What do you get when you simmer a pot of oatmeal on low heat, add a French minor, a dash of cinnamon, a drizzle of almond butter, an affinity for yoga and nearly fifty thousand Instagram followers? This is just one recipe in the cookbook of lovely ingredients that makes up LSA sophomore foodie Maddie Ross.

Ross or, as she’s known on her wildly popular health and wellness Instagram account, @cest.madeleine is the human form of sunshine. Where some people hide behind their iPhone screens, scrolling with a looming cloud of doubt and self-destruction, comparing themselves to pixelated 8-inch images of acquaintances and strangers, Ross is quite the opposite. In fact, she’s used her Instagram platform to express herself in a positive way. Where many use Instagram to alter who they are, she uses the social media app to get to the center of exactly who she is.

Her account is filled with encouraging, honest captions and gorgeous photographs of stacked avocado toasts, bowls of creamy oatmeal, pieces of grilled fish and white sweet potato fries grilled to perfection with a pool of earthy green pesto for dipping on the side. From experience, I can tell you that Ross’s cooking abilities and sunny disposition are anything but phony. In fact, the conversation I shared with her over homemade oatmeal bowls was blissfully authentic, peaceful and warm.

Against the wall of the quaint, chic kitchen she calls her own during the school year — decorated with a sign that reads “chop it like it’s hot” — I observed her in her element, standing over the stove, simmering banana slices on a pan sprayed with avocado oil and crackling with sweet maple syrup.

“I don’t mind that my bedroom is so small because I spend most of the time in here anyway,” She said with a smile, gesturing to her kitchen. “The kitchen is my happy place.”

She prodded at the browning bananas with a seemingly magical touch as the kitchen began to smell how a cold Sunday morning should. I could tell immediately that Ross feels her best in the kitchen — she traversed the space naturally, has a terrific handle on multitasking and created art out of bananas, oats, almond butter and granola. I never thought much about the magic touch of someone gifted at cooking until I had the chance to really watch someone with said touch in their element.

“Cooking and baking and then photographing my meals is like my art form,” she said when asked what her process is for sautéing, baking and mixing her delicious Instagram photos into life. “I normally go by what will look pretty and what will taste good too. I’ll admit it’s a little bit of both.”

She certainly has her go-to’s, though — toast, salmon, anything with eggs and anything with avocado.

Ross admits her Instagram account, which is currently aesthetically pleasing and drool-worthy, wasn’t always so beautiful and well-thought out. She started the account after struggling with disordered eating the summer before high school. It was, in perfect 13-year-old fashion, donned with the title “The Dancing Foodie” and was a private account that she hid from her family and friends. Once those around her found out about her secret hobby when she was observed photographing her meals and gaining interest in culinary art, the account came off private, underwent a slight transformation and began to pick up major traction.

“I mean Instagram for me is about connection — it’s how I found joy in food again. I met some of my best friends at school through the community I’ve found on my account,” she said.

It seems that Ross was a bit of a revolutionary in the small, conservative town in rural Ohio she calls home, and the community she inspired back home has only grown since coming to college.

“Some people say that I invented avocado toast in Bowling Green, Ohio. I definitely didn’t invent it, but I was sort of the first to do it.” She claimed when asked how her upbringing informed her desire to create a community for herself through Instagram.

“The closest Whole Foods to where I live is the one here, so we’d drive the hour to Ann Arbor just for Whole Foods,” she said. 

If a pro on the pro/con list of attending the University is proximity to Whole Foods, Ross is certainly in the right place. Despite her love for Ann Arbor and delight in being somewhere that has spaces that cater to her passions — specifically Tiny Buddha Yoga, Fred’s, Zingerman’s and her favorite Indian restaurant, Cardamom — Ross has a larger desire to travel, something the two of us share.

She listens nearly exclusively to old French music, loves Nina George’s novel “The Little Paris Bookshop” and has lately been exploring different flavor profiles, especially Indian and Moroccan food. Her travel to-do list is overflowing with zip codes in countries she’s never been before in addition to spots on every corner of the United States — normally in the pursuit of the foodie havens popping up from coast to coast.

