Sheila Dillon in Interview – Inspirational Woman

Sheila Dillon, courtesy of BBC

I promised you more interviews with inspiring women in 2019 and here’s the first. Meet Sheila Dillon. If you haven’t heard of Sheila you’re in for a treat. She is an award winning journalist with the BBC, most notably on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme which has featured some groundbreaking stories over the years.  

Jane: Sheila, you are synonymous with good food since taking over BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. How did this interest in food first show itself?
Sheila: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy food. My mum was a good cook..she was mostly at home with me till I was 4-5, but then, with two more children, she worked full-time in the local cotton mill, but she always cooked. My grandma, a full-time housewife, who lived in the same village, also made great meals. The pattern of meals at her house didn’t change much but I didn’t care because I loved what she made. In winter Thursday tea (dinner) was almost always split pea soup with a ham hock, always served in a sunny yellow scalloped soup bowls. Sunday lunch (dinner) was braised mutton chops with whatever veg was in season, followed, usually, by a milk pudding.

Good food was all around us. Till I went to primary school and after during school holidays I took the bus with my grandma every Wednesday to Preston market. We bought Morecambe Bay shrimps which she would pot in spiced butter, vegetables grown on the Fylde, Lancashire cheese,  bacon from Booth’s when they just had one shop on Fishergate, sometimes a pig’s head that she would turn into brawn that I loved. Occasionally I was allowed to have a paper cone of winkles from the fish market to be eaten with a pin. I still relish them. Or a cone of parched peas from a shop near the bus station. She’d also buy some hot meat and potato pies for lunch (dinner!) which we carried to her sister Lily’s. house. She and her husband Ernie lived not far from the town centre.

Then there was food all around us in the village. Milk, cream, eggs and the very occasional chicken from the farm opposite our house. Veg from Alec Lord’s commercial plot about 500 yards down the road. He also had a veg van which came round on Friday evenings carrying more exotic stuff—like coconuts and, in season, pomegranates. My mother loved both. The fish van came around on Thursdays. Then there were wild mushrooms, usually field mushrooms which mum and her friend May Worral hunted when they got a sense that the time was right. Afterwards we’d have the best, the ultimate, soup. No blending. Just butter (best butter as my mother always called it), milk, onions and mushrooms. Plenty of pepper. Sometimes my dad would borrow a gun and shoot rabbits which mum turned into stew or a pie. (My sister always refused to eat rabbit.  She’d sit at the table and cry about the poor bunny.  That was not my style.  She’s still completely uninterested in food.  She lives in California and I talked to her yesterday: she’d just made the most awful sounding soup from a list of ‘health’ ingredients which she was planning to eat at every meal for two days. ) Mum made great pies—huge pots of meat and veg, topped with short-crust after a long slow cook. One of my favourites was made from tinned corned beef with lots of potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips and an Oxo cube. I tried to recreate it recently but I ruined it by getting fancy and sauteing the veg before I added the meat and didn’t use Oxo. 

You have a particular interest in the relationship between food and health, perhaps all the more so since your own illness about which you have been very open. (Sheila had cancer of the bone marrow). Having recently undergone major surgery on the gut myself I have been astonished that absolutely no mention of food has been made re the recovery process.Yet there is a wealth of peer reviewed, solid, scientific information on this topic. Why do you think it has yet to filter down to the medical profession?
We’re living through a time of great change. Since the end of World War II we’ve developed a medical system based on technology—a pill and/or surgery for every ill. It’s brought great benefits, but its failings are increasingly obvious. We’ve forgotten over those decades that food and rest and exercise and being happy are all important to our health. It’s estimated now that over 60 % of the people who walk through a GP’s door are suffering from conditions caused by the way they live, particularly by what they eat. The epidemic of type 2 diabetes is going to break the NHS. Millions of us are overweight or obese, unfit and every day slowly poisoning ourselves with a diet of super-processed foods. Since the early 70s we’ve been guinea pigs in the biggest experiment in human history… gradually moving to an industrially created diet. But I’m cheered by the current generation of medical students who are now lobbying for a medical curriculum that includes nutrition.  They’re an amazing bunch … as you can see if you go on their website: (Nutritank It was started by two med students from Bristol University. We had them on the Food Programme last year. And they take inspiration from radical doctors such as GP Rangan Chaterjee (BBC 1’s Doctor in the House), cardiologist Aseem Malhotra, and GP Rupy Aujla (listen to his podcast The Doctors Kitchen).

Last year my  producer Clare Salisbury and I went to the first ever course on ‘lifestyle medicine’  approved by the Royal College of General Practitioners, and it was heartening and amazing to see this packed hall of young doctors eager to learn how to stop failing their patients. 

