Ten Questions with Bee Wilson
I have been a huge fan of Bee’s for some time and I was so excited to properly meet at a lovely Literary Salon we held with our publishers 4th estate on the subject of food and feminism. I was blown away by her knowledge, eloquence and ability to make sense of what are quite complicated issues. We had a thought-provoking conversation and I came away quite in awe of her, her work and attitude.
Since then, her latest book, First Bite, has come out in the UK. It examines, in detail, how we learn to eat – as Bee puts it – ‘everyone starts life drinking milk. After that, it’s all up for grabs.’ It is genuinely fascinating with a balance of research and history – but it never feels dry. Instead it explains, in very approachable terms, how we form our eating habits, and even how we can change them, with information from everyone from nutritionists to neuroscientists. Having a little one who is just about to start eating for the first time makes it even more interesting to me.
Bee is a beacon of wisdom, sense and calm in a sometimes crowded debate, and the level of detail and research in First Bite is a rare thing in a food book these days. This book recently won the Andre Simon Special Commendation award I can’t think of a more worthy winner. Congratulations Bee.
What’s your favourite cookbook?
If I have to pick only one, it’s How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. I have been through two copies and both have fallen apart and lost their covers – a mark of true kitchen love. There are so many things I admire about her writing and recipes. It’s here I turn when I want to be reminded how to make hollandaise to go with asparagus or what proportions of courgettes to aubergines to use in a ratatouille. I feel the book keeps me company with the passing seasons. It reminds me not to forget about quinces in autumn and pink rhubarb in the spring. For years, the deeply comforting minestrone from How to Eat was our Halloween lunch, with pumpkin bread on the side. I notice that I always rely on Nigella for a cake recipe when there’s a birthday in the family. But more than the recipes, the thing that most thrilled me about this book when it was first published was her tone of voice. Here was a woman writing openly about her own ‘greed’, and celebrating her own appetite, with warmth and honesty. She made eating seem like something joyous and life-enhancing, whether she was describing molten chocolate puddings or green salad. To someone who was at the time recovering from guilty and compulsive ways of eating, I found this inspiring. And still do.
What’s your most used cookbook/ food reference book?
This is not exactly a food reference book, but one of the food books I re-read most often, for comfort, is The Kitchen Congregation by Nora Seton. It’s a memoir of kitchens and the relationships that happen in them. Seton’s mother died of leukemia when she was a student; she later lost a baby to stillbirth. For Seton, the kitchen becomes a place of recuperation. ‘When I miss my mother’, she writes, ‘I miss her in the kitchen’. Seton recalls how her mother cooked each evening, always starting with a chopped onion, which always made her cry. This is a book about many other kitchens, such as that of Nora’s spiky friend Laura, who feels that the kitchen cramps her style; or 90-year-old friend Ida, who still makes chicken soup; or Nora’s own kitchen, where her toddlers create chaos among the pots and pans. Food memoirs can be schmaltzy, but this one is genuinely moving, and curiously uplifting.
What’re your three favourite ingredients?
CITRUS – every kind, from Seville oranges to limes to blood oranges. But mostly lemon. When I’ve served dinner and we are about to eat, no matter what we are eating, I quite often leap up and say ‘Wait, I need to put lemon on the table’, and fetch a plate of wedges, which no one squeezes on the food but me.
ALMONDS – I love them in many forms, both sweet and savoury, particularly when toasted, and usually have a Kilner jar of them to hand.
BUTTER – it makes so many good things taste even better, from morning toast to a feast of steamed artichokes.
Where’s your favourite place to eat?
Honey and Co on Warren Street, London. I’ve never eaten food cooked with more soul, or more enticing flavours, than at this tiny Middle Eastern restaurant run by husband and wife Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer. It’s like home cooking, only better. To me, their food is the perfect balance of health and pleasure. I dream of their cheesecake, topped with crisp kadaif pastry and blueberries. Their meze are a smorgasbord of joy, from the best houmous you’ll ever taste to fat juicy olives and fresh home-pickled vegetables. And I once ate a tomato salad there that was sweeter than any tomatoes before or since. Their two cookbooks are also superb.
Where do you find inspiration for new dishes?
