Sheila Dillon

I hadn’t bargained for the reaction I had when I spoke to Sheila Dillon to arrange a meeting; I almost dropped the phone. Presenting Radio 4’s The Food Programme, Sheila’s voice has been the kitchen companion to the preparation of countless Sunday lunches, a relationship that feels very intimate – but belongs on the radio – not coming out of the phone. I took a deep breath and hoped for enough composure to see me through the dizzying prospect of meeting The Voice in the flesh.

Sheila suggested we meet at Ozer, a Turkish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean restaurant in Langham Place, virtually next door to Broadcasting House. Warm, and welcoming, with friendly and efficient service; the food is delicious and exceptionally good value for a restaurant bang in the middle of London’s West End. Rescuing me from the bewildering breadth of the menu, Sheila suggested the Healthy Meal – lamb and chicken satays, falafel, hummus, spinach and feta parcels, tabbouleh, baby broadbeans, nut salad, aubergine ratatouille – a procession of tasty, little dishes that threatened to overwhelm our table. In person, Sheila inspires the same feeling of confidence, of being in a safe pair of hands that comes across on air. The passing backwards and forwards, the “have you had some of this?”, “oh, this one’s lovely”, gave me the chance to relocate The Voice – that retains traces of a Lancashire childhood – firmly within the warm and vivacious woman sitting across the table.

When Sheila started contributing to The Food Programme as a freelance reporter in 1986 – she became a senior staff producer the following year – it was well on the way to becoming a national institution. Derek Cooper, the programme’s founder and presenter “had an utterly distinctive voice” said Sheila. “He loved language; it was his plaything. He could ask questions in the most beautiful way, never aggressive, but people would come away with a (metaphorical) knife sticking out between their ribs.”

In 1990 on the programme’s 20th anniversary, Derek Cooper explained, “From the start, 20 years ago, our agenda was political. We were deeply interested in the way food power was acquired and used… We found it suspicious that successive governments in this country had transport policies and defence policies, but never a food policy… Much of the information on which people depended came from food and farming sources and was really misinformation… There was a credibility gap begging to be filled and this was what The Food Programme was designed to do.”

The design was breathtakingly simple, to connect us with the world through what we eat. “Derek had this unshakeable belief that good food is a right, for everyone, and by looking at the pleasures of food you could approach, understand and even influence the politics of the food system. Urbanisation means that food is often the only connection people have left to the natural world and it’s a good way in to understanding what’s going on. I’m greedy and I would never have got involved in the politics of food if I didn’t love food and cooking. But what drives my interest is how we use our land, how we grow and sell our food, because this tells us a great deal about our values.”

Sheila grew up in Hoghton, an estate village in rural Lancashire where life revolved around Hoghton Tower, the Tudor manor house occupied by the de Hoghton family since the 11th century. Her grandfather was the head joiner on the estate; her mother worked as a weaver in the “tiny cotton mill at the bottom of the village by the river”. Dad was a barber, “but he came from a farming family in County Tyrone so he knew how to milk a cow when the milking machine broke down.” Sheila and her younger sister were “farmed out” in the summer holidays. “It was a life I loved and took for granted; some of my happiest memories are of times spent on that farm – it’s just a part of me”.

An enthusiastic but inconsistent cook – “she got bored, just churning things out” – Sheila’s mother loved to go mushrooming and rejoiced when the first new potatoes of the season came in. “She’d have these baking jags, make vanilla slices, puff pastry, chocolate éclairs – out of nowhere – and she was always an adventurous eater. When she came to London three days before she died, she wanted to try out a Japanese restaurant. She was an extravagant character; just loved the taste of things and thought it was the most shameful thing in the world to skimp on food and spend the money on a car or a pair of curtains instead.” Milk, cheese, eggs, chickens came from the farm; vegetables from a local small holder and what was bought in – “stuff that wasn’t produced in the village, things in tins, packets of jelly” – was delivered from E.H. Booths in Preston. When family visited to go blackberrying in the autumn, Sheila’s grandmother always bought local eggs and wrapped them in newspaper for them to take back after Sunday tea, “She thought you couldn’t get proper eggs in Preston. She was the sort of person who thought you were on the road to hell if you served a bought cake. Good food was very important, just a fact of life.”