When I was diagnosed with cancer I was told there wasn’t really anything that I could do apart from have the chemo. But I did some on-line digging and discovered the research being done using curcumin (the main active ingredient in turmeric) in treating Multiple Myeloma—my disease. My oncologist was interested and totally supportive of my taking it (I’d have taken it anyway, but I feel lucky to have an open-minded specialist helping me). I also found some good science on other foods to boost my immune system. Almost  every cancer patient is told there’s nothing they themselves can do for their condition apart from turn up for chemo or radio therapy and that is total rubbish.

It’s especially distressing given the privatisation of medical and scientific research that’s gone on since the Thatcher years. There’s almost no money for independent research now. Why would the pharmaceutical industry pay for research into the benefits of natural substances? They can’t be patented so there’s no financial pay-off for them.

As you know, this blog is passionate about gender equality. We are of an age and I’m interested  to know if you have felt discriminated against in your professional life, and if so, how you have dealt with it? Do you see a significant change for the better re women’s equality?
Yes!…..what a change.   When I graduated from university, newspaper job ads were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women… And the jobs for women weren’t very interesting—typing was usually involved. Early on in my career I worked in Boston for the venerable (ie, long established and rather posh) publishers, Little, Brown & Co. They only hired editors from Ivy League colleges (Yale, Harvard, etc, and their equivalents for women, Vassar, Smith, Radcliffe, etc.) I don’t know how I got in with my red-brick British degree. But women were pushed into copy-editing, men into working with authors on developing manuscripts. Copy-editing was the road to nowhere. Starting salaries for males were one and a half times higher than for females. So, after some internal negotiating which got us nothing, six of us copy-editors brought a class action against the company for sex discrimination … & won. One of the first successful cases brought under the ’60’s Sex Discrimination legislation. Part of the settlement was that I should leave as I was seen as chief trouble maker ( their lawyers said I was “the cancer at the heart of Little, Brown”… language that is astonishing now, but which was still par for the course then). Leaving suited me as I was planning to move to California and get married (with an agreement that my new husband and I would take 3-year turns in working to provide the main income.  The non-worker doing whatever they liked.). I also knew from my 18-months experience in Boston that publishing wasn’t for me.

And the BBC? It’s not had good press in this area.
Obviously there is a well-documented issue here —see Carrie Gracie’s disgraceful treatment—but in my area at Radio 4 I haven’t felt particularly discriminated against. I think of more significance is that food isn’t taken seriously by the BBC hierarchy. That’s particularly true in News and Current Affairs —the dominant department at the corporation, though when Helen Boaden, Controller of Radio 4, offered me the job of full-time presenter on Derek Cooper’s retirement the underlying attitude to women was on display. They offered me the most ludicrously low fee to replace him presenting and reporting. I turned it down because as Derek’s producer I knew what he was paid. I got a phone call at home saying that the low figure was their final offer. I said in response that they’d better find themselves another presenter then. Next day I was told there’d been a misunderstanding and I would be paid the same as Derek. Unless you come into Radio 4 as a star—preferably a tv star—you’re paid very modestly as a presenter. Last year I compared my fees with two highly regarded male presenters on the network—both of them serious journalists—and found they were paid about the same as I am.

In the 70s I studied Home Economic A level at my State school, primarily actually cooking (along with a side order of understanding insurance and why milk boils over!). The gold standard then was French cuisine. Two questions in one really. My children were offered food technology which sounded very remote from anything pleasurable and rarely resulted in them bringing any offerings home. (My dad had to suffer the joys of eating my ‘foraged’ green soup which he wryly remarked tasted like it had more grass than anything; he may have been right…) How do you think we could instil a love and understanding of good, nourishing food into young people?
I  was recently on a news programme & got carried away in answering a question about how to get people eating healthily again. I talked about bringing cooking back into schools… when in fact—as I well know when I’m not over-excited— cooking was modestly reintroduced into schools in 2014. They were told to teach 20 hours of cooking a year at primary and secondary levels … but the “advice’ that came with the reintroduction from the department of education was weak. Governors were asked to ensure it was put in place and OFSTED was asked to monitor the teaching. OFSTED has done no monitoring and few school governing bodies were interested. Free schools and Academies don’t have to pay any attention to the legislation at all. So, though there are some great models of cooking being integrated into school curriculums at primary and secondary levels all over the country, the general picture, given the cuts in educational funding and the emphasis on reading writing and maths, is of a subject on the fringes with perhaps the majority of children learning to cook for 10 hours a year, or less. I’ve just written a column about it for the Radio Times.