“I want to go to L.A., just for the food scene. I also really want to go to Seattle and Portland — oh, and Australia. I feel like I’d love it there. And I just picture myself in France, maybe Paris, just reading and writing and eating a baguette.”

Her travel dreams and future destinations stems from her love of unique cultures, interesting and new flavors and her intense desire for adventure and exploration. One of her more recent explorations, which has planted her desire to travel even more, was a yoga retreat and trip to Costa Rica, where she spent time being mindful, immersing herself in unfamiliar culture and food and enjoying trying new things — like surfing.

“I’m open to anything. Especially food-wise, I’ll try anything.” She declared, as I scraped my bowl of oatmeal clean and listened to her stories of Costa Rica — including her first time surfing, which she deemed scary but liberating. Ross appears to feel the freest when she is on the pursuit of a new adventure, headed to a new place or with the promise of a unique experience.

The woman she is through her beautiful, inspiring photos on Instagram is absolutely faithful to who she is in real life. In a world so quick to document their lives in an extremely obscured or dismantled way on social media — Ross is redefining the norm. Never have I met someone whose social media accounts are a glimmering, authentic mirror reflection of exactly who she is — spunky, creative, honest and bright. Her plans are big, and her dreams are lofty but after meeting her in person. I have no doubt that she will achieve them all.

“Well, sourdough bread saved my summer,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Maddie, you have to do something with your summer,’ so I started to make sourdough bread. A loaf of sourdough bread is my absolute favorite food. But it has to be homemade… and naturally leavened. I’m a bread purist.”

“Now I could see myself opening up a cafe or a bakery…” she trailed off thinking for a moment, her spoon, cradling a final spoonful of oatmeal, suspended in the air. “Well, my real dream is to open a half bookstore, half bakery. I’ve always seen myself running a business or being a business owner.”

It’s extremely clear why Ross can see herself running a business; she is passionate and clear in her visions, astute and unique in her observations and enthusiastic about life. Where Maddie Ross exists, negativity does not. It seems her major goals in life are to always head toward the light and away from the darkness, remembering to come back to her base: good ingredients, wholesome meals, lasting conversation, long walks and great books. She has set concrete values, passions and ensures that she gives her full heart and an equal amount of her energy to each.

One of these is connecting with people, something that, as a foodie and a social media presence, comes as no surprise. 

“Everyone eats, you know? To me, the easiest way to crack into even the toughest people is through a good meal. I love feeding people. I love talking to people. I love having real, human moments. I try my best to fall as far away from superficiality as I can.”

Ross was getting ready to head to a yoga class after our breakfast conversation, in keeping with her desire to be in touch with her mind and her body, and sported a perfectly on brand “Bakers Gonna Bake” sweatshirt.

I asked Ross what her life philosophy is, beginning from a past of disordered eating and self-doubt, and having grown into such a remarkably strong, sanguine woman. She is a refreshing presence in our city and the world of Instagram, bringing us doses of realness and mentorship with every stride forward.  

“I want to lean into the grey areas. Sometimes, I’m so locked into black and white thinking like it’s all or nothing,” she said. “And it doesn’t have to always be perfect. It doesn’t always have to be in my control. I try to focus on what I can control, cherish the simple miracles and bask in the little moments, letting it all happen as it may.”

I headed away from her inviting, amiable corner of town and back into the frigid and grey world outside, feeling a bit sunnier, a bit luckier and refreshed from such raw conversation. We planned a coffee date to find Ann Arbor’s best oat milk latte and exchange our favorite books but until then I’ll have to drool over her recent Insta post and channel my best Madeleine Ross positivity on my most stressful days: Take a deep breath, make a good meal and remember to be mindful. We all need a reminder to stop and be present, to share the good in the world with faith that goodness will be returned back to you.

My best advice to head toward the real is to follow @cest.madeleine and allow her to inspire you to kickstart start your own journey toward the real and away from the superficial — in food, in relationships and most importantly, in life.

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