Prior to this year’s Andre Simon book Awards, I was sent the latest book ‘The Way We Eat Now‘ by food writer and historian Bee Wilson. This book, the size of a paperback novel, is a sweeping look at the whole contemporary food scene.
I invited her to lunch and graciously she accepted, getting the train to London from Cambridge. It was just after the Christmas and New Year period and I hadn’t been out for days. It was a lunch scratched out from my pantry staples: tins of beans, salted cooking cheese, home-smoked salmon.
Bee is fair-skinned and curly-haired with a lively prettiness that is elevated by intelligence, enthusiasm and curiosity.
At first I showed Bee around my flat, which does of course house Britain’s pioneering supper club/home restaurant/underground restaurant.
She noted the colour-coding scheme of my cookbook collection.
Kerstin: How do you catalogue your food books?
Bee: I put food reference books together, those would be the most important ones.
We sit down at the table to eat. I describe the dishes.
K: This is my home-cured salmon, cold-smoked outside. This is a bean stew made from tinned beans. Soaked dried beans are so much nicer but this is what I had.
B: This is inspiring that you’ve made this with like, no trips to the shops.
K: Yeah, nothing. Do you know what this is? It’s Sardinian crisp bread, pane carasao.
B: It’s so beautiful, the table, the natural light here. I want to get better at food photography.
K: I started out as a photographer, so that’s actually my profession. And then everything else, the writing, the cooking, came afterwards.
I present a tiny citrus. This is my one and only bergamot that I grew.
B: It’s beautiful. I once had them at Ivan Day’s house, the history guy.
K: I heard him talk at a Guild of Food Writers event and I think he’s amazing. I went up to him after and said ‘I love you’. He looked a bit taken aback.
B: He has that effect on people. He can convey so much in just one sentence. I went on his courses before I wrote ‘Consider the fork’. He had these multiple customers that just kept coming back, a whole way of life for them. I don’t think he does them anymore.
K: He was the inspiration for Bompas and Parr…
B: Heston too, I think he himself would say he couldn’t have done it without Ivan saying this is the proper way to do it. Ivan is so equipment driven. Mind you, looking around here… look at all this equipment.
K: I’m quite equipment driven.
B: I can see.
K: Gazing around my cluttered kitchen and dining room. Seriously I need to start a prop shop. Everywhere I go, I buy kitchenalia. I’ve made these – ma’amoul biscuits – from these wooden moulds that you get in Israel. I’ve had the moulds for five years and didn’t do anything with them. And finally, I just made myself make the biscuits.
B: I’ve see this recipe in a Honey and Co book. I absolutely love their books. Their first book I cooked out of continuously…
K: I’ve heard that their books are very doable.
B: Very, very doable… I feel they are, on the subject of this book, doing the best of the way that we eating now, in that everything is so flavour-packed, and herb-driven, it’s healthy but it’s not really about being healthy.
K: This pink salt here. I picked this up myself from the salt flats of Provence. I think Israeli cooks are very salad-driven.
B: Exactly. They talk about vegetables as their comfort food.
K: I’m obsessed with vegetables. I love vegetables.
B: So do I. But they didn’t used to be my comfort food. For Honey and Co., growing up in Israel, it was a completely natural thing and of course, it was what you craved, especially with the hot weather.
K: They have salad for breakfast.
B: Which is a good idea, isn’t it?
K: I love things like that for breakfast. I like a savoury breakfast, hence Marmite. I don’t really do jam or sweet things in the morning.
B: I’ve almost moved away from jam. I have these nostalgic moments when I go back. It is almost more of an afternoon thing.
K: Italy, Portugal, they all eat sweet things in the morning
B: Spain has tomato toast.
K: Sometimes but I’ve just done the Camino pilgrimage and in Galicia, at least, they seem to have sweet cakes for breakfast
B: The Spanish and Italian croissants are so sweet, full of jam…
K: You know it’s so nice and rare to have someone to discuss food with…
B: I know! Same with me. I do a bit with my husband and the children have started to get into it. My daughter likes baking. My youngest one has suddenly got into knives, which is something I’m going to really encourage. He keeps asking questions about knives.
K: How old is he?
B: He’s 10. So we’ve just begun talking about basic knife skills and you suddenly realise how exciting it is to learn about the different kinds of knives and to realise this power – that this one does something and that knife is used for another purpose.
And like everything to do with cooking it’s just visceral. Obviously with knives, there is also that slight sense of danger.
K: I think a 10 year old will feel quite empowered by someone trusting him with a knife. Have you been to Blenheim Forge? I went there and did a piece on them. They’re making all different kinds of knives in a railway arch in Peckham, it’s a really cool place to visit.
B: Tim Hayward has written about that. I think there was a piece where he made a knife.
K: You could go down there with him to the workshop. Have a look what they’re doing.
B: This is all delicious by the way.
I’m going to try and write a book about cooking, partly because I feel this kind of thing, that people like myself, struggle to do, where you think I’ve got nothing in the house, I have to go out and do shopping. You just proved you didn’t need to go out and get anything.
B: You just needed the knowledge in your head and somehow a spark.
B: Where is it from?
K: From Greece. It’s from sheep milk. I just literally just shoved it on top of the bean dish and put it in the oven. All I’ve got to cook on is an Aga. I haven’t got anything else. So everything, my supper club, everything is cooked on an Aga.
B: That kind of limits you, but then being limited sometimes gives you an expanded vision.
K: I think so. Your book says that.
B: I’ve been saying that over and over again. But I didn’t quite realize that until I began researching it, writing about it, thinking what the arguments are, and it seems so clear to me that option paralysis is a huge problem.
K: I think that about privatization. I don’t wanna be searching every month for the best deal. You don’t want to be choosing different gas companies. You want one that is a fair rate.
B: We want: this is the price and we’ll deliver and it won’t get cut off.
You don’t want to be offered five bad versions of something. And then a good version that’s called Taste The Difference. And there may be another good version that’s like an orange pepper rather than a red pepper.
K: I’ve got this wonderful shop down road called Where 2 Save – the ‘to’ is a 2. And it’s just the most fantastic corner shop. It’s small but absolutely crammed. In your book, you talk about how many products are in supermarkets – how the first supermarket stocked around 200 products, and now it’s 40 to 50,000 products.
So I talked to the shopkeeper of Where 2 Save, I’ve written about him as well. I asked: ‘What’s your technique?’ because they have so much different stuff and he said ‘I think about what the supermarkets don’t carry. I do a few basics, tinned tomatoes, all those things, but also, I’ve got lots of say, vegan cheese. He was doing vegan cheese and all that stuff before the supermarkets.
Tesco, up the road in Brent Cross, I think they’re changing because most people are doing their basic shopping online. Now they’ve got loads more different products. It’s a very multicultural area so they are stocking a huge variety of products for different ethnicities and different diets. In a way they’re slightly encroaching upon what he’s doing.
B: In Cambridge I live near a street called Mill Road and there are fantastic Asian grocers like a Korean supermarket, a Middle Eastern supermarket, Chinese and then suddenly the local Tesco Express has miso and five different kinds of soy sauce and you think, okay, we see what you’re doing. And there is a little craft beer shop, and now Tesco stock 20 IPAs. The big supermarkets are trying to steal their business too. But still the basic choice in that Tesco compared to any of these other shops is so bad. Somehow I feel like we’re just sort of almost enslaved to these shops.
K: If you live in a place like London, there are little shops like that, then you do have the choice and it’s cheaper, half the time. All we have at this end of Kilburn is Tesco Metro or Sainsburys Local and I’m sure they add 20% to the prices.
B: I’m sure they do compared to a big Tesco. The cliché that everyone says about herbs is completely true. At this place called Mill Road International supermarket, you can get a huge bunch of dill for a pound…
K: …rather than a plastic packet for 85p for a few strands! I do think having a good pantry is very important.
B: Looking at her phone. Ah I’ve just heard from the illustrator who is working with us at TastEd (an educational foundation which goes into schools and teaches children about vegetables and fruit). Aren’t these pop-up illustrations of sweet corn and broccoli, wonderful?
B: The illustrator and TastEd should be taking her illustrations and selling prints of them.
K: How about some kind of pop-up vegetable book?
B: I keep wondering about a children’s vegetable book…
K: Something that kids can play with or pop out of the book or actually make their own origami, or paper engineering, fruit and veg.
B: It’d be fun. Yeah, if I think back to when my kids were little, I totally would have bought a book like that, wouldn’t you?
K: Totally, or as a gift.
B: I do these cookbook roundups. After I’ve done them, I get these spirals of regret. My husband (laughs) always refers to my ‘spirals of regret’. I get the same in restaurants when I’ve ordered the wrong thing. Because you never really know about a cookbook until a year later.
K: Absolutely. I do cookbook reviews as well. I’m also do it for Ham and High newspapers yearly roundup. But sometimes publishers won’t send me books. I couldn’t get hold of Nigel Slater’s books, asked several times. Which is quite annoying as I will actually write about it. I don’t understand. But you know, I don’t have enough money to buy all the books.
