Bee Wilson

The food writer, journalist, author and charity campaigner for TastEd discusses festive family rituals, celebrating Christmas as a newly single parent and her first recipe book
Bee Wilson has always written about our emotional intersection with food. PHOTO: © MATT RUSSELL

“Mum? Can you get me a spider for Christmas?” asked my eleven-year-old daughter, sitting up in bed with a copy of Bee Wilson’s new book cracked open across her duveted knees. Over the years I’ve caved to her demands for cats, a dog and chickens, so I launched hard into the case against expanding our menagerie. There would be the cost of a terrarium and heat lamp and she’d have to feed it live crickets and… She was laughing. “No, mum! Not a pet spider! A cooking spider!” You want to cook a…? “Noooooo!” she cackled, passing me the book, “Look!!”

There – on page 132 of The Secret of Cooking – was a photograph of a cobweb of black wire at the end of a long handle: the spooky lovechild of a ladle and a dreamcatcher. Wilson believes a spider (sometimes called a “skimmer”) to be “the most brilliant and essential” of kitchen utensils. It’s mostly used for fishing deep fried food – like tempura prawns – from hot oil, although it works just as well for scooping pasta or boiled eggs from hot water. “Hardly anyone seems to know about it,” writes Wilson, “except for cooks from China and Korea and other Asian countries.”

When I video call Wilson in her cosy Cambridge kitchen, she’s thrilled to hear my daughter has requested a spider. “Yay!” she cheers. “Spiders should be objects of desire. And kitchenware shops here, for some reason, don’t seem to include them in the standard utensil set. There’s an odd conspiracy of silence around spiders. It took me a long time to realise how useful they are. But now I’ve sold one and I feel my job is done!” Where should I get one? “Good question!” she says. “They’re harder to find than you’d think.” She picks up her laptop and shows me the cheap one she bought from her local Chinese supermarket. “Isn’t it beautiful? With that lovely golden wire? I spend more time looking at it than using it, although it’s perfectly functional. I like that it’s quite flat. But it wouldn’t go through the dishwasher so I use this one more…”. She holds up a greyer, more solidly sizeable tool. “This is made by Kuhn Rikon which is quite a fancy brand,” she wrinkles her nose, because she’s not into swanky stuff, “which will go through the dishwasher and I do like the way it’s so ornate. But it cost more than the gold one, so don’t feel you have to…”.

I google the “posh spider” later and order it because my Chinese supermarket has closed down and the more durable Kuhn Rikon version is actually an affordable £5.95. But Wilson’s personal advice to this cash-strapped single mum is just what readers will get from her book. Fans of her long running food columns in both the Sunday Telegraph and FT will know that while Wilson takes an academic approach to her subject, she prioritises the realities of modern life, food ethics and sensory delight over the showy stuff.

“Christmas cooking is the smell and taste of safety and pleasure and love”

The “secret” Wilson reveals at the end of her book is that there is no secret to cooking. At least, nothing anybody needs to feel locked out of. Her book is there to nudge us all back into re-engagement with ourselves and our meals. “I don’t think people are bored of cooking,” she says. “I think they’re bored of the effort it takes to decide what to eat. That’s onerous even before you get onto the shopping, then the tidying and washing up.”

To encourage us to either start from, or go back to, basics and find out what we really like, it opens – to my daughter’s delight – with a chapter on carrots. Carrots, Wilson notes, are one of the few delicious and affordable items left in our supermarkets. She offers ideas for grated salads, stove-top braising and lush baking, inviting readers to customise the recipes to their taste. “The carrot chapter,” she says, “gave me the opportunity to demystify some things.” Like? “Knife skills! I got to write about the technique of roll cutting which sounds tricky but isn’t once you’ve done it a few times.”

Wilson has noticed that even the best cooks become defensive when confronted with the unknown. “I recently had a conversation with a friend that went that way,” she says. “I really love kataifi pastry. We live close to a string of brilliant international shops here in Cambridge and there are a couple of Turkish shops where I can buy it as a convenience item. I use it to make the world’s quickest baklava using a bit of melted butter and sugar with a sprinkle of pistachio nuts. It’s a great easy dessert, or after school snack…”. She sighs, her honey blonde ringlets almost sagging in solidarity. “But when I mentioned this to my friend she became almost angry with me. She said, ‘That’s NOT easy!’ I mean, it is, you just buy it. But I realised that in her kitchen, where she spends much more time making pastry from scratch, this was just something she hadn’t encountered.”

