The joy of eating: How a local cook, food stylist, and blogger with a national following learned to love food again

Renee Byrd’s recipes—including the one for these honey-sweetened thumbprint strawberry jam cookies—are as delicious as they are as healthy as they are delicious. Photo: Renee Byrd Renee Byrd’s recipes—including the one for these honey-sweetened thumbprint strawberry jam cookies—are as delicious as they are as healthy as they are delicious. Photo: Renee Byrd

After years of struggling with disordered eating and food sensitivities, Renee Byrd rediscovered her love of food and cooking. Now she shares recipes—and a bit of life-changing magic—on Will Frolic for Food, the blog she started in 2013.

In a way, Byrd, 29, is the Marie Kondo of food. While she advocates a better, simpler way to eat—plant-based, mostly sugar-free, low on dairy, almost vegan—she doesn’t suggest that her way is the right way. It’s just what works for her, and she invites her blog visitors and 47,600 Instagram followers to find their own joy in food.

“Eating something that reminds you of what your mother made when you were growing up can be incredibly healing,” says Byrd, pictured here in a Richmond coffee shop. Photo by Tiffany Jung

Byrd is more than just an avid foodie. She’s a member of the ethereal folk band Larkspur, a poet, and yoga instructor. But where Byrd really shines is with her food photography and styling. Byrd’s atmospheric images and recipes have been featured in Self and Seventeen magazines, and on the Williams-Sonoma website.

Byrd revels in the Charlottesville food scene. She’s an enthusiastic consumer of produce from City Market, where she can also be found at Frolic, the small-batch chocolate and coffee-roasting business that her husband, Logan Byrd, runs out of their backyard commercial kitchen.

We caught up with Byrd recently to find out more about her and her work. Prepare to be inspired.

Why did you decide to write about food?

I started the blog as a way to practice writing and photography, but at the same time I was also developing recipes, so my husband encouraged me to share them. We were eating interesting, creative, delicious things, but I would just make something once and not write down the recipe. I was just like, it’s what inspired me at the time. He was just trying to get me to share with other people. And I got really into it.

You write about “falling in love with food again” after learning you had food sensitivities. Is sharing this also a mission for the blog?

Yeah, that is part of it. I had some disordered eating problems when I was young, and I had to heal my relationship with food. Getting into cooking and learning how to cook nourishing, plant-based food was part of my healing. But I wanted to make food that tastes really good, instead of trying to nourish my body based on some set of rules I observed in our culture, like, “you should eat salad.”

Sounds like intuitive eating. But you don’t seem like a person who’s into food fads.

I don’t really use diet labels. When I was 21 I did go vegan for a while. I had already stopped eating dairy because I was allergic to it, and after I went vegan I felt so much better. But I eventually developed some food intolerances, which I attribute to eating a lot of processed vegan food. So I started incorporating a little bit of fish, some goat dairy, and eggs into my diet, and I started to feel better again. Food is definitely part of my self-nurturing and -nourishing process. And it’s closely related to my mental-health journey—gaining a sense of fulfillment and of making conscious choices.

What does “frolicking for food” mean, and how can it help others?

It’s about finding joy in food and continuing to make it really delicious even if you do have sensitivities. It reminds me of the phrase “rare diseases are not rare.” Likewise, food sensitivities are not rare. A lot of people are not even conscious of dietary parameters that could rid them of suffering or being deeply fatigued. So, for me, frolicking is about reclaiming the joy in food.

There’s something about your food photography that seems to have a similar message.

I try to create a sense of aliveness and vibrancy in something that’s still and immobile. I try to cultivate in the images a sense of quiet and space, which are things I appreciate in life and in food. When I’m photographing I have to gain a sense of slowness and stillness, because it’s just me and a plate of something that can’t talk to me. It helps me appreciate the beauty in something as simple and ephemeral as food. It’s here and then it’s gone. But it also can provide a lot of beauty. A bowl of curry is beautiful because it’s delicious, but it reaches another level when it has edible flowers and a swirl of cream on top.

What ingredients are you excited to get your hands on this spring?

Strawberries! I’m like itching for them right now. And, gosh, some of my favorite edible flowers come out in spring—cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, violets. And we have an asparagus patch—it’s like magic every spring. We get a lot! 