B: Well, none of us does. I have these moments that when I buy a cookbook, I think, wow, I must really use it. If I’m doing a cookbook roundup for the Guardian or the Sunday Times, once publishers hear that, they’ll send you anything because it’s the newspaper and its coverage. You really have to strongly about something to buy it, because it’s a lot of money.
K: I will buy if it’s a very small author with a very small publisher. So a couple of years ago, there’s a book on liquorice that I bought, and that was a really good book. There’s a book by Di Murrell who wrote Barges and Bread. I bought her book. She came to the Oxford Food Symposium. Do you know who I mean?
B: Yes, a very interesting book. That’s why the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Awards is great, more pairs of eyes on books, you aren’t on your own. By the way, I’ve enjoyed your interviews with André Simon authors, like the interview with Yemisi Aribisala.
K: Yes we were talking about the slimeyness (mucilage) of African food and how that’s so popular.
B: I remember you expanding on that in the end. It just came across as a good natural conversation.
K: In V is for Vegan I talked about leaf cookery. I’d like to do a tree cookbook and all the things you can do with different elements of trees like the bark for cinnamon, from maple syrup to maple water.
B: When I talk to the kids, they’ve got no idea cinnamon comes from a tree.
K: I didn’t either. I thought perhaps that it’s got little fruit – maybe little coils?
B: Exactly. Carrots was almost my favourite one, when I was teaching the reception class and the reception teacher was saying: ‘How do you think carrots grow?’ They all thought the carrot was just sort of balancing on top of the soil.
And then she did this magical thing, like all good teachers, they can straight away see the problem and explain things. She was holding up a piece of paper to represent the soil and she had this organic leafy carrot and then she just lowered it. They’ll never forget that because now they know the carrots grow under the ground, but then they don’t know it because they’ve they’ve never seen it. Even if you haven’t seen it, it shows a quite profound disconnect. What is this thing and of course, you probably don’t want to put it in your mouth because it’s a bit weird and it’s been growing balancing on top of the soil?
K: For my carrot book, I spent a year travelling around interviewing farmers. In your book you say there are no small mixed farms anymore. Now farmers are all monocultural.
B: It’s the business model. It’s structural and it’s economic. We idealize those small mixed farms and we might think that it’s a good idea and a good way to do things but as a farmer that might not make any economic sense for you and your family.
K: All of the farmers that I interviewed said “my ambition is to have my own farm. But unless I win the lottery, it’s impossible. Because you know, a combine harvester is £750,000.” You literally have to be a multi-millionaire.
B: Really sad, isn’t it? I mean, a huge part of what’s wrong is the way that we undervalue farmers. We don’t see how much food enables us.
K: They are the backbone of the country. It’s quite a hard life, very few holidays and getting up crack of dawn every day. The ones up in Scotland, they get depressed in the winter. (I give Bee a copy of my carrot book).
B: You could show that to children because we do lessons on the many colours of carrots.
K: The carrot smoked salmon was one the most interesting things I did. So I did a supper club and we invited some of the farmers as well. They loved it, it blew their minds. Last year I did South African apples and pears, Spanish persimmons. I love taking one ingredient and just pushing it.
B: I’ve just bought two American cookbooks, that Alison Roman one and one by Carla Lalli Music. One of them has a salad I keep staring at, with persimmon shavings. It looks really beautiful with a muted colour scheme. And I suddenly realised I’d never seen somebody using persimmons in a salad.
K: They are difficult texturally when you cook them because there can be wooliness. These are all from Valencia and I like to visit the farmers and find out what dishes they do locally with it.
B: This reminds me of that Netflix show about Dan Barber…
K: I got Dan Barber’s book ‘The Third Plate’ but I couldn’t get past the first chapter.
B; I love him. Watch the Netflix show because I think you’ll see you are very kindred spirits. There is this moment when he describes how he became a farm to fork restaurant having grown up on a farm and inherited the family farm. There’s a sad part of the story where his mom died when he was quite young and it sounds like his dad was a difficult person. He and his brother decided to set up this restaurant together in New York City, but one day they’d made a mistake on the ordering, it was spring, and he opened the fridge and there was nothing in the fridge but asparagus. What do I do? Oh, well, I guess I’m gonna have to put asparagus in every single course. So he did a meal of asparagus. And by pure chance that night, the food critic Jonathan Gold walked in and reviewed the restaurant and gave him a positive review. And it changed his whole thinking.
K: Did he use it for dessert?
B: I don’t know (laughs)
B: I feel like he did do at least five different things with it. It’s so old-fashioned to think because we’ve already put this in this course, we can’t use it in another course. Whereas to be thinking seasonally… I wouldn’t like asparagus dessert. I don’t think so but well, you never know.
K: So that’s the sort of thing I would do. I spend months testing all these different recipes and some are more successful than others.
B: This makes me feel very positive. You think nobody’s been feeling free enough about food to experiment in this way. In previous generations people felt that good cooking was Cordon Bleu French cooking. You had to adhere to those rules. I remember having a conversation in Italy with somebody that I was going to write about in the book and it never went in, about how his grandmother ran a trattoria. They felt they had to cling to tradition. They were ignoring all of these more important things about farming and sustainability. They had a certain view that this meat dish had to go with this green vegetable. But what if there were another green vegetable in the market that would be better? But they couldn’t do that because it wasn’t on the trattoria menu.
K: The reason I got the idea for my supper club, this is now my 10 year anniversary, is I heard on the radio, Woman’s Hour, about these supper clubs in Bologna. I went to one and the cooking was so dull. She only had four people and she cooked the same thing every time. She’s been doing it for five years but she just cooked the same thing. So there’s no creativity here…
B: Bound by tradition. Yes.
K: And it can be a good thing. Like Pasta Grannies.
B: The person I respect most, other than Dan Barber, she’s my hero, is Claudia Roden. She’s amazing for seeing that the recipe is a form of personal memoir. She’s producing a memorial for these communities who have been forced to flee home. And what you carry with you is your recipe. So it’s very important. It’s from home.
K: I think Caroline Eden is carrying that on in her work.
B: Yes, she is carrying that on.. So Claudia Roden was actually documenting these ingredients in this place, in this community. I think there’s a magic in that. Claudia’s books where she’ll give you sort of 10 different versions of a stuffed pepper or a stuffed courgette. You don’t need 10 different versions, but it’s just really interesting to know that some cooks add cinnamon and others do not. I interviewed her when she was made Observer Food Monthly person of the year.
I was asking how she cooked now and finally she allows herself to be free to experiment. For so long she felt this kind of duty that she had to protect this stuff because, at the time she came to Britain and then her parents followed, people were incredibly prejudiced and rude about Middle Eastern food. People described their food as ‘stinking’, it’s a kind of racism, isn’t it?
She said that if her father were alive today to see hummus in every British shop, he just wouldn’t know what to think, he wouldn’t believe it. They used to go to one little shop in Camden to get their ingredients. There was a man that made his own filo pastry and they would go there. And obviously if they wanted hummus, then you make it yourself. And obviously it would be much, much better than the tub of Sainsbury’s hummus that you can buy in every high street but still, all that change in a generation. I think that’s one of the positive things that she felt she had to protect this cuisine and show it was part of a civilization that was beautiful and wasn’t coming from people who smelled bad or whatever British people might think.
K: I do think the British are very good like that, we’re very open to things. I lived in France for a long time. And I compare our food to fashion: French fashion is very elegant, but very boring a lot of the time. We are a bit vulgar, but we’ll have a go at anything. There’s a sense of humour. We have street fashion and then they have all these couture designers in France. When I was living in France, I also ended up dressing really boringly. In Paris, I was wearing supermarket Chanel from Prisunic.
B: Yes they have this limited repertoire.
K: We are a creative people.
B: I think food can change here quicker than it can change elsewhere. Because we do adopt new things with such enthusiasm.
K: We’re quite open minded because we are a seafaring nation and we would welcome any new influence and say, well, let’s have a go at that.
B: I think the downside is we don’t have a bedrock. When I spent time in Spain, which I feel has an amazing food culture. They know how a tortilla should be and they know how pan con tomate should be. They know what a good ham is, as opposed to a not so good ham. This is sort of repertoire you fall back on…
K: And they’re closer to their agricultural past, as they are in France.
B: They are closer to the rhythms of life. The fact that they still have a lunch break is a huge thing, which we really don’t have here.
K: But what I found when doing the Camino, I walked for nine days and every meal was identical. They only had the same menu and it’s just so hard. I get bored. Like I love Italian food, but two weeks in one town, same cuisine, in the end, you just want a bit of Indian? I can go to my hallway in London and pick up the food leaflets from any country and have it sent here, which is a problem as you say in your book.
B: It is a magical thing. I think things like Deliveroo are definitely a problem as well as a luxury. But I do think that you can just summon something up and it’s in huge amounts of plastic at a point when we’re trying to use less plastic. And it’s not just that you haven’t felt the soil where things were grown and it’s not just that you haven’t cooked it but you’re really so divorced from how it was made. It’s a tricky one because I can’t deny that Deliveroo is an incredible luxury to do every once in a while. But once you’ve discovered it, why would you do it once in a while? It becomes ubiquitous so quickly.
