The Gannet Q&A

Bee Wilson

11th October 2016

Photograph: Natasha Runciman

Bee Wilson was born in Oxford and for the past 20 years, apart from a year in Philadelphia and another in London, has lived in Cambridge. “Something about university towns seems to suit me,” she says. Her first career was as an academic. Now she a food writer and journalist (also writing on subjects including history, biography and film). She is chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a wonderfully eccentric gathering of food obsessives which meets over epic feasts during a weekend in July. She has written five books on food-related topics. Her latest, and most personal, is First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Fourth Estate). It’s about the psychology of eating and how someone can learn different food habits at any age.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

Ten years ago, my sister spent a year working in Rome and in the spring, I took my oldest son, then seven, to visit her. We didn’t eat a bad meal the whole week, but the one that stands out was at a restaurant in the Jewish district where we ate deep-fried artichokes. They were so golden, so crisp, like platefuls of joy. My son, who is the adventurous eater in our family, tasted his first dish of pasta and clams, but mostly I just remember sitting there with my sister, sharing wine and bread and artichokes. As teenagers, my sister and I both ate in disordered ways and mealtimes were not always fun occasions. There was something magical and healing about being in the crisp cold air of Rome and sharing this fatty golden food together.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

Almost all of my cookbooks are food-spattered (I am a messy cook). The real test of affection for me is a cookbook that is not only besmeared in various ingredients but has lost its cover and spine through over-use. The most abused – and therefore loved – book in my kitchen is How to Eat by Nigella Lawson.

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

Fish cooked in honey.

Almost all of my cookbooks are food-spattered. The real test of affection for me is a cookbook that is not only besmeared in various ingredients but has lost its cover and spine through over-use

Describe your perfect breakfast.

I’m lucky. My perfect breakfast is the one I eat almost every day. Coffee, always coffee (made in an Aeropress, black). Two slices of sourdough toast. Unsalted butter, which must not melt away. On the final half-slice, I might have some marmalade. A coffee cup full of whole-milk yoghurt sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and a piece of fruit (ideally a blood orange).

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

All the scenes in The Lunchbox, especially the one where he chops vegetables on the train.

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

Honey & Co on Warren Street in London, which is as good as everyone says. Every meal I’ve eaten there was joyous, from the glorious meze to the famous cheesecake with kadaif pastry. Despite the fact that it’s a tiny room, they make you feel so welcome, as if you are eating in someone’s house. I sometimes have fantasies of winning a lot of money and retiring and in the fantasy, I spend every day eating lunch with friends at Honey and Co[footnote]It’s one of our favourites too: here’s our interview with Itamar & Sarit from 2015 [/footnote].

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

This is far from new, but I love cooking to a couple of Lester Young jazz albums that I have. They put me in a good mood, which is very necessary when I’m attempting to make supper in 20 minutes before getting one of the children to some after school activity or other. I especially love Billie Holiday singing A Sailboat in the Moonlight from 1937.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Butter. I sometimes used to mash so much into my baked potato that it was more butter than potato. I still love butter; but now in slightly smaller amounts.

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

It’s tempting to say “wooden spoon” because few objects are quite so lovable or useful. But I’m also extremely fond of my waffle maker, because I’ve found that there is no simpler way to make a grumpy child smile than to announce waffles for breakfast. And I am a late convert to the pressure cooker, for anything from quick stews to even quicker soup (I would happily eat soup for almost every meal because no food is such a perfect combination of health and pleasure).

What’s your biggest food aversion?

When I was researching First Bite, I found that, according to science, our likes and dislikes are largely a product of exposure, so it ought to be possible to overcome most of our aversions. The theory is that if we are exposed to any food often enough, in a positive way (preferably in minuscule tastes, the size of a pea), we will probably come to love it. Then again, if you tried “exposing” me to the stringy whites of a runny soft boiled egg, even in small amounts, I wouldn’t be very brave.

A photo posted by Jules (@butcherbakerbaby) on

Posted 11th October 2016

In The Gannet Q&A


Photograph: Natasha Runciman

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