Wilson has always written about our emotional intersections with food. The daughter of writer AN Wilson and his Shakespeare scholar wife Katherine Duncan-Jones, (who died a year ago), little Bee grew up in a home where her parents would ensure everyone had both a coat and a book when heading out to dinner. After her parents’ acrimonious divorce in 1990 she writes that, while her sister became anorexic, she responded to the trauma by “sitting by myself at the kitchen table, bingeing on ice cream and sliced bread… With no one else around, I made food my companion and torturer. Alone in the kitchen I felt two things at once: no amount of food could satisfy my hunger and that any amount of food was more than I deserved.”

When Wilson’s own husband walked out on their marriage in 2020, she realised she needed to recalibrate her relationship with food all over again. She tells me they met when she was just nineteen and a year later he asked her to cook Christmas dinner for his family. Yet when he departed, he said he cared “nothing” for her food. “He left me during lockdown,” she says. “We were on a park bench drinking the first takeaway coffee we’d had in months. But what he said about the food I make was one of the things that hurt the most. Three children, so many years and food becomes so interwoven with it all… I believe that cooking is love. After the kids started spending time with him, I realised I had to show that same love to myself. I had to cook for myself.”

Wilson tells me she’d always planned to write more about solo cookery. Although most recipe books – like travel agents – assume the chef is preparing for two, that doesn’t reflect the status of UK households. The book quotes an old story of the ancient Roman general Lucullus. The military man was famed for his generous hospitality but on a quiet night, when he was dining alone, his chef went to scant trouble. Lucullus was livid. “Dost thou not know,” he bawled at the poor servant, “that tonight Lucullus dines with Lucullus?” Wilson jokes that the man sounds like an idiot. But she notes we could also learn from him to treat ourselves as we do our guests.

Although she’s written many critically-acclaimed food books (including the riveting Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee and the more recent The Way We Eat Now), this is her first recipe book. She puts that down to learning to please herself. “I don’t think I was ready to write this kind of book until I was mother of three of this age [her children are now aged 14-24]. After my husband left I was living, as so many people are, with that empty chair at the table. It can be a gift, learning to reconfigure your table and learning who you are again.”

My own partner left me and our kids – then aged one and four – back in 2014 and demanded to spend every Christmas morning with them. I remember the feeling of their warm little bodies sucked from the front door at 8am as though they’d been snatched into outer space, leaving me in zero gravity. But he has always returned them for lunch and I made a routine that first year which I’ve maintained. Download an Agatha Christie audiobook and spend the whole four hours cooking. I drink some ice-cold champagne and really enjoy my time at the stove. “That’s perfect!” approves Wilson. “You’ve made that work.” She adds: “Do you put much orange in the cranberry sauce? I vary it…”.

After divorce, she learned to use her wedding ring as a tiny pastry cutter

What I love about Wilson’s recipes is the space they leave for you to make your own mark. She has friends who “feel safest” following a recipe “to the inch” and others who want to customise it to their own taste. So her book offers kindly guidance for those taking either approach. “If you want to get it exact, do this…”, but also, “If you prefer something spicier, try this…”.

Wilson knows all too well that Christmas can see our kitchen anxiety peaking. In 2020 she faced her first without her ex-husband. “I felt so wobbly,” says the woman who has since learned to use her wedding ring as a tiny pastry cutter. But she stabilised herself and her children with the Nigella Lawson recipes she’s always loved. Her own book is littered with recommendations from her favourite chefs and she talks devotedly about Nigella – with whom her father once worked.
“I love the way she gives us permission to enjoy our food,” says Wilson. “I love how she talks about getting up early to bake cranberry and orange muffins every Christmas, because she wants that smell baked into her children’s memories.” Wilson laughs. “I mean, I don’t want to get up that early myself, but I do believe in that kind of ritual…”, though “we swap [Nigella’s] semolina for polenta on the roast potatoes.” She has a photo of her daughter holding the potatoes that first Christmas as a single mother, “and they were the crispiest, most golden ever. It was the food, the four of us and a dog walk. My youngest son said that my stuffing is the taste of Christmas and he had four portions. I make it with chestnuts, shallots fried in obscene amounts of butter, bread (which I tear up quite big) and a huge amount of parsley and nutmeg. That is a comfort food to me, because parsley and nutmeg were some of my mother’s big things. Food is all these associations, for all of us.”

As we wind up our call, Wilson notes that although she’s preparing for her children to fly the nest she’s also learning that her cooking has formed part of their roots. “My eldest is 24,” she says. “He’s a social worker, so he sorts out other people’s lives now,” she smiles. “But he still asks if I’m making the fruitcake for Christmas and it reminds me that taste carries the weight of all those years. You might think they don’t notice, that the work is going into a void, but it isn’t. It’s becoming the smell and taste of safety and pleasure and love.”

The perfect Christmas message for every cook across the land. And may you all find a golden spider in your stocking.

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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