K: Let me ask you some questions, interview type questions. I’ve made quite a lot of notes about your book. And first I want to say, it’s an incredible piece of work.
B: Thank you.
K: I mean, there’s so much work in this.
B: Yes, there is.
K: You basically wrote the Encylopaedia Britannica?
B: Well, I did write an encyclopaedia and I guess it was probably the hardest to write because I suddenly thought, oh, I’ve just taken on the subject of food which is rather large subject. And it covers the gamut.
K: You nail every single trend.
B: Thank you.
K: The only two trends you’ve missed are supper clubs and street food.
B: I do mention street food but very, very briefly, in the chapter about the snack. And I did research it. Some people did some really interesting research on changing street food in Thailand and the communities of street food sellers. I would have liked to have done that too. But I didn’t.
K: Well, you’ve done so much. It was just like, wow, I couldn’t believe it. It’s very dense research. It’s almost academic, but it’s easy to read.
B: Thank you. That’s what I aim for.
K:. So I know your dad is A N. Wilson, he’s a historian and journalist…
B: … and biographer
K: I’ve been quite interested in what he’s been writing about Meghan and Harry. Basically, all my opinions nowadays seem to be against what everybody on Twitter thinks, but I think she’s behaved quite badly.
B: I haven’t talked to my dad about this yet. I’m a passionate Meghan fan. I was in China with my oldest son, he was doing a gap year and we suddenly realised it’s the Royal Wedding today. We sat down together and watched it. And that moment when it was Stand By Me, we were both kind of slightly tearful.
K: I was very excited about all of that. I was very excited about her. I thought this is great and watched the wedding. And then bit by bit, there was things that made me feel differently.
B: I’m no expert on Meghan and Harry, I don’t know that none of us. But my feeling is they’re free people. And this is maybe is a little bit the theme with where we’re at now. Society has changed so fast. And we’re not hide-bound by rules and duty so the idea that the grandson of the Queen can’t just go off and do his own thing.
K: I think that would have been fine. But the way they’ve done it. I lost some followers on Twitter because I’m a Lexiteer, a left-wing Brexiteer, which nobody ever hears about.
B: So my husband, David, does this podcast Talking Politics. And he does it with a colleague Helen Thompson, who was a left-wing brexiteer and she didn’t actually come out and say she was a brexiteer until quite recently, so I know how you’re feeling.
K: I lost 4000 followers. Loads of people in the food world have blocked me.
B: That’s sad, isn’t it? I’m passionately Remain as you probably could guess as well. But I do feel we live in these silos and these bubbles and unless you continue to communicate with other people you will never learn anything.
K: I mean, I’ve never disliked someone because they were Remain. It would never occur to me, they are totally entitled to their opinion. I happen to have a different opinion.
B: This is one of the things I don’t like even though I’ve always voted for left-wing parties of one kind or another. That intolerance on the left.
K: My daughter is editor of Labour List. She’s on TV all the time. So we’re a left-wing household. I knew Labour would just get trashed in the election. I knew it because what they did to Labour Leave constituencies which was to just completely ignore them. So yes, I have a set of apparently terrible opinions.
B: You are allowed to think what you like! It is a free country.
K: It doesn’t appear that way on Twitter.
B: Yes. And it’s a bit like that with food as well. Do you find there are some unsayable things…
K: I can barely tweet now. It’s become a little bullying playground.
B: There is a lot of bullying.
K: It’s all mean girls.
B: There’s obviously people that have an agenda. The kind of people who have a meat agenda and people who have a carbohydrates industry agenda. And that gets quite unpleasant. There’s a whole group of voices on there of people who are quite vehemently pro-meat. And I’m an omnivore. Look, my sister’s vegetarian. So all my life I’ve wondered, why am I not vegetarian when she is? I can’t fully justify it to myself except on greed.
K: Could be a blood group thing?
B: It could be blood group. I can’t remember what my blood group is. I do think that all of Tim Spector’s stuff about personalized microbiomes, how fat is the next big thing…
K : I did an interview with him and I did a supper club with him with 100 ingredients. I also had one of his poo tests, which cost me £200
B: Goodness. And did you discover things?
K: Apparently, even though I cook from scratch? I’ve got one of the worst microbiomes in the country. Bottom 25% (!)
B: And yet you eat hundreds of vegetables. How can you have a bad microbiome? Did it tell you what to eat?
K: No, it said there are traces of garlic and onion, you can see that she’s been eating that. And I’m thinking I literally eat them every day. At the time I was eating kefir every day. I mean, I don’t know! But I have a weight problem. It’s quite difficult ever since puberty to keep my weight down.
B: And it would be really nice to be told. If you eat this, you’re more likely to gain weight than if you eat that. I would like to know those things. I’m someone who, from time to time, even though I’m could totally go vegetarian/pescetarian. I would totally happily eat this lunch almost every day. And then there are these moments where I totally crave meat. But I don’t know if that’s just culturally driven. I’ve just grown up on it. And then you feel different afterwards. It just says eating is still for all of these things that we’ve learnt, a great mystery for most of us.
K: I think his work’s very interesting. There’s other people doing the same sort of work, in Israel and in the States. In the book you were talking about blood tests, which I found really interesting, so that people could do a blood test and work out what’s going on. And eventually, I suppose we’ll get to that point and then we will know what the problem is. As someone who’s officially obese but eats a super healthy diet, I get really upset. When I go to the doctors, they talk down to me.
B: It is upsetting. We have not figured out any kind of way of talking about this collectively. Or any kind of talking about the fact that well, this is normal. It is normal weight. You are normal weight.
K: Over 30 BMI, you’re obese. My BMI is 31.
B: Okay. Well, that’s still two thirds of the population, you’re fitting into the bracket of two thirds of the population, at the lower end of obesity. And yet, we still somehow demonizing this, and the assumptions, which you completely buck, this does drive me mad. This was one of the reasons I set out to write the book. I want to make this point over and over again. That when you see these newspaper articles about the “obesity crisis” it’s always accompanied either by this horrible, dehumanizing, headless body. As I write in the book, there is the Rudd Center (which researches weight bias and obesity) that’s produced nice photos of obese people.
K: I must check that out.
B: It should not feel so radical to see someone with obesity. You never see pictures of (obese) people just buying a lettuce. Why is that? In everyday life, most of us are overweight or obese. But we’re seeing either that photograph, the horrible headless photograph, which is like saying you’re not a person, or there’s photographs of really bulging unappetizing and unpleasant burgers that have six layers and a portion of chips that’s bigger than anyone would even if they were really splurging at MacDonald’s on a Saturday night. And if you are that size, it’s as if you don’t deserve a name or a face. The sheer levels of judgment…
K: Unbelievable. If you look at any article about diabetes and look at the comments below. People are so vile.
B: People are horrible, and it’s being fuelled often by the medical profession. I was shocked recently. This is slightly off topic, but one of the things I’m grappling with at the moment, aside from work and so on, my mom has dementia. And her coping strategy was drink which I’ve since heard is a very common response.
K: Aren’t they saying dementia, no it’s Alzheimers, is Diabetes Three?
B: Yes, they’re calling it Diabetes Three. She’s got some non-specific kind of Alzheimers. It’s a horrible condition that you just feel for the person with it.
K: Because I’m wondering, the booze is sugar?
B: I’ve since heard and several specialists have told me, not everyone reacts in the same way. Some people react in a completely different way. But it’s quite a common response, when you’re in the declining phases, to take to drink. And just because it kind of blocks the horror of it out…
K: and you’re self medicating…
B: And you’re self medicating. Exactly. You’re making yourself feel a bit braver and bolder like you do to go to a party. When I see her, she’s such an articulate person struggling to get the words out. And alcohol is that Dutch courage thing, isn’t it? So she was drinking very, very heavily although she’s now in a care home. She’s not that old. She’s about 79. Probably the earliest signs of it came on about five years ago, but she’s had it kind of badly for the last two years. But I took her to the GP because I was very worried about the drinking and I just wanted to know what were the risks? The doctor turned to her as if she was just any other person and said: ‘please learn to be more responsible. I advise that you have two drinks a week.’
And to say this to someone who’s drinking for breakfast because they don’t know it’s morning. What it made me think of was the way that so many doctors speak to people about food. (Adopts patronising voice), ‘Have you heard that there are these healthy things you could eat, more fruits and vegetables? And have you considered just eating one biscuit today? Or have you considered cutting down on this or that”
It doesn’t in any way reflect the realities of that person’s life or what might be driving them to eat? Or whether they are in fact eating manically differently? All this stems back to people like Tim Spector’s work. I thought the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme was so interesting where Dan Saladino discovered that something that pasta would make him gain weight, but maybe rice wouldn’t.
So if we could all know if we could have that level of information about our own bodies, we might all eat very differently, but also the thing that the doctors don’t recognise and the media doesn’t recognise is that you’re up against it. You’re eating in a world that is pushing food upon you every single day and is normalising huge portions. And it’s not about eating some huge junk food thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It might just be about eating a delicious home-cooked meal but a bit more of it because we’ve all lost track of what a portion is.
