Photo by Pal Hanson, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
“I think that might be the first time that someone’s started a question at the London Literature Festival with ‘how’s about this’,” Ed Gamble jokes, towards the end of the two-hour interview and Q&A promoting his new book, the culinary auto-biography Glutton. The context? A man nestled in the audience, regaling us all with his tale of eating four pizzas in one day during his student days at Durham.
Perhaps not the most conventional of audience interactions – but this is the absurd sort of anecdote you’d expect to emerge from someone attending an Ed Gamble event. Gamble himself, in fact, began the talk by daring us to usurp his own eating feats, which many people then attempted (and dare I say, succeeded in doing). The event, moderated and conducted by the stellar Jimi Famurewa, began with food, was about food, and ended with talk of even more food. If you are unfamiliar with Ed Gamble’s work, it might come as a surprise, then, that he is not a food critic, nor a famous chef, nor the owner of a Michelin-star restaurant. Ed Gamble is, however, a comedian who’s accidentally become synonymous with the British food scene, all because of one podcast.
It’d be best to rewind here. Gamble, although an already prolific comedian, having been on panel shows like Mock the Week and taking his stand-up comedy on tour, seemed to sharpen in the public eye in 2018 with the release of the podcast Off Menu. The podcast, co-hosted with James Acaster, sees both comedians ask their guests ‘their favourite ever starter, main course, dessert, side dish, and drink, not in that order’ (one of the show’s catchphrases) – essentially, their dream meal. A simple enough premise, but, for whatever reason, over 120 million people have been drawn to the podcast since its release. Personally, as a very big fan of the show, I believe that part of the Off Menu charm is its offbeat pull. It might be a combination of the inside jokes, the banter between the two hosts, or the guest’s hilarious reactions to the former – but whatever it is that beckons people back, Off Menu is doing it right. Although it is first and foremost a comedy podcast, however, there is a real passion for food cosied in between uproarious anecdotes and quips courtesy of both guests and hosts. Throughout the podcast’s run, it has been made abundantly clear multiple times that both Gamble and Acaster adore food. Not only do they love eating it, but speaking about it too, especially with other similarly culinary-inclined guests. In the past, Off Menu has seen a multitude of star chefs sit in at the dream restaurant, such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Tom Kerridge, and Asma Khan; it is in episodes like these, when James and Ed grow quiet whilst the chef describes one of their favourite meals in exquisite detail, that the adoration is felt. These episodes, aside from making me frustratingly hungry, are wonderful examples of how food is something that has the magical ability to bring people together. In a recent Guardian interview with Rebecca Nicholson, Gamble said that he sees food as “the ultimate conversation topic”. It is one of the few strings binding us all together, as you can tell a lot about someone if they, for instance, decide to order a cheese board instead of ice cream for dessert (shameful). The overwhelming popularity of Off Menu proves this point – food has the power to help make connections. And Ed Gamble’s first book is all about how he himself has connected with food throughout his life.
Glutton: the Multi-Course Life of a Very Greedy Boy was released on the 26th of October, and as the title suggests, it is not so much an autobiography but a book about food littered with sporadic anecdotes about the comedian’s life. In the first few pages, we are swept up into the ridiculous obsession with food that remains steady throughout the rest of its entirety: for example, Gamble confesses that, as a very young boy, he once ordered the catering at a wedding to serve him poached salmon, because the kid’s menu was simply not enough for his fine palette, thank you very much. The book then continues to deliver on the promise of a ‘multi-course life’, as it delves into his life, defined as it has been by food and his love for it.
One important element of this relationship, which was discussed at length in his interview with Famurewa, is Gamble’s type 1 diabetes diagnosis, which has a considerable effect on his eating habits. Gamble ended up only focusing on the diagnosis for one chapter, instead of spreading it throughout the whole book. He explained that he chose to do this because didn’t want his autobiography to “become a book about diabetes”, instead of a book about his life, where diabetes happens to be a significant part of it. Gamble went on to elaborate on this, telling us how he’s already considered as being a ‘diabetes comic’ through his stand-up material, which some people tend to either poke fun at, or take as an excuse to scrutinise his eating habits. He confessed his frustration with the amount of people that appear to misunderstand diabetes and what can really trigger it – this being the case when the chefs of a restaurant gifted him an entire bread basket, wanting to be kind, when bread in fact does contain sugar (albeit not a large amount). However, the comedian also expressed that he’s also seen the positive impact of his work on diabetes. For example, in one of his more recent interviews with Waterstones for the release of Glutton, the interviewer was a type 1 diabetic himself, and it was through Gamble’s autobiography that he discovered a different method of eating wherein his blood sugar could be regulated without needing to necessarily adopt a strictly sugar-free diet. One of the people in the audience who asked a question during the Q&A portion of the interview was also diabetic themselves, and spoke with Gamble briefly about it, in what was a genuinely sweet interaction.
Another element of the interview that was surprisingly heartfelt was the segment about Gamble’s obesity, which he grappled with for his childhood and the earlier years of adulthood – especially how this affected his role in other people’s lives. Gamble was the (self proclaimed) ‘funny fat friend’, and saw this not as a negative thing but instead an opportunity to make those around him laugh. He explained that his role in his friendship group was self-evident from the beginning, and that this idea that his only purpose was to serve as a sort of court jester for the amusement of his slimmer friends ended up bleeding into his approach to dating. Gamble was ‘friend-zoned’ throughout the majority of his life, something which he also clarified as not being entirely negative. “It’s good to have friends!” he quipped, but the stigma related to that term and to the relationships of overweight people was certainly something that he still sees as vital in exploring and calling out. In a similar vein, the comedian also told us that, after he lost a significant amount of weight, people would swivel wildly between two completely different reactions: “oh, you’re actually good looking!” or “are you ill?”. Although this was revealed in the interview as being something he looked back at and laughed at, he also said: “we need to find a middle ground between the two,” where people would stop treating weight loss (or weight at all) as something indicative of attractiveness or health.
As a whole, the interview was expectedly both hilarious and insightful into Gamble’s life and personality. I personally managed to not only meet him after the event, as he was signing copies of Glutton, but also ask a question during the interactive section, and I was struck both times by the open humility of Gamble. He seems to be a genuinely lovely man, whose relationship with food shines through not only in his more serious tangents, but in the comedic intervals too. Although my question was more focused on Off Menu, and the wonderful disaster that was Dan Aykroyd’s episode, his responses to other people’s food-related questions (to name a few: what’s the best airline food, had he ever competed in a ‘food challenge’) showcased not only his sharp and astoundingly fast wit, but his real love for food, too. Glutton is a wonderful autobiography, deeply rooted in both a culinary passion and a talent for comedy. If you’re looking for a light read to let your mind rest during reading week, then let Glutton lead the way with its ridiculous stories and delicious descriptions.
This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.
Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor