long, I didn’t even take into account my accomplishments because I was overweight. Then, once I had lost over 100 pounds and still hated myself, I realized there was a problem. I hope that my book adds to the conversation around food because I think we should be bridging the gap between body positivity and achieving mental and physical wellness. The essays in the book are explorations of my struggles with poor body image and my work coming to terms with my body since that time. Some of the stories are light and funny and some are not. They are hopefully relatable to anyone who has ever had issues with body image. The ultimate goal is to have a healthy, joyful relationship with food (and exercise) while also loving yourself.

What kinds of food did you enjoy, growing up? How did your early experiences with food shape you?

Well, I grew up in the south. I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee as a child and every Sunday, my whole family would gather at my grandmother’s house. She is somewhat of a canning pro which means I had (and still have) access to homemade strawberry preserves, apple butter, and sauerkraut (which she would promptly cook with butter and chopped hot dogs). When I spent the night, my grandpa would make fried eggs that he cooked in a skillet thickly coated in bacon grease the next morning. The irony of getting all of this rich, southern food from my grandparents was that my grandmother was one of the primary people who gave me a hard time about my weight. I can’t speak to other regions, but I was raised to both finish my plate and not get fat. I no longer live in Tennessee, but my mother carries on the Sunday dinner tradition at her house here in Tuscaloosa. She’s a wonderful cook and there’s no skimping when it comes to calories for her weekly family meal. Just last week we had pan-fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. She also made homemade strawberry bread, which is making me drool right now just thinking about it.

As you composed these essays, did your view or perception of the food culture in the state of Alabama change? Do you believe there is a difference between rural, suburban, and urban food cultures?

I think the south gets a bad reputation for their food choices when in reality, “bad” food is everywhere. Try flipping to food channels on television: it is not hard to find someone attempting to eat the world’s largest burrito or a piece of pizza the size of their heads. It’s hard for me to speak to the way other regions eat, but I will say that the south seems to have the easiest access to fast food. Exercising outside is easier in other areas because their summers don’t make you feel like you’re walking around in a vat of crockpot chicken noodle soup. I think we are discussing body image, food, and health now and that can be a really good thing. Poverty, genetics, race, region and family all play a role in our relationships with food but since every story is personal and unique, I’ll say that for me, my perception of food culture in the south hasn’t really changed much.

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” features a protagonist who attends a party and spends most of his time focused on the vast amount of food displayed. Are there displays of food in bakeries or grocery stores that intrigue you?

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of my favorite stories to teach because of Ichabod Crane’s obsession with food. My students pity me for finding a 19th century story that interesting. Your question reminds me of a trip that my mother and I took to Las Vegas several years ago. After a long day of traveling, we were ready to grab a quick bite to eat and go to bed. We noticed that the casino had a restaurant. In the restaurant window, I saw a perfect cube of glossy chocolate with ribbons of white, dark and milk chocolate. I’m not normally a dessert only gal, but I told the server that all I wanted was that cake. My fork made a tapping sound as it hit the chocolate. When it cracked open, the moistest, most decadent cake was inside. I’ve been to Vegas twice since and gone out of my way to get this cake. So yes, the restaurant display was very effective.

College campuses offer many “stress” foods to help students “cope.” How can colleges and universities best serve their students when serving them food?

I’m actually torn on this topic because I don’t think stress eating is all bad. Our bodies get endorphins from eating delicious food, which may actually help boost students to finish their work. If you’ve ever seen What the Health, a documentary about the meat and dairy industries, you know that cheese has addictive chemicals that liken it to heroin. If someone is stress eating infrequently, it may not be a huge deal. However, if coping means eating two cheeseburgers three days a week, you might need other methods in place to address those needs.

When I was in school, many of the reprieves offered for midterms and finals were snacks. Come study for finals! We have donuts! I think schools do a better job with that now but certainly more healthy, mindful ways to reduce stress would be great. Students could have better access to mental health care, meditation or support groups and of course, exercise equipment and reminders could be more readily available. My ultimate message is to strive for balance. Don’t hate yourself because you had a bad week and need a candy bar. Don’t hate yourself at all. Mental and physical health are of equal importance and it can certainly be a long process. Love yourself as you are right in this moment and then start the work. Losing X number of pounds or avoiding a specific food won’t flip a switch to suddenly make you “worthy.” You already are. I understand how hard it is. Let’s lift each other up and work on all this together.

–Van Newell