K: There’s lot of food shaming, a lot of fat shaming going on.
B: The idea that thinness is to be prized at all costs. And this association between food and thinness as if all people are not deserving delicious flavoursome things. This is part of why I set up TastEd because over the years I’ve done food education, particularly in a primary school where my three kids all went. I used to run ‘healthy eating weeks’ and I don’t even like the phrase ‘healthy eating’ because all eating should be, feasting at some times of the year, but everything in moderation. I mean to never have a piece of birthday cake in your life…
K: In the book it seemed to me that basically you have three rules:
Eat greens, drink water and have a bit of cake every so often.
B: Yes. Or whatever your equivalent of a piece of cake, because I do know people never want a bit of cake but would want sometimes to have five wedges of cheese. Have a splurge. Have whatever that thing that makes your head spin with pleasure, and you are a child again. You’ve got to give yourself a bit of that in life because – life is short.
Food is pleasure and food brings people together and it and we obsess so much about the food that would make us a size 10 rather than a size 14. Which is not particularly interesting.
K: It doesn’t help the fact that most TV cooks, the women tend to be very slim or look like models and they’re the only ones that are cooking now.
B: We are bombarded with adverts in which you see an image of Audrey Hepburn eating a family-size Galaxy bar. I mean, there’s this complete mismatch.
K: You mentioned in the book the ‘mukbang’ YouTube videos? (Where people overeat in front of the camera).
B: Yes, in Korea and Japan. There is a big discussion on them which is that clearly the secret of it is bulimia which makes it very, very upsetting. If you are a size six, model-type looking person, and you consume 10,000 calories very, very quickly. What happens?
K: So you think off-camera, off the video – they’re throwing up?
B: I’ve read people saying this.
K: I wonder if they have bad teeth because of it.
B: I haven’t looked and I can’t say but it seems plausible, doesn’t it? It’s definitely promoting binge-eating behaviour. One of the the big unspoken things that we don’t talk about, is we go on and on about eating disorders, and I do so myself and we always assume that anorexia is the one. And yes, anorexia is horrific. And if you’ve ever seen people go through it, which I have, it’s one step short of suicide. It’s a really harrowing.
K: I had one at the supper club, She brought her own food, just a few carrot sticks in a little Ziploc bag, and can I microwave them? And that was her dinner.
B: It’s so sad. It’s a really profound form of human suffering and for the families going through it. It’s completely dreadful. So I see why we focus on it and it doesn’t have enough support.
However, the number one eating disorder around the world is binge-eating disorder. We don’t talk about that, because that’s associated with obesity, which we somehow think is something that isn’t deserving of sympathy or support. There could be different ways that somebody is living with being overweight. There could be a perfectly emotionally healthy way, where somebody’s cooking and enjoying their food, but just there’s a bit more food than there was for previous generations. And maybe there’s some other element in the food that we haven’t yet identified that is making us gain weight, like emulsifiers? Or ultra-processed food which is heavily implicated in weight gain and 50% of British food is now ultra-processed.
K: That conversation you’ve had on Twitter with James Wong about the micronutrients in the soil now. How much is that affecting things?
B: There is a lot of aggression on Twitter, isn’t there? I think I think it’s sad. I mean, with micronutrients, I’d read a lot of the literature about it some years ago.
K: The way he talked to you!
B: Yes, it’s sad that in these Twitter debates, and you’ve clearly had the same thing from other people, there could be a way of saying: ‘well, I think you haven’t read enough about this. Have you tried reading this?’ And then there’s trying to shut somebody down completely.
K: I don’t even bother to discuss things with him on Twitter because he’s so rude. I saw how he was responding to you and I thought ‘does he know who she is?’ (laughs)
B: I just got an email from the leading expert on this, a guy called Donald Davis, who has emailed me back. Let’s see what he says about macronutrients, because I’m genuinely not interested in having silly arguments, I just want to find out what do we actually know and what can we say with certainty.
K: You are trying to have a public conversation. That is the point of Twitter.
B: So Donald Davis, who is the leading expert on it, says ‘The Marls review‘, which was the one that James Wong kept linking to, ‘is poorly reasoned in places, too long, sometimes unfocused, repetitive, and key points are just opinions without good support. ‘
B: ‘To me, this is a poor quality draft that should not have passed peer review.’ This is useful. This is really interesting. He’s answering in a way that I wanted which is trying to explain what can we what can or cannot say about nutrient declines.
What I’ve learned from reading more of the literature this week, sometimes it’s useful when somebody is arguing with you, because I decided I really want to get this straight in my mind. What we can absolutely say, because of a study on wheat, if you take one isolated crop, since 1843, these archivists have been keeping samples of soil and samples of seeds every single year.
B: So we can absolutely measure the soil and the seeds and do it with a level of scientific accuracy. So James Wong was trying to say was that we can’t say there is decline because people measuring stuff in the 1930s weren’t measuring it with the same accuracy as today. And he has a point that because as always with science, you want to say I’ll be judging like with like.
With Donald Davis, to some extent we are, and he’s clearly going into it more carefully than almost anyone. The Donald Davis study was striking because it was looking at more than 30 American vegetables and it showed really significant drops for some of them, but some of them were for minerals like copper. I don’t actually know what copper does for the human body or how useful it is. But it’s suggestive of something. Something has changed. And what the wheat study showed -there was no change, no change, no change -all the way from the 19th century up to the 1960s which totally fits with The Way We Eat Now and suddenly from the 1960s there is a radical drop in minerals, and it coincides with the adoption of these new breed wheats, the dwarf wheat, which is designed to be high yield. It wasn’t bred for nutrients so it’s not that surprising that it has fewer minerals. Nobody is saying, we shouldn’t eat modern wheat, because we have no choice.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat a modern carrot, just because 1930s carrots may have contained more copper. We don’t have the luxury of traveling back to the 1930s and asking them for their carrots. We can only eat the ones today.
K: We are fitting the crop to the machinery, the industrialization of farming.
B: Yes and the fact that people focus so relentlessly on yield after the second World War, was a good thing because hunger was a massive, massive problem. The threat of whole populations being on the verge of starvation. I totally understand when they did that. Norman Borlaug was a kind of hero to save that many human lives. So many people alive today, wouldn’t be alive without those technologies. Nobody’s going to say we want those people not to be alive.
But what we can say now, knowing what we know, how are we going to reinvent agriculture? To make sure that nutrition is always at the heart of it. It’s very odd that we ever would have thought you could have food in a form that wasn’t particularly nutritious. It’s very hard to think it would ever just be about calories. In a way, it’s a flip side of the obesity debate, isn’t it? People look at obesity and think you just need to have less.
K: They think you’re just weak and gluttonous. Personally, I think it’s all about computers.
The diabetes 2 phenomenon rose up at the same time. All of us have computers since about the year 2000. And social media is about the last 10 years. And it’s got worse and worse and worse, because we’re not doing anything.
B: I think that’s a huge part. If you look at the activity levels, people a few generations back…
K: Well, me! Look at me. Netflix binges. I love it. I’m living in another world.
B: (Laughs) It’s magical and if our grandparents could have done it, they would have done it. They are just normal human beings. I’ve been researching an article on ultra-processed food after the book and I think although that’s a very hard one to wrap your head around because so many foods fit into that category. Once you start to look at the figures, you see that anytime a country goes above a certain percentage of ultra-processed food, obesity levels go up. But I didn’t think you’re eating much processed food.
In The Way We Eat Now, Bee discusses the NOVA categories of food, which stratifies foods by the amount of processing:
Group 1: Unprocessed or natural foods.
Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients such as salt, fat, oil and sugar.
Group 3: Processed foods such as cheeses, bread, tinned food.
Group 4: Ultra-Processed foods such as biscuits, icecream, snacks, instant soups, packaged breads, pizza, margarine, sweets.)
K: No, I cook everything from scratch. Of course, I’ll have the odd bit of chocolate or pack of crisps. So the meal we’ve just eaten – does that form part of Group 2 foods?
B: The Brazilian NOVA researchers would be so happy with you having made that meal. You would just be ticking every box. Peppers, bay leaf, spinach, tomatoes, are group 1. Pasta and the tinned beans are group 3. Olive oil and salt would be group 2. The fish, that’s a brilliant example, as soon as it becomes a homemade thing, it doesn’t fit into one of the categories. So if you’d bought smoked salmon from a shop, that would be group 3. They are very much in favour of simple processes- a piece of cheese or some pickles or unprocessed bread…
K: But because I cured and smoked it myself ?
B: Then it’s a one food with a two food. Carlos Monteiro who invented this process would be very, very pleased with you indeed. He would just think this was an exemplary meal.
Plus we’ve shared it so there’s togetherness with this lovely table, which is very conducive to sharing and pleasure. It’s good inexpensive food. It’s been feeding all of my senses. It’s very, very, very good in Brazilian terms. Just in any terms. It was delicious.
K: Like your dad, you were originally a historian, what made you go into food and write about food?
