So excited for Chupi who has won Image Magazine Businesswoman of the Year!
Chupi has been a huge inspiration to me, I interviewed her for Ireland’s Sunday Independent when she was still a kid in 2003 and she had already published a cook book!
The interview features Rosita Sweetman, the author and activist who is Chupi’s mum, and it also features Luke Sweetman, Chupi’s brother. Copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2003
I think of teenagers, and I think of monsters. Automatically, I can’t help it. Moody, spotty, arrogant, lazy and profoundly ungrateful. Unwilling to help around the house. Myself, at that awful age. Hunting the shopping malls in packs, uniformly attired in hideous trousers and for the girls, visible bellies. If anyone ever told me I would be sitting down and taking advice from one of these creatures, I would have scoffed at the notion, mightily.
Rosita Sweetman was a teenage prodigy. Her first book was published when she was barely out of her teens. Her first two books caused a sensation in Ireland, examining, as they did, our attitudes to the twin taboos of religion and sex. Rosita was a non-conformist who opted to live differently. She reared two children, Chupi and Luke almost single handed, after the traumatic break up of her marriage.
The little family still live in a cottage high up in the Wicklow mountains, miles from anywhere. Chupi was born in a bedroom upstairs. The setting is idyllic, nothing to disturb one’s peace except sheep and heather and the setting sun.
It is afternoon, when I arrive and I am greeted with an open fire in the living room and the smell of something delicious cooking in the open plan kitchen. The two teenagers are wearing aprons and creating a meal. Tall, good-looking, vibrant and vivacious, they are not what I was expecting. Totally without sullenness, they graciously sit me down and proffer a plate of feta cheese and sundried tomato toasties, drizzled with olive oil. Teenagers are known for terrible eating habits. Pizzas, fizzy drinks, sweets and snacks, they seldom eat real food. And I’ve never met one that could cook. But because Chupi, -who’s nineteen- had serious allergies to wheat, dairy, gluten, yeast, sugar and practically anything that teens normally eat, the family were forced to totally change their diet. Rosita offers me a glass of wine, as we sit listening to the story. Chupi can’t drink wine, she says, because of the yeast. And giving up fast food was torture, at first.
‘The last time I ate a pizza was a few months ago, in Bath. We had been trekking around all day and we were exhausted and seriously grumpy and we saw a pizza place and I said to myself “I’m not actually sick, I’m fine!” I go through these phases, every once in a while.’
‘It’s a right of passage, whether she cracks or not!’ Luke, her younger brother interjects.
‘It’s a bit like being an alcoholic or a drug addict,’ Chupi explains. ‘You think “I’ll just have one, it’s Christmas.” When I’m really tired and there’s nowhere else to eat, I’m especially likely to give in. But I got sooo sick!’
The allergies manifest in quite extreme ways.
‘A raging flu-like illness, sore throat, pouring eyes, she’ll be barely able to breathe.’
‘ Stomach cramps like someone’s wringing out my insides,’ Chupi adds. ‘Ringing in my ears and really bad hallucinations.’
Rosita, being interested in alternative medicine, had taken Chupi to every kind of therapist, including crystal, healers, aura menders and Reiki practitioners. But none of it had helped Chupi. And she was getting desperate, lying around at home all day, feeling listless and depressed and wondering if she had ME. Then Rosita discovered a nutritionist called Patricia Quinn, who diagnosed the food allergies and advised switching to a diet of completely unprocessed food, yeast free, dairy free wheat free and sugar free, additive and preservative free.
In order to support Chupi, the whole family joined in with the diet.
‘At the start we were desperate, because there was nothing we could eat,’ says Luke.
‘I used to stand at shop windows, drooling,’ Chupi adds.
They bought cookbooks for people with allergies and they show me one of them, it’s full of lentils and soya beans and the traditional ‘cranky’ healthy recipes that gave vegetarians and health freaks a bad name. The kids were horrified, but determined to make the best of the situation. They began to devise their own recipes, and in order to be able to remember them, they wrote them all down. Some of the first things they made were pizza and chips. The chips were made with organic potatoes and extra virgin olive oil and the pizza was made with spelt flour and both, they say, were delicious. The recipes were tested on teenage friends, who gave the seal of approval. After they had concocted twenty or so recipes, the kids realised that they had uncovered a niche market.
“There are very few allergy cookbooks out there’,. Luke says. ‘And the ones there are are really boring and depressing. They would make you prefer to be sick!”
And so they decided to write a book. Not many teenagers write books, it is true, but their mother had written books, so they didn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t succeed. And another major factor in their approach was the fact that they were both educated at home. Which contributed greatly to their confidence, they say.
“I think it has been very character forming,’ says Chupi.
“It makes you independent and it makes you more confident,’ says Luke. Chupi managed to get four A’s in her Leaving Certificate and a B in Economics, which was a subject she hadn’t even studied.
“A home-schooler can apply the brazen art of bullshit to absolutely anything’ Luke laughs.
“Even though the exams aren’t all that important, its good to know you can do them.”
The children spent their time developing their characters, they say, instead of learning by rote. And they have succeeded hugely, because they are both charming, articulate and enormously engaging. Their mother, Rosita is noticeably more withdrawn and her body language suggests a certain level of shyness, whereas the teenagers sit bolt upright, with their shoulders back and without a hint of awkwardness. Didn’t they drive Rosita nuts, being at home all day?
‘Yes’, says Luke. ‘We made petrol bombs, and built tree houses and bonfires!”
‘They did a lot of crafts,’ Rosita says. ‘And cooking, that was how the cook book started! We are very isolated here, so there’s not much else to do, except cook.”
Chupi and Luke are extremely close and work beautifully together as a team. The book is interwoven with their different personalities, Chupi veering more towards vegetarian recipes and Luke injecting plenty of meat recipes, including steak with sautéed onion gravy, a classic burger, and of course the chips. All of the recipes are written in a straightforward, user-friendly style and presented with mouth-watering photos.
Very few of us are in any doubt that we know more than our parents do, about absolutely everything. But do we ever wonder if that means our children know more than we do? Chupi and Luke point out that obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, especially among children. And most children are addicted to sugar and junk food, laced with additives. The most common of these is E621, or monosodium glutonate, which is in most fast foods. And is a substance that is known to be highly addictive.
So it makes perfect sense to switch to wholesome, healthy foods, even if you aren’t allergic to anything. And the more children and teenagers take an interest in what they put in their mouths, the sooner we stop being obese and unhealthy. Perhaps the Sweetman family are pioneering a new phenomenon: health conscious teenagers who cook tasty meals. And who even tidy up and wash the dishes after themselves!
‘What to Eat When You Can’t Eat Anything’ is published by Newleaf, 16.99 euros.