Of course this bucolic existence had a flipside; village life bordered on the feudal, the privileges of the ‘lord of the manor’ were only too obvious, and “inequality and injustice were in the air you breathed.” One Christmas Eve, Sheila remembers her grandfather answering the door to Master de Hoghton, “Good evening Sutcliffe, Merry Christmas! My grandfather was the mildest of men and he was in a rage when he came back into the room, carrying a bottle of white wine. The condescension of it, a bottle of wine for a year of work. It was a perfectly ridiculous present – he was a Methodist and of course none of his generation or class drank white wine – everything he felt about the way the world was ordered was written on his face.” A few years ago the current baronet, Sir Bernard de Hoghton, “a perfectly nice man”, asked Sheila to speak at an event. “Everyone in strapless frocks and I thought, Jesus, what if my grandfather could see this now, one of the cottage children as guest speaker at Hoghton Tower!“

Sheila’s parents both came from that working class generation that left school at fourteen. Her mother especially was “incredibly bright”, but work at the cotton mill was exhausting. “As soon as I could reach the stove I started to help with the cooking. I wish I’d gone to agricultural college now, but it’s a bit too late for that and I didn’t want to be a farmer then, I could see what a hard life it was. I didn’t want to be sucked down into the values and strictures of village life, I wanted to get an education and get out”.

At university – English at Leicester – Sheila wrote for the university newspaper and got involved in the women’s movement, “I was quite political”. A year in Finland with the British Council put paid to any thoughts of teaching but was a profound experience in other ways. “Finland is one of the most romantic places on earth because of the relationship the Finns have to nature, they’re intimately involved with it and the sense that nature – forests, lakes, animals, good food – is fundamentally important, underpins Finish life.” This acknowledgement of the importance of a relationship with the rural environment and the food produced there – something she’d taken for granted throughout her childhood – was an eye opener. “Looking back I can see the connection, although I didn’t work it out at the time. What I did work out was that I loved the food. There was tremendous pride in regional variety, each little area having its own foods and I was very struck by that; thrilling, exotic things, like cooked cheese or a special loaf that had a local river fish baked in the middle of it. It was the first time I had consciously thought about food in that way.”

After Finland, there was post-graduate work in the American Midwest, a publishing job at Indiana University Press and a six-month stay in New Zealand before Sheila returned to America to work for Little Brown & Co in Boston, Massachusetts, “a venerable publishing house that had recently been bought by Time Life” and against which she and five women colleagues brought a landmark sex discrimination case. The commissioning editors who worked with the authors were all men, from the Ivy League universities. All the copy editors were women from the Seven Sisters universities – the female equivalent of the Ivy League – with qualifications equal to their male counterparts who were nevertheless paid one and a half times as much as their female colleagues. “There’s nothing like going to a Roman Catholic primary school, being taught about the love of God and then seeing children being beaten, to bring out a keen sense of injustice. It (the Little Brown case) was exciting and after we won I went through a period of thinking right, I’m applying for Law school, but common sense rose to the surface again.”

Following 3 years in Scotland as editor of a small magazine covering social services, housing and social policy, Sheila, now married to financial journalist Peter Koenig, returned to New York where she was working as a freelance journalist when her son Tom was born. She says it’s a hackneyed story but it seems to have been an epiphany. “I was weaning Tom and it didn’t occur to me to give him ready prepared food, so I was using potato as a base and mixing it with other things – fish with potato, lamb with potato – and I read an article in the New York Times about a pesticide scandal in the potato crop on Long Island.”

Aldicarb, a common systemic pesticide, was being used on the crop and had contaminated the Long Island aquifer, which in turn fed the wells that supplied water to some of the communities in the area. “People were starting to get sick and water was being tanked in to these small communities because of the high levels of Aldicarb. I thought Jesus, if it’s in the water and it’s poisoning people, what the hell is it doing to the potatoes? I realised I had no knowledge about this at all; why do we even need pesticides; what are the rules about pesticides; how are they regulated? So I went off to the library and read up about pesticide residue limits, about the science behind pesticides and suddenly this world opened up of how our food was grown and where the power lay. I could see that the way pesticide residue limits were calculated was pretty shoddy science, a bit like pinning the tail on a donkey and I thought my God, who’s writing about this? Here’s a subject that truly engages me and seems really important.”