B: I’ve always been into food; I was a very greedy child.
K: That was very interesting you talking about that in the book. I wanted to ask you about that.
B: I write about it a lot in my last book ‘First Bite’. My sister was anorexic. My parents separated when I was about 14, but I think she’d become a bit anorexic before that. I was always the greedy one in the family and we had a lot of good food books in our kitchen. My mom was a good … Delia Smith, Elizabeth David, kind of cook. I would just sit at the kitchen and read and read Elizabeth David and from a young age I tried to cook and I would make things like goujères. A lot of my cooking just revolved around melted cheese, butter, cheese straws, Gouda. (Laughs). I made a potato pie and it was just so good with cream and tarragon potatoes inside pastry – carbs upon carbs.
So I was the greedy one, my sister became anorexic. And I became a compulsive eater. I got on this kind of dieting cycle, where I would gain weight, I would lose weight. I was yo-yo dieter.
K: I wondered if this was during puberty because I was a seriously skinny kid but at puberty started putting on tons of weight.
B: I do think there’s something about puberty and girls and food and bodies that is a pressure point. I interviewed a lot of experts on anorexia for that book. Anorexia- you need to have the gene to start with, if you’re going to get anorexia. I actually think it’s helpful because people didn’t used to know there was a gene and then they just blamed mums. They just said if you’ve got anorexia, you must have a cold mother.
K: They used to do that with autism.
B: Imagine how awful that is for the mother. It’s hard enough dealing with it. But then to say it’s your fault. The ways in which we beat ourselves up over food. I wish we could just stop that.
K: So did you get fat? How fat were you?
B: People ask me that. I would say my biggest would have been about size 18. But there’s a certain point where you’re just buying size large and hoping for the best and not actually wanting to know what size you are.
B: And I was so self-conscious about my size and I had big frizzy hair. I was kind of bullied about it a lot. I decided to go to boarding school age 16 which was another very bad decision. And so I went to boarding school for two years which coincided with a lot of name-calling and shouting and horrible stuff.
K: Was it a girls’ school?
B: No, it was it mixed. A lot of it was from the boys- horrible, horrible stuff. And then slowly in my early 20s this horrible voice inside my head which was always talking to me about food, switched off. I became kinder to myself. And my tastes changed.
K: Why? What was the switch? What happened? Because you are very slim now.
B: It was an external person talking to me in a kind way about food, but it was the internal voices I had to switch off. And I fell in love.
K: I think that helps. Whenever I fall in love, I DROP weight. But after about six months or so, you get bored so I start putting it all back on again.
So basically, you felt beautiful?
B:Yes, maybe. He has a whole different way of talking about food. We’ve been married a long time so sometimes I’ll ask him what you do want for dinner? And sometimes he’ll say I don’t really care what I eat.
B: (laughs) Just like you said at the beginning, it’s nice to talk to someone that really cares.
K: It’s like Charles Saatchi not allowing Nigella to cook for him.
B: It’s not that bad as that, he does appreciate it. If I was sharing meal with him, he would use these words that I never allowed myself to use anymore. He’ll say, I won’t have any more because that would be a bit greedy. Now I think that word greedy has mixed connotations. But for him, it was like he had this natural stop point. It’s all this kind of Susie Orbach stuff really. In my overeating days, I had just switched off my own sense of what my body needed. Because you don’t allow yourself to feel hunger do you? I felt hungry a lot of the time. Inside you are thinking: ‘that’s bad, that’s bad, that’s bad- I mustn’t eat. Food is bad. I don’t deserve food.’
K: It’s being disassociated from your body. Living from the neck up.
B: Exactly. It’s bringing back that horrible thing of the torso again. It also ties back to the thing I’m doing with TastEd. These children have never used their senses when eating. Their parents are buying food under plastic, buying online. The head teacher I work with, Jason, told me: ‘if you ask kids, where does food come from?’ (and this is in Lincolnshire, which has a heavy farming community) ‘They used to say from Tesco and now they say from mummy’s iPad.’
K: Wow. So mum will never go shopping with the kids or go to an outdoor market?
B: I kind of understand that. I’ve got three kids who are super spaced out in age. The oldest one is now 20 but I remember pushing him about a supermarket and then you’d have a tantrum after about 10 minutes and then the rest of the trip would just be a maelstrom where you think: I don’t know what I want to buy, I just want this small person, that I love, to stop making a scene. So I get it, it’s simpler to go online, but the downside is you don’t get that education about food.
K: You don’t SEE things. That’s part of why we’re narrowing in terms of what we eat, in some ways. Because it’s like books, if you know the author and you’ve heard of the book, then you know what to look for on Amazon. Whereas if we can browse in a bookshop, we discover new books.
B: Exactly. Exactly. It’s that exploratory thing. Where sometimes it’s the thing next to what you thought you wanted.
K: You’ve got your favourites, and it very much focuses towards repeat buying.
B: We buy the food that it suits other people to sell us rather than what it would benefit us to eat. Online shopping is fantastic, I do it a lot. It’s great if you’re just thinking I need to get X amount of kitchen roll and salt and pasta.
K: Your basics.
B: And maybe things for the freezer. That frees you up to use your shopping time.
So I did a PhD in French and Political Thought- nothing to do with food. But from a very early stage while I was doing my PhD, I was already doing food writing. I did my Master’s degree in the States in Political Science. People ask the question when did you get interested in food? I want to say: from the moment I was born.
For one component of this master’s degree, I researched Thomas Jefferson, on early American food: how he brought parmesan to America and had a kitchen garden. I realised that food history was very interesting. So I pitched an idea to the editor at the New Statesman. I got a lucky break, and I did a column for the New Statesman for five years. Then I competed on Masterchef.
K: Oh, did you? You were a contestant?
B: I was a semi-finalist on Masterchef, during the Lloyd Grossman era. It was much less impressive. But now, you’ve got to really know your stuff.
K: I don’t watch it. I loved watching it with Lloyd Grossman though.
B: Got to the semi final and then my tuna steak was a disaster. (Laughs) But it was fun. I come from a very academic background. My mum’s an academic, my sister is an academic. I went to Cambridge.
K: Is Cambridge where your entire family live?
B: No. But I live there now with my husband. I grew up in Oxford.
K: So your dad went to Oxford?
B: He went to Oxford and he now lives in London. There are many, many academics in my family. I vividly remember my favourite bit was just qualifying to get on the show. As an academic you can have imposter syndrome. I always got great marks, but I’d think that the examiner made a mistake. That essay wasn’t really that good. They probably muddled up the score with somebody else’s. I had very low self-esteem at some level and a lack of confidence. When I qualified to get on Masterchef, there was this really lovely young chef, I’ve forgotten his name, who judged it at the regional stage. He just tasted my food and loved it and that’s real. He can’t just pretend.
K: What year were you on?
B: I think it was the same year I got married, which was 1996/7. Long time ago, long, long time ago. For loads of years, I didn’t even mention it much.
K: You were on one of the earliest reality shows!
B: That lovely food writer from Scotland, Sue Lawrence, she was on Masterchef. I’ve really admired her. She became a Sunday Times food writer off the back of it. I really, I really love her writing, actually. When I got married, her baking book was one of the main things I cooked from.
K: So you can cook! You are a good cook.
B: Yes. This next book will be about cooking. I really want to do a book with recipes. I’m in such awe of people like you. I now know the work that goes into a recipe book. Because you start obsessing, if I just take 10 grams less of this? How many times do you test something?
K: I’ve never been provided with a tester which would make it easier.
B: There’s a lot of food. How would we use all the food? That’s a nice problem to have.
K: Your family will eat it.
B: Exactly. They will eat it. I just need to get my 20 year old son who is seven foot tall to come home.
K: Really, seven foot tall?
B: Yes. It comes back to this thing you were saying about how completely lacking in understanding people are with the whole obesity thing. Tallness is another one, people will shout stuff at you in the street every day, every day. You actually get a kind of cackling derision. People are very strange, aren’t they?
Chapter 1 in The Way We Eat Now: The Food Transition.
Stages of Food through history:
Stage 1: Hunter Gatherers.
Stage 2: Agriculture. Cereals. Farming. Settling in one place. Baking.
Stage 3: 1800. Innovation in agriculture. Canning, pickling, drying, preserving. More vegetables. Diet related illnesses such as Beri Beri decrease.
Stage 4: Where we are now. People move to cities. Diet related illnesses increase: Diabetes 2. Homogeneity of diet, same ten foods all over the world. Ultra-processed food. A Global Standard Diet.
Stage 5: The future?
K: In the book, the different stages of food, I wondered what was stage five and I was quite surprised that you were optimistic. I feared it would be like that film Wall E, where everyone is overweight and nobody moves.
B: I have to be optimistic about food. Coming back to this thing of Claudia Roden’s dad finding British people so close-minded about food. When I’m doing talks for this book, at book festivals, I will often ask people in the audience how many of them enjoy kimchi. It’s usually a 60 something crowd and they shoot their hand up: ‘we love kimchi’. I find that incredibly moving. I think the fact that we’re capable of changing our own tastes – that was the theme of ‘First Bite’.
