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Drop a tiger into a court-bouillon

Bee Wilson: Mesopotamian cookery, 6 October 2005

The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia 
by Jean Bottéro, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan.
Chicago, 134 pp., £16, May 2004, 0 226 06735 1
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... Who was it who invented the first black cakes Or the uncounted poppy-seed? Who mix’d The yellow compounds of delicious sweetmeats? This was one of many questions asked by the poet Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists, a long series of dialogues on food and dining. If Athenaeus, who lived 1800 years ago, couldn’t, how much less equipped are we to answer questions about the way the first cooks cooked? How can we know what people ate in the past? It is hard enough to re-create a meal we had last Tuesday: ingredients are never the same, and we forget how much pepper we added; we can go back to the recipe book, if we used one, but it won’t tell us that we substituted garlic for onions, or that our children picked out all the courgettes before they ate it ...

The butler didn’t do it

Bee Wilson: The First Detectives, 19 June 2008

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House 
by Kate Summerscale.
Bloomsbury, 334 pp., £14.99, April 2008, 978 0 7475 8215 1
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... The word “clue”,’ Kate Summerscale writes, ‘derives from “clew” meaning a ball of thread or yarn.’ In mid-Victorian England, clues were satisfying objects to be grasped, then unknotted or unravelled. Clues pointed the way to go. On his way into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Theseus unravels a ball of red thread given him by Ariadne, so that he can find his way out again, gathering the thread as he goes ...

It was sheer heaven

Bee Wilson: Just Being British, 9 May 2019

Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant 
by Barbara Hosking.
Biteback, 384 pp., £9.99, March 2019, 978 1 78590 462 2
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... started out as a Cornish scholarship girl and rose to become a senior civil servant under Harold Wilson and Edward Heath and, later, a top executive at breakfast television – has written a memoir of her rise to the top of the British establishment. Sentence by sentence, her story is likeable and impressive but never very exciting to read. Most of the great ...

Cloche Hats and Perms

Bee Wilson: Bonnie and Clyde, 10 September 2009

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde 
by Jeff Guinn.
Simon and Schuster, 467 pp., £14.99, May 2009, 978 1 84737 134 8
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... Easter Sunday fell on April Fools’ Day in 1934. A young woman called Bonnie Parker was sitting in a field by a narrow dirt road near the town of Grapevine, Texas, playing with a white rabbit that she had named Sonny Boy. She was waiting for her mother, to whom she intended to give the rabbit as an Easter present, but the rendezvous got delayed. By the time Sonny Boy finally met his new owner, probably on 18 April, he would have witnessed several murders and had a number of near-death experiences ...

They didn’t have my fire

Bee Wilson: The New Food Memoirists, 25 June 2009

The Settler’s Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food 
by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Portobello, 439 pp., £20, March 2009, 978 1 84627 083 3
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... I went into a milk-house; they brought me some cream-cheese curds and whey, and two slices of that excellent Piedmont bread, which I prefer to any other; and for five or six sous I had one of the most delicious meals I ever recollect to have made.’ Thus Rousseau in his Confessions, where he also writes about his liking for pears, his fear of pastry shops, his fondness for starting the day with milky coffee and his preference for simple, ‘rustic repasts’: ‘give me milk, vegetables, eggs and brown bread, with tolerable wine and I shall always think myself sumptuously regaled ...

Boudoir Politics

Bee Wilson: Lola Montez, 7 June 2007

Lola Montez: Her Life and Conquests 
by James Morton.
Portrait, 390 pp., £20, January 2007, 978 0 7499 5115 3
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... Lola Montez was a dancer who couldn’t dance and a Spanish temptress who came from County Sligo. She was a fake: the world knew it, and so did she. Dishonest, profligate and almost entirely talentless, she was nevertheless stalked by the press in England, America and Europe from the mid-1840s until her death in 1861. Late in life, she charged more for one of her ‘lectures’ than Charles Dickens could command for his readings, and her doings would be reported in the same paragraph as news of Queen Victoria ...

Pink and Bare

Bee Wilson: Nicole Kidman, 8 February 2007

Nicole Kidman 
by David Thomson.
Bloomsbury, 311 pp., £18.99, September 2006, 0 7475 7710 2
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... To understand Nicole Kidman, David Thomson argues, you need to see a film called In the Cut. Not because Kidman is in it. She isn’t. The film stars Meg Ryan, is directed by Jane Campion and tells the story of how a lonely creative writing teacher, Fran, becomes involved with a cop (Mark Ruffalo) who is investigating a string of particularly gruesome murders ...