The financial journalist husband advised Sheila to “follow the money”, work with the economics and politics of food in order to understand what was really going on in food production and a friend of a friend, working with Senator McGovern’s congressional food hearing committee, recommended that she volunteer at Food Monitor magazine to learn more about this new world she’d stumbled into. “They were doing interesting things and had a great team, so I volunteered and then Food Monitor offered me a job and that’s how my column, Food Biz, came about.”

Sheila remembers the broadcast of The Food Programme that convinced her it would be her perfect job. Derek Cooper was presenting a programme from the south of France at an event bringing together local winemakers and their wines with British farmhouse cheeses. “All the winemakers were there with their wines and the event was packed with local people and there was the British Consul and there’d been a bit of difficulty getting the cheeses. So he’d bought a dyed cheddar and a white cheddar, block cheddar from Dairy Crest or something. In his very mild way Derek expressed surprise and the Consul said, Well, it’s a good deal better than we often have at home. It was such a picture, so simple but it expressed whole worlds about these two societies, one that valued food and drink as part of the cohesion, part of the civility of life that you would gather to celebrate and another that didn’t.”

The Sunday before our meeting The Food Programme had visited Otter Farm in Devon, “It’s known as Climate Change Farm and Mark Diacono is coming at this from the same point of view as The Food Programme – you begin with the pleasures of food, what tastes delicious, and you see where that takes you. A lot of people would say that 17 acres of trees and shrubs in Devon is completely marginal to a system that has to feed so many people, but we know there are problems coming down the turnpike and our food system just isn’t going to hold up in the face of rising oil prices and increasing global water shortages. The idea of that programme was to get us to think, about resilience, about the research into this that’s not taken seriously by the horticultural industry.”

During the programme, Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust made a stir-fry of bamboo shoots, Good King Henry and sweet cicely seeds that Sheila described as revelatory – even for The Food Programme. “I didn’t realise we could eat any old bamboo shoots and I looked at this dish and thought oh my God, is this going to be a brown rice, sandal wearing endurance dish, what am I going to say? And it was so good, really exceptionally good.”

The following Sunday the programme focused on ‘Black Gold’. Coffee prices are at a 30 year high, having broken through the $3 dollars a pound barrier, and the programme investigated what’s driving the market – speculation, growing demand – what this means for growers and questions about the Fairtrade model. These two programmes demonstrate exactly what The Food Programme does so well. “We’re trying to say, look, food matters actually, in as many different ways as possible and to ask as many questions as possible, make connections, join up the dots. Look at the bigger picture, trace the problem back, look at the corporations, look at the policy and then you can see that quick technical fixes are not going to solve the problem.”

The Food Programme is in the process of moving from London to the BBC Farming and Rural Affairs unit in Birmingham. “I hope we can use some of their knowledge”. Sheila says she’s getting feistier as she gets older, “there has to be some compensation” and in darker moments fears that we’ve already gone too far. “When you have a food system like the one in the United States and you allow food to become the tool of corporations and you allow technical fixes to be the way you deal with the problems of ill health resulting from the food people eat, it has a disastrous effect on society. One of my frustrations is to see successive governments take the American model, there are countries and societies that have had good food models so why do we have to follow the one really broken model in the world, that leads to depopulation of the countryside, horrible standards of animal welfare, horrible health problems – you just want to say, listen, it’s really, really f****d, why do we have to do the same thing?”

In 1979 when Derek Cooper came up with the idea of doing a serious programme about food he was given a six-week slot by the controller of Radio 4. “After 4 or 5 weeks, Derek went to see the controller to find out if she was happy and said they’d like to go on and make some more. According to Derek she said, Really, Mr Cooper, you mean that in six weeks you haven’t said everything there is to say about food?” More than 30 years later the programme has two million listeners and still hasn’t exhausted the subject. “There is no one answer, we need lots of answers,” insists Sheila. Long may she and The Food Programme go on asking the questions, reminding us that the pleasure and politics of food really do matter, now more urgently than ever before.