So ‘First Bite’ was looking at myself autobiographically and talking about how I changed my relation with food and I’m really happy I did. I was so miserable when I was in this guilt cycle.
K: The last 4 or 5 years I’ve been writing about travel and food. After reading your book, I really want to visit South Korea. I liked Tim Anderson’s book Tokyo Stories (also an Andre Simon finalist.) I’m going to Japan next week.
B: I love that kind of book and they can be visually so exciting. I haven’t been to Japan but based on interviews with historians of Japanese food, what we think of the Japanese food, is a recent invention. Japanese people combine deliciousness and health and by the standards of wealthy countries, they’ve got really low levels of obesity. They eat a lot of vegetables, they love fish.
They’ve got a wonderful kind of excitement about food and they’ve got theme parks devoted to sushi. How did they get there?
If you go back 100 years, among the countries of Asia, Japan was known for having really disappointing food. They sat in silence at the dinner table. Things like ramen are a mid-20th century invention. There was no pork katsu curry, they didn’t eat spices. And there was a whole series of historical accidents and changes that gave them the culture they have. So many of us hold up Japan as having an ideal combination of things in terms of food.
K: Do you think they are stage five country?
B: I think Japan could be a stage five country but the downside is they actually eat a lot of ultra-processed food. At the beginning of this book, I interviewed Fumiaki Imamura, he was so interesting on Japan. I only included a fraction of the conversation in the book. I asked him: Do you eat a healthy diet yourself? He said: I eat a lot of fish, I eat a lot of vegetables, but I also eat a lot of soy sauce. I asked: do you buy the low salt one? As an epidemiologist, he said, I’ve read all this conflicting stuff on salt.
K: I’ve written quite a lot about salt. Doctor James Nicoloantonio, he’s pro-salt. I’ve read his book and his message is: good salt is good for you.
B: When you talk to epidemiologists, they see the whole pattern across the whole population. It probably comes back to Tim Spector, in that there’s a subsection of the whole population that can’t handle salt very well.
K: Which is apparently about 8%?
B: And if you’re not one of those people then salt is fine.
K: You piss out any excess.
B: But if you’re an epidemiologist, you see that if you could reduce salt across whole populations by X amount, X fewer people would die. That’s quite arresting.
So I asked him: Do you buy the low salt version and he said no, just the normal red Kikkoman soy. He knows that’s not healthy but no human being eats a perfectly healthy diet, and that’s fine. The question is, the title of that section is called ‘where the balance falls’ I wish we just come back to that, stop aiming at perfection.
K: Dr Nicolantonio says the official guidelines on salt are actually impossible. It’s like an eighth of a teaspoon a day.
B: That’s very interesting. Another thing when I’ve been researching salt in the past, there’s a weird thing where almost all chefs in the world season to roughly the same concentration of salt, regardless of cuisine. Was it Raymond Blanc who told me this? I just thought that’s such an eerie and interesting fact.
K: Absolutely. I would say knowing how to cook is knowing how much salt to put in. I think I think it’s fundamental. It’s just this sense.
B: I completely agree. But I do have friends that cook with no salt.
K: And their food is appalling.
B: I got a lovely friend who cooks without salt and actually her food tastes a lot better than you would think. Palates can change but I wouldn’t want to cook without salt.
K: My daughter, when she went to university, none of the students cook with salt. They would do pasta without salt.
B: No that depresses me. My friend that has no salt, she really cooks a lot of Ottolenghi-style dishes without salt. I think some vegetables like celery are so salty naturally, they almost self-season. And I think if you’ve got enough herbs and flavourings…
K: You still have to have salt because to make it taste of itself.
B: My feeling is if you’re making a switch away from ultra-processed food to home-cooked foods, salt is your ally because those food companies are very good at hitting that bliss point.
K: What is the bliss point of salt? What is the percentage?
B: The bliss point is something that was referred to that was a combination of fat and sugar. My favourite kind of mouthfeel. I don’t know what the best point is for salters. Somebody told me that you go into any professional kitchen around the world that there’s a sort of instinctive point that they have a palate that seasons to a certain level and that’s accepted. And this definitely was Raymond Blanc. He told me that sometimes at his restaurant, you have somebody whose palate is too salty. You have to get them to untrain their palate for a week because otherwise they will ruin the food. You don’t want somebody suddenly coming in and it’s too salty. It’s unbearable. But like you say under-salted pasta water, you can never save it can you?
K: I believe very much in cooking with salt. Maybe add a little bit of salt at the end like some Maldon’s almost just for texture. I’m quite obsessed with salt, I’ve got lots of different salts from all over the world.
B: Last year I met two lovely school chefs, who work under lots of guideline pressure, who create interesting flavoured salt. One roasted pumpkin seeds and turn it into pumpkin salt which was delicious and with a deep peanut buttery. Salt is good I agree.
K: What do you think about the sugar-tax and the anti-sugar campaign?
This woman is doing an anti sugar drinks campaign in Parliament. But she’s resorting to aspartame. How do you feel about that?
B: I know who you mean. I know those people. I think the reality is where you try to improve through policy there are unintended consequences. I don’t think the original aim of any of the anti-sugar campaigners was that children in schools should be consuming large amounts of artificially sweetened chocolate spread.
K: I think a little bit of sugar is fine.
B: We come back to those Brazilians, one of the interesting things about Carlos Monteiro who discovered ultra-processed food. When he first came up with the concept of ultra-processed, he was looking at trends in Brazil. And he noticed this paradox, which was that the amount of sugar people were buying was going down, even as obesity was going up.
And so people didn’t have that bag of sugar in the kitchen. And to him the bag of sugar in the kitchen symbolizes cooking. If you’ve got the bag of sugar in the kitchen, you’re in control of it yourself. You’re adding some to a homemade fruit dessert or a delicious Brazilian flan. You’re not making that every day and you’re in control of it. Whereas the Brazilian trend, which we’ve seen all over the world, was a switch from sugar that you can taste and enjoy and dissolve those crystals on your tongue, into sugar that’s hidden and in almost everything from drinks to postage.
K: Aspartame, if I eat a lot of it, I start to blow up. Everything gets swollen.
B: Fumiaki Imamura, who I interviewed, did this very interesting research. He studied the incidence of Type Two Diabetes, with people consuming old-fashioned full-sugar colas with artificially sweetened sodas and fruit juices. And what he found was that the outcome for Type Two Diabetes was as equally bad as the artificial sweeteners, which kind of confirmed my gut instinct.
K: The NHS are encouraging people with Diabetes Two to drink diet coke. They’re doing these Desmond courses and encouraging them.
B: It’s a huge shame because I think 10 years from now, maybe even sooner, a lot of information is probably going to come out. I think the thing with artificial sweeteners, the bigger thing that we need to do is to make water the default drink. That’s unarguable. What’s happening in Amsterdam, which I find inspiring, these are the things they tried to make everyone sign up to:
1) Everyone needs to exercise.
2) Everyone needs sleep. Children are looking at screens so late at night and they’re not sleeping properly. Sleep and metabolism are clearly connected.
3) Everyone needs to drink water as the default drink.
And they had to work so hard to persuade the parents that these sugar-free fruit drinks or non-sugary fruit drinks weren’t healthy. But then after a year, it just became normal. And I think that’s what we need.
K: What I find it quite worrying that my daughter and her friends don’t drink tea, and my daughter was brought up to drink tea. She doesn’t drink it very much, but none of her friends drink tea or coffee. Definitely not tea. They’re all having coke, zero coke, rather than a cup of tea.
B: That’s sad. We are a real tea household and all of my kids drink herb tea as a kind of weird comfort thing. Their mugs are all over the house. The older kids are starting to drink caffeine during the day.
K: By the way, do you want a cup of coffee? I’ve two types: a Honduras one and an Ethiopian one.
B: I would love to have either.
K: Do you have a guilty pleasure? Or a junk food you love?
B: That’s a funny question, isn’t it ? Recently I was doing an event interviewing Ottolenghi and Nigella on stage at the National Theatre. I think somebody else asked Ottolenghi ‘what’s your guilty pleasure? ‘And he always says:’ if it’s guilty, it’s not a pleasure.’ Why would I spoil my own pleasure?
I think I feel the same way. I feel I don’t want to label this as good or bad.
K: So there’s no bad habit that you’d like to kick but can’t?
B: No. I picture myself like in different food settings, like as soon as I go to New York, I suddenly feel: Oh, this is a city where I just become a compulsive eater again, because everything’s so delicious and so exciting, I just want to try it all. Now that I’ve gone far enough away from that nasty voice inside my head telling myself off about food, I find that quite an exhilarating feeling- to want to eat up a whole city. So I don’t feel it. If I lived in New York City all the time, would I just be eating six meals a day. Maybe that would be a good way to live, I don’t know.
K: Have you ever lived anywhere other than England?
B: I lived in Philadelphia for a year and we as a family spend little bits of time, 10 weeks at a time, in Australia. And that’s about it. I did my PhD on French history, so I was in Paris for a bit.