Looking at your blog and reading about all of your endeavors, it seems your creativity goes beyond food.

Well, you should see my list of recipes I have yet to post—it’s like hundreds. I’m also a musician and a poet, and I do portrait photography and even weddings. I’m also a yoga teacher. It’s great! I love it!

What drives your creativity?

One of my core missions is to serve people well—to give them things that are practical and provide a sense of simple joy and connection to somebody similar to them. I think that can reduce suffering for people. That is my ultimate goal: to reduce suffering in the world, no big deal [laughs]. Maybe it’s through food, or conversation, or a beautiful photo. A lot of people who follow my work feel connected to me. They are sensitive souls, and I’m somebody who gets them.

Do you feel that food itself can be healing?

Yes, I do. On two levels: emotional and physical. Eating something that reminds you of what your mother made when you were growing up, or of a beautiful experience in your life, can be incredibly healing. Once in a blue moon I’ll go to Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond. They have these incredible pastries, not something I typically eat. There’s refined sugar and wheat and dairy. But it feeds my soul. If I feel a bit bloated the next day, who cares? Food can heal people physically, too. I used to have IBS [irritable bowel syndrome], and I’ve completely healed my gut through healthy eating.

On the blog you mention your interest in herbalism. Does that play into your recipes?

It does. It’s sort of a hobby, studying herbalism and including different herbs and roots and mushrooms that are beneficial in my diet. I post a lot of recipes that incorporate herbalism—hopefully, in a very low key, non-intimidating way.

Is that important to you—to communicate in an accessible way?

I try to write the blog the way that I talk to people. When it comes to food, I’m sort of irreverent. I’m totally into all of this hippie woo-woo stuff. But I also take it with a grain of salt. I’m very wary of the cult mindset that can develop around things like herbalism and healthy food. So, the way that I speak on the blog is meant to be very inviting and friendly and relaxed. I want people to feel that they’re just hanging out with me.

 

Eating Around

Although food sensitivities make eating at home more practical for Byrd, she’s found plenty of local places that accommodate special dietary needs in delicious ways. “We have an insane amount of good food in this town,” she says. Here’s where she gets it. —JMM

Roots Natural Kitchen: “I go there a couple of times a week for The Southern Bowl.”

Juice Laundry: “I love their raw juices and green juices, cold brew latte, and Coco Verde with a ton of ginger!”

Moon Maiden’s Delights: “Their Best Day Bar is amazing, with a gluten-free oat base and seasonal flavors like mango or strawberry-cardamom.”

Citizen Burger Bar: “My husband likes their grass-fed beef. I get the beet burger and sweet potato fries.”

Bluegrass Creamery: “I love their vegan coconut ice cream, and their housemade gluten-free waffle cones are the best I’ve ever had. You can find their food truck at the IX Art Park in the warmer months.”

The Pie Chest: “Good coffee and dairy-free lattes. Their chai and matcha is the best in town!”

 

Recipe

Honey-sweetened strawberry jam thumbprint cookies

Photo: Renee Byrd

By Renee Byrd (adapted from The Kitchen McCabe)

Soft, honey-sweetened “sugar” cookies meet tangy-sweet strawberry jam. These cookies come together in just about 15 minutes, plus they’re pretty dang healthy to boot! Free of gluten, grain, refined sugar, and dairy, but absolutely delicious—like, “Wow, this is healthy?” delicious.

Prep: 5 minutes. Bake: 8-10 minutes per sheet. Makes: 18 cookies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups blanched almond flour

3/4 cup tapioca flour

¼ tsp. salt, plus more for topping

½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/3 cup honey

1 Tbsp. cashew butter

1 Tbsp. coconut oil

1 egg

Strawberry jam for filling

Method

1. In a large bowl combine almond flour, tapioca flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate small bowl, combine vanilla, honey, cashew butter, coconut oil, and egg. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, and stir to combine.

2. Scoop out rounded tablespoons of dough and roll them into balls. On a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper, place balls about an inch apart.

3. Using your thumb, create an indentation in the top of each, and fill with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of jam. Bake 8-10 minutes, until the bottoms are deeply golden and the tops are lightly golden.

4. Cool 5-10 minutes before eating. Add more jam as desired.

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