Look beyond the lips

Bee Wilson: Hedy Lamarr, 28 July 2011

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film 
by Ruth Barton.
Kentucky, 281 pp., £25.95, May 2011, 978 0 8131 2604 3
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... Compared with most actresses, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t very interested in acting. She was an intelligent woman, capable of great things, but, beauty aside, the greatness didn’t show up on screen. If you only knew her through her performances in Algiers, Ecstasy or Samson and Delilah, you would never have thought it possible that she was jointly responsible for one of the great inventions of the 20th century ...

Stuck with Your Own Face

Bee Wilson: The Beauty Industry, 8 July 2010

Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry 
by Geoffrey Jones.
Oxford, 412 pp., £25, February 2010, 978 0 19 955649 6
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... My grandmother Elsie couldn’t bear to look at photographs of Princess Diana. A pretty face was spoiled, she felt, by the thick streak of kohl along the bottom of Diana’s eyes. Odder still, the kohl was sometimes blue. To Elsie, this was a form of self-mutilation: Diana might as well have taken crayons and scribbled all over herself. ‘Why must she do it?’ Elsie would ask, with genuine puzzlement ...

They Supped with the King

Bee Wilson: Mistresses, 6 January 2011

Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman 
by Elizabeth Abbott.
Duckworth, 510 pp., £20, 0 7156 3946 3
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... Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress – since I can’t be your wife?’ Ellen Olenska asks of Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. By this point in the novel, it has become obvious to us that Olenska and Archer are each other’s only chance of what Newland calls ‘a real life’. Newland’s impending marriage to the terrifyingly girlish May Welland cannot be anything other than ‘a sham’; it closes round him with all the stifling force of old, status-obsessed New York society ...

Winklepickers, Tinned Salmon, Hair Cream

Bee Wilson: Jonathan Meades, 13 July 2016

An Encyclopedia of Myself 
by Jonathan Meades.
Fourth Estate, 341 pp., £9.99, February 2015, 978 1 85702 905 5
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... Lists​ make us feel better. They take the uncertainty and messiness of life and spray it with a sense of purpose. On low days, I sometimes write to-do lists of tasks I have already done and put ticks next to them, just to give myself the illusion of resolve. We cross days off a calendar, and imagine that July was something we positively achieved, rather than an unstoppable wave of time that scooped us up and spat us out into the next month ...

What Dettol Can’t Fix

Bee Wilson: A Life in Lists, 13 September 2018

Elisabeth’s Lists: A Family Story 
by Lulah Ellender.
Granta, 318 pp., £16.99, March 2018, 978 1 78378 383 0
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... In the spring​ of 1942, Elisabeth Young, a diplomat’s wife living in Surrey, began keeping a ‘register’ of eggs. Each day, she recorded the date and number of eggs laid by her flock of 12 hens, sometimes logging the name of the particular hen who had laid it. She noted whether the eggs were brown or white or ‘brownish’ and any that were double-yolked ...

No Strings

Bee Wilson: Pinocchio, 1 January 2009

Pinocchio 
by Carlo Collodi, translated by Geoffrey Brock.
NYRB, 189 pp., £8.99, November 2008, 978 1 59017 289 6
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... If you only know the Disney film, it comes as a shock to read the original story of Pinocchio and discover that the Talking Cricket is killed by Pinocchio at their very first meeting. This unusual creature, who has lived in Geppetto’s house for a hundred years, offers Pinocchio a ‘great truth’, solemnly advising him that he will never come to any good if he doesn’t find a useful occupation, adding that he pities him for being a puppet ...

Mmmm, chicken nuggets

Bee Wilson: The Victorian Restaurant Scene, 15 August 2019

The London Restaurant: 1840-1914 
by Brenda Assael.
Oxford, 239 pp., £60, July 2018, 978 0 19 881760 4
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... In​ 1901, London was still the largest city in the world. It had a population of six and a half million, two million more than New York and five million more than Tokyo. One of the ‘biggest wonders of this glorious Metropolis’ as well as ‘one of the most strangely human sights that the world can show’, according to J.C. Woollan, was the spectacle of all these millions of people being fed ...

Punk Counterpunk

Bee Wilson, 20 November 2014

Vivienne Westwood 
by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly.
Picador, 463 pp., £25, September 2014, 978 1 4472 5412 6
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... Some time​ in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking ...

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