K: Why did you live in Philadelphia?
B: I lived in Philadelphia because I got a scholarship to go on a particular master’s program that was only connected with the University of Pennsylvania. Weirdly my sister has ended up living in Philadelphia. So I go back there a lot. I really like that city. It’s become a really exciting food city.
For instance there is an Israeli chef called Michael Solomonov with a restaurant called Zahav, I’ve never been able to get a table at his restaurant. It’s a Michelin high-end version of Ottolenghi or Honey and Co but the waiting list for the tables is so long.
K: Have you emailed him to say who you are? That can work. I do it sometimes.
B: (laughs) I’ve been thinking about him again this week because he did a really good podcast on The Splendid Table. He has this spin-off place, which I thought was such a brilliant idea for a kind of cheap eats place, it literally just says ‘hummus’. It’s not so much different kinds of hummus but one kind with lots of different toppings. You could have it with lamb topping, carrot topping…
K: Americans like toppings. I visited the Sabras hummus factory in Israel and there are a lot of cultural differences in how we like our hummus. In the UK, we like it quite rustic but in the US they like it smoother, more whipped, and with different toppings. They were saying the poorer the country, the less tahini and the more lemon, they use in their recipes.
B: Would you go to say, Syria to get the lemony one?
K: They were comparing more with the Palestinian version.
B: Interesting. His was whipped, and super super delicious and I felt this is such a great way to live – I just want six kinds of hummus and really good flatbread for lunch.
K: You mentioned Middle Eastern food. What’s your favourite kind of food?
B: I find it really hard to say my one favourite kind of food. At home, like lots of people in Britain, I do cook a lot of that kind of food. And I think Ottolenghi have kind of introduced it. Those of us that had Claudia Roden books already knew about some of these things.
I love Honey and Co. There are certain restaurants I’ve been to where I have this memory thinking, if I could just never work again and earn enough money, I’d like to eat lunch at this place every day. Honey and Co is one of those places.
K: Never been there. I’ve met the couple though. They’re lovely.
What’s your death row meal?
B: It would have a lot of artichokes in it…
K: Squeals with excitement. I’m obsessed. I’ve got an artichoke dress.
B: Have you? Yes. Artichokes are the first thing that comes into my head whenever anyone says that. When I think of artichokes I think of being in Rome. My sister was in Rome for a while, and I just picture going out and visiting her and just saying announcing to her: I’m here for three days. I just want to as many artichokes as I can.
K: and they are so good for you! All those inulins.
B: Italians talk about Inulins and artichokes being very cleansing. But it’s also just that nuttiness and those deep-fried ones that they have in Rome where they open up like a sunflower. To me that is utter joy. So I feel like my death row meal would be something like that…
K: A la Judea?
B: A la Judea but I would also want to have the steamed ones with them.
K: I like the steamed ones and dipping it in the vinaigrette. I like the theatre of it.
B: I like the theatre of it and if it’s a death row meal I’m allowed to have both aren’t I? So I’d like a huge one that is steamed and the small fried ones.
K: Yes so two types of artichokes, that’s your starter, what’s the mains?
B:I do think spaghetti vongole is a massive…
K: We’ve got exactly the same menu!! We are food twins! (Laughs).
B: I just think that’s a massive treat because it’s quite hard to buy decent clams and then you do buy them and you have to get rid of all the grit…
K: Yes it is hard. Vongole veraci.
B: Just a really, really good flavour.
K: Do you like white sauce or red sauce?
K: Correct. (Laughs)
And what for pudding? Dessert?
B: I was just trying to think about this earlier for my upcoming cookbook. This is not unique but I’d pick a gelato, I’d always go for a nut one. I’d always go for like hazelnut or pistachio or walnuts. And it’s so hard to get a good walnut isn’t it, because they are so often a bit rancid?
K: I keep a lot of my nuts in the fridge.
B: I feel like my perfect dessert I have yet to eat. But I ate a hazelnut gelato in Turin that was about as delicious as anything
K: Okay, and on your cheese board? Would you have a cheese board?
B: Oh, I love cheese but I just want cheese as a separate thing. There’s a cheese that I’ve come to like a lot, I associate things with people, don’t you? So this lovely teacher Jason, who I write about in the book, I’m now working with him on TastEd and he’s in Lincolnshire so we often have Lincolnshire Poacher.
But also I love a Vacherin.
K: I love Brillat-Savarin. Even though it’s industrial.
B: Yes, and some industrial cheeses are incredible.
K: Yes. What wine or would there be wine with it?
B: With the cheese I want something like a perfect commice pear or a perfect fruit.
The most delicious wine I’ve ever drunk was there is a super super expensive Californian wine called Au bon climat. I’ve drank a bottle of their red wine, it was Pinot Noir.
Some people are wine people and they have a photographic memory and I’m not one of those people
K: I interviewed Oz Clark last year. The way he talks about wine, he’s got this incredible kind of wine memory..
B: I don’t have that, I’m usually just house white but I love tasting wine. I love wine.
At the Oxford Food Symposium I’ve drunk some good wine, there was a year that they were sponsored by a Turkish wine company called Kayra. I like their wine and they have a rosé, that’s a very, very pale rosé and I haven’t seen that since. I didn’t feel I’m knowledgeable enough about wine to say, this is the one and this is the combination. In our food culture, there’s a point where that kind of matching of food and wine gets a bit obsessive, a bit rarefied.
K: Yes if it’s a nice wine, you can eat anything with it.
B: How lucky we are to be taking it for granted that we can have a lovely meal with wine. And that’s such a change from our grandparent’s generation, when it was such a kind of treat or a special thing. I just remember grownups having a lot of sweet sherry.
K: I have to say my parents have spent all their money in food and travel. It was how I was brought up as a child. When we went to France, everybody got a half bottle of wine with their meal, including the kids, we were allowed to have it.
Another question: future trends?
B: It’s so hard to say what future trends going to be because it’s all – what’s the next avocado toast?
K: Do you want some chocolate salami?
B: (about the chocolate salami) It’s really convincing isn’t it?
People endlessly discuss how we are going to eat insects. It’s a really interesting topic. There is one set of people who’ve addressed it in an interesting way: this guy called Josh Evans, who is part of The Food Lab. He wrote a fantastic book on eating insects.
He points out there 6 billion people on the planet and this is not a trend, this is just how they live. He visits all these places in Africa where people are doing things with crunchy crickets which are effectively like having spaghetti carbonara. It’s just a normal dish to them. It’s just this crunchy bacony thing that goes in some kind of noodle type dish. And so for us to say is it going to be the next trend is a bit ridiculous. Tt’s a bit like when quinoa became a trend when it wasn’t a trend, it was something that was eaten by people in Bolivia as a normal staple.
K: I spent three months in Bolivia 1989 and I never once had quinoa. I stayed in Aymara/Quechua speaking villages where they didn’t speak Spanish, but never had it once.
B: Is it very regionally specific?
K: I don’t know. I was in the jungle. I was on the plain, on the altiplano. I spent three months traveling around.
B: That’s really strange because it has been grown there, people write about it as a peasant food.
K: I know. It’s slightly exaggerated the extent to which, writers like Joanna Blythman says ‘Oh, you’re all so terrible you vegans because you’re eating quinoa and taking it away from the Bolivian peasants.’
B: That’s very, very interesting. I didn’t know. But there is a broader point, which is that the things that we announce as a trend have often just been a way of life for people are eating in this way. Rather than trends I wonder: how can we find a way of living that gives us pleasure and is a bit better for us? I hope that the future trends will be finding a way to square this circle of pleasure and health. It’s going to be quite vegetable-centric. I don’t think that that’s going to go away. I feel that shift away from meat towards vegetables has to happen.
K: I’ve been saying it for years. I remember doing a trends piece with Marina O’loughlin, 10 years ago and I said vegan is the future and everybody was like ‘yeah right’. Personally I’ve written a vegan cookbook yet I think a lot of vegans are a fucking pain in the ass. They are very extreme, a lot of vegans, they’re very intolerant.
B: And it is still a very, very, very small trend in the great scheme of things.
K: I think less meat is definitely the overall long term message.
B: I think less meat is the way and should be the way but I’m not convinced, either personally or culturally by ‘no meat’. Because unless we’re going to do the whole George Monbiot thing and move away completely from farming, there is a place for animals.
K: Is that what he says?
B: Well, I still haven’t seen his program but his thing is that there’s this new technology which is called something like precision fermentation, where in the future a bit like with lab-grown meat there will be a way to manufacture in a kind of vat these very nutritious sort of flowers. He tastes a pancake made from it. That you could take that and it could just be this almost like swallowing a pill perfect formula nutrition kind of fuel.
K: I find that story, in the book, really creepy.
B: I find it depressing.
K: I’d like to try it.
B: It’s worth trying. I did find interesting the extent to a drink could cancel out my hunger like that and I get very hungry for most things.
K: It seems quite a masculine thing.
B: I think it is. I found some data, this is split: the snack bars are bought by women, meal replacements are bought by men.
K: They were doing it at my daughter’s university, a lot of the men who did a lot of time in the gym, and Huel is what they lived on.