A trip to Turin last year reminded me of the joys of hazelnuts and young white cheese. But most of my inspiration comes from the written word, from cookbooks. At the moment, I’m cooking a lot from Five Quarters by Rachel Roddy, so our suppers have gone Italian-tinged. I read a lot of historic cookbooks for research for my books and find it interesting to see how ideas in food go in cycles. I was amazed, recently, to come across some eighteenth century recipes for beetroot pancakes that reminded me of a recipe in Anna’s latest book. I also love looking at the Food52 website with its community cookery competitions. Another thing that gives me ideas is getting a weekly organic veg box (from an excellent company local to me in Cambridge.) Sometimes a weird new vegetable will arrive which forces me to think up something new to do with it. Or something comes that the children are not so keen on – parsnips, say – and I have to use all my ingenuity to cook it in a form they will accept.
Where is your favourite place? (A shop, a beach, a village, a café …)
Afternoon Tease Café on King’s Street, Cambridge. This tiny place, run by owner and baker Jo Kruczynska, is one of my favourite cafes for brunch in the world. This place exudes happiness. Every detail adds atmosphere, from the pink neon sign to the golden syrup tins used for the sugar on the tables. It’s one of a handful of excellent cafes to open in Cambridge lately (other favourites are Hot Numbers and Espresso Library). For brunch, they do dishes like sunshine-yellow fried eggs with avocado toast; eggs Florentine; toasted crumpets from a local bakery; and toasted banana bread that smells like heaven. The cakes here are also wonderful – chocolate Guinness cake, say, or pistachio and lemon gluten-free cake. My daughter and I used to come here every Friday for an end-of-the school week treat. The coffee is served on mismatched vintage crockery and is utterly delicious. The only downside is that they get so popular at weekends it can be hard to get a table.
What are three kitchen utensils you cannot live without?
They make me feel like a super-hero with heatproof claws at the end of my hand. I use them constantly for prodding, lifting, turning.
AEROPRESS COFFEE MAKER
I’ve tried so many other methods of making coffee, but I love the simplicity and low-tech nature of the Aeropress. It may not be beautiful – when I’m in a more aesthetic mood, I choose the Moka stovetop – but the coffee comes out sweet and delicious and I love the fact that all you need is a kettle and strong arms.
Because it is the most lovable kitchen technology. It reminds me of cooking with my mother as a child.
What does ‘eating well’ mean to you?
It means feeding yourself as a good parent would: with love, with variety, but also with limits. A good place to start is pleasure. Eating well is not about excluding whole food groups or demonising sugar or refined carbs (something which, in my experience, only makes you eat far more of them, in an atmosphere of secrecy and shame). There is a dangerous polarity in the way we think about food, especially as women. So many of us believe that healthy food is the opposite of enjoyable food, which makes me very sad. Calories are not the same as morals.
When researching First Bite, I was delighted to discover that human tastes are far more malleable than we usually realise. It’s absolutely possible – over time – to train yourself to enjoy a wider range of foods, especially vegetables, and to self-regulate your own hungers.
Eating well is not about willpower or virtue. It’s a series of skills that we can work on at any age. I know that in my own case – to my surprise and relief – I’ve changed not just my diet but what I want to eat. Where once my palate veered towards soft white carbs, I now relish meals such as falafel with roasted carrot salad or spicy chickpea soup or crunchy salads or pecans and fennel and pears.
To me, there is nothing healthy about punishing yourself with endless restrictive diets or forcing yourself to eat things you don’t like because you think they are good for you. Eating well about making your peace with food and finding a way to enjoy a range of foods that make you feel well. Which doesn’t preclude the odd portion of chips.
Who would you most like to cook for?
My oldest son Tom, aged 16, is a tough person to impress. He is an adventurous eater and easily bored. He’s the one at the table saying ‘Mum, why are you serving us this dish again?’, which of course annoys me. So on the rare occasions that he tells me he loves something I’ve made for dinner, it means a lot.
What’s your favourite smell?
Freshly ground coffee: after all these years, I never get bored of that warm, spicy nutty aroma. No cup of brewed coffee, however delicious, ever quite measures up to the smell.
Illustration: Jess Lea-Wilson