B: I signed up to Soylent and I interviewed one of the people. That guy Dan Wang was saying people say Soylent is bad but look at how bad the food culture was that it drove me to it. So I think that’s the voice you’ve got to listen to.
And I’m kind of hoping that the future is more South Korean and more people saying ‘If we are in the middle of a health crisis, let’s stop lecturing people about their own bodies. Let’s equip them to cook, to feed themselves, to feed their children and lets make sure that people do actually have knowledge of and taste for new plants because the future should be greater diversity. I mean it’s crazy that we’re living in a world where six items make up half of all of our calories. That’s just not the right way to live. We’re omnivores.
K: I think Tim Spector said we should be eating 25 to 30 foods a week.
B: He talked about 30 ingredients, but that could include just something like a grind of black pepper, couldn’t it? So it’s mad that what most people eating is simply refined sugar plus refined wheat combined in various ways. My feeling is that once the news properly gets out, about ultra-processed food, in the way that it has in Brazil, that forces you to re-examine the whole food system. And if any, so far Brazil has taken it seriously. Ecuador has taken it seriously. Maybe Peru, I think so meant there might be a cluster of about four South American countries that are saying this is the basis of our dietary guidelines. If you accept that as a starting point, everything about the way you think about food has to change. And it would finally be a challenge to this monolith of the food industry. Because they can’t just say, oh, let’s just reformulate it and add some more vitamins because it’s still ultra-processed and no good. You’ve got to actually, at that point, support people to live and eat in a different way.
After that, there should be lots of things we do with food, such as just paying people a living wage so that they can afford basic ingredients. It’s a scandal that you’ve got working people who can’t afford to feed their families and rely on food banks. Just completely shocking.
K: But part of it the problem with food banks is the lack of fresh food, it’s all tins and dried food.
B: There are exceptions. There’s one in Oxford that gives fresh food. But all of the Trussell Trust ones give out canned meat and canned everything. I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing. But it’s not a long term solution for food for anyone. And it’s not sending out the right messages. It’s again calories, just basic brute calories.
What I hope that the trend is, we have to, as a matter of urgency, see that diets are a question of quality and not just quantity. And that’s across the board, whether we’re dealing with malnutrition in Bangladesh, or whether we’re dealing with child obesity in Britain. So that makes me hopeful.
Like, if we could switch the conversation on to quality, so many different things would change and we’d start be having these delicious conversations about food again, rather than these horrible mean- spirited arguments.
B: Lets move beyond the judgyness.
K: Where do you shop?
B: Oh, that’s a really good question. I religiously get an organic vegetable box from this small company called Cofco, Cambridge Organic food company. And I love them.
K: Do you get organic box guilt? Organic box stress?
B: (laughs) I didn’t know that had a word. There are various problems and I would like to know your range of mushroom recipes because my youngest will not eat mushrooms, although actually is slowly…
K: My daughter never ate mushrooms is now obsessed with them. I have to say when my daughter was small she only ate four things throughout her childhood. When I started the supper club, it completely changed.
B: My ten year old is pretty good now, I wrote about that in ‘First Bite’. Mushrooms are the one I feel guilty about, that ends up a little bit in a slimy mess at the bottom of the salad.
Why don’t we just have mushrooms on toast breakfast every day?
K: Yeah, job done.
B: Mushrooms on toast is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. So that’s the kind of bedrock of our week. I sometimes get Riverford stuff, for meat, or I go to the butcher. Like I’ve mentioned, I’m so lucky because this is Mill Road.
K: So you got lots of ethnic shops there.
B: Lots and lots. There’s one that’s fantastic for herbs or tahini or rice or chickpeas or pomegranate molasses, all those things. I do shop at supermarkets, I still have these moments very, very, very regularly, much more than I would like to admit, where I think, what am I going to give my son for his after-school pre-sports snack?
The youngest one plays sport five days a week. So he urgently needs something after school that’s actually going to fuel him and that’s got protein and carbs in it. And what do you tend to give him Well, I go through phases of giving him sort of couscous salad, bulghur salad, and I feel quite good when I’m doing that. Because I think that’s totally squaring the circle of it, takes no time to cook. I can add little scraps of vegetables or rice and frozen peas, a little bit left-over olive oil. He does get sick of me giving him the same pasta with a banana. He eats a Cavendish banana most days. He eats so many Cavendish bananas, because there’s no other options.
Yesterday, I hadn’t organized it in the morning, I hadn’t made him the nice little tub of bulghur salad. I had been visiting my mum in the care home. I went to Tesco Express, what do I give him that’s not a ham sandwich. All of my knowledge, all of my skills, and I’m in this shop and it doesn’t help.
K: So what did he get in the end?
B: I got him an ultra-processed bagel because that’s all they sell, some cream cheese, a slice of turkey. So he had a cream cheese and turkey bagel. That’s not terrible. It’s pretty privileged.
He loves hummus and carrots but for that particular snack of the day, he’s got to eat it in five minutes flat in the car, and then get his shoes on.
K: And hummus is quite messy.
B: If he had 20 minutes to snack away on the hummus, he’d love it. I feel good about giving him that.
K: I used to get my daughter rice cakes but I don’t know if they’re a good thing. Those polystyrene rice cakes.
B: He hoovers up corn cakes, rice cakes, another staple. Huge bags of cashew nuts even though there are terrible things about the way they’re produced. The people who shell cashew nuts get caustic burns. I wish I didn’t know that.
We don’t know enough about our food and then we do know so much that you think I can’t eat that again.
K: Do you want to try some maca that I grew in my garden. It’s a South American, Central American vegetable, a root. You can use it raw in salads but I tried roasting some yesterday.
B: It’s nice, watery, kind of crunchy sort of radish in texture, but not as pungent.
K: When I go abroad I look for seeds and look for things we can grow. I work with a gardener called Christina Erskine, for seven or eight years now, so what we tend to grow is unusual things. You should get her in, she’s an expert on vegetables.
B: We need to teach children to have open minds about food and to learn to love vegetables. We’re probably going to have to change our tastes radically. We are in an intermediary phase of veganism. The reason it’s had all this stick from Joanna and other people is like people are saying: ‘Oh, well, it’s just an ultra-processed substitute. If we’re just switching from chicken to kind of fake meat…
K: If you’re doing dirty vegan… I agree with that. In my vegan book I did not have one meat replacement.
B: Because you wouldn’t need to. My sister is vegetarian for purely ethical reasons to deal with animal cruelty says I eat those just like anyone else would eat junk food. And I also think that’s a reasonable argument. Dan Barber is so exciting to kind of try and find a version of beetroot that’s going to have mass appeal.
K: I was interested to read about the honey nut squash that he was creating. Have you tasted it?
B: Yes, it’s amazing, more chestnutty and more intense. It was fudgy. And he’s developing more cultivars.
K: What a great idea. In South Africa, I met the technicians that create the apples and the pears of the future. I tasted some amazing apples they’d come up with. As a chef, I’m saying please grow these because I’d love to work with them but they’re not thinking about chefs, they are thinking about farmers and big business.
B: Like Dan Barber says in his own book about the honeynut, the problem is if you grow something condensed in flavour, that’s less water so it weighs less, so the value by the kilo is less, then that’s bad for the supermarkets, bad for the farmers. You need a way beyond the economics as well.
But where it’s something like a Dan Barber honeynut squash, it would have a sort of cachet so you could probably sell it for more and the economics would work.
K: I did suggest to the carrot farmers to start selling your carrots in sand. In France, they have these Dunkerque carrots, literally have them in a box of sand and they cost three times the price.
B: So they become a premium thing. Because we do undervalue carrots, it’s one of those loss leader things.
K: This was about organic carrots, which would cost a pound a packet rather than 50p a packet. So it’s not a lot more. It’s good for you. It’s feeding the countryside. And so they’re trying to persuade people to have organic carrots,
B: They should, for so many reasons. Because we have this organic vegetable box, and my youngest one is picky, but I did lots of taste tests on people when I was promoting that book. We found out he’s probably a super taster.
K: Have you got the supertaster test strips?
B: Yes, I’m not apparently a super taster. I’m a medium taster.
K: We did the test with the strips and all of my family are super tasters which surprised me, I didn’t think I would be.
B: I think he is a super taster because he’s so used to our organic box produce, if I get something like a Sainsbury’s non-organic broccoli, he complains: ‘This is not organic mom I can taste it’. (Laughs)
K: He can tell the difference!
B: We are going to do some work with the Soil Association. But I think it’s a dangerous one because we don’t want to put their mums and dads off vegetables and insist they only eat organic.
K: I had to be very careful to not do that in the carrot book. The message was eat any carrots but if you’ve got little bit extra money, invest in organic.
B: Pick whatever carrot you can afford. But paying a pound as opposed to the 50p…
K: That’s like a little bit of luxury you can afford.
Do you want some books?
B: Oh, yes, please.
K: I’ll give you the whole selection.
B: Oh my word. This is amazing. Thank you
K: Thank you so much Bee. It’s been an absolute pleasure.