I recently spent a day at a primary school in an area of Norwich where families are poor. A lot of single parents who never learned to cook. But it was a fabulous school with high expectations of all its children and they were working  with the Country Trust, teaching 5 and 6 year olds to cook. They were joyful classes as they all peeled and cut up vegetables to make soup, which we all enjoyed together at the end of the class. Teachers at the school told me that the Country Trust’s work  has had a serious effect on the children’s families: parents and grandparents coming into the school to learn how to cook themselves.

But about your question re French cooking. I learned to cook at home, but at university I bought Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking—& expanded my Lancashire repertoire considerably.  I love French food, and I still cook from ED, but now the world has moved on, and me with it.  I probably cook much more Italian (Britalian??!) food now…Anna del Conte, Marcella Hazan and Rachel Roddy have been my teachers (through their books that is). And of course Yotam Ottolenghi triggered a whole new interest in the Middle East. I’ve been using his Simple book a lot. I also cook from Yasmin Khan and then there’s Nigel Slater who brings a world of influences together with a respect for seasonal, local ingredients. I haven’t abandoned British food.  Jane Grigson’s English Food and Mark Hix’s Regional British Food are well marked. Then there’s great vegetarian food from Anna Jones and so on……..  So much inspiring food writing now.  

Moving away from food, has there been someone who has had a significant impact on your life, career or personal? A role model, or mentor, or inspiration?
Derek Cooper has probably had the biggest impact on me as food journalist. He was an old-fashioned socialist and he loved life and the pleasures of the table. He didn’t necessarily go for fancy stuff, just good food. He believed in good food for all, not industrialised rubbish for the working classes and something more refined for the rest.

When I started writing about food in New York, Susan George, the author of How the Other Half Die was on the board of the magazine where I first worked. That was a mind-blowing book: it explains why hunger is always with us. I didn’t meet her till years later, but she was an inspiration. She was fearless in taking on global organisations—including the World Bank and the international food companies. Nothing scared her. I thought of her when Michelle Obama was reported as telling a big audience in London recently, mostly of women, that they should have confidence in themselves.

“I’ve been at every powerful table you can think of … from corporate boards, to G summits… to the UN. And here’s the secret: they’re not that smart.”  

That’s certainly my experience with the powers in the food world. There are of course some very smart people—there are also a lot of power-hungry dumbos. Mostly men.

If you could intrude one piece of legislation into the UK, on any topic, what would it be?
Just one? (OK, have two) I’d put a tax on sugar. I’d try to set up a tax system where things that make people sick were heavily taxed and things that were good for us were not. Plus, I’d reform the general tax system… to try to redress the horrible inequalities that are undermining so much that’s decent about life in the UK. .

In your long career you have met and interviewed many people. Who has been the most interesting and why?
Maybe the most fascinating was Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for economics. His work links in with Susan George’s—he shows that famines are not caused by food shortages. They have to do with the lack of money to buy food. You have money, you don’t starve. You could see that during the worst of the Ethiopian famines… Ethiopian lentils were on sale at Sainsbury’s on Holloway Road. Same was true during the Great Famine in Ireland in the 19th C. Plenty of food—but if you’d relied on your potato crop and were poor, you couldn’t buy the food that was available.

I’d also put  Lady Eve Balfour up there.  She founded The Soil Association and did the most extraordinary research comparing “conventional” and organically grown food.  I don’t think her book The Living Soil has ever been out of print.  She was attacked in her lifetime by the farming establishment as a promoter of ‘muck and magic” but time has proved her right—we’ve degraded our soils all over the world with intensive mono-crop farming.  Now it’s an enormous issue with crop yields static or falling.  I joined The Food Programme as a reporter and a few months later the senior producer asked me if I could produce a programme. A bit scary but Derek Cooper’s interview with Lady Eve was that programme, recorded in her house in Suffolk. 

If anyone reading this is looking for a career in food journalism, what advice would you give them?
I’m asked this question a lot by young people and I say, make yourself a specialist in something. It’s a difficult world to get into it and right now with newspaper and magazine circulations falling it’s very badly paid. So,  find your niche!.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given, And did you take it?
When I left university the only bit of feminist advice I got was ‘Don’t learn to type’. Good advice in an era that shunted even the most talented women into secretarial jobs.  I had to learn later when I moved to the US where almost everyone types and it wasn’t a gender thing.

What has been the best career decision you have made (Or indeed the worst, if it resulted in something positive?)
I was working in NYC as a general journalist mostly for the glossy magazines. When I was weaning my son (Sheila married an American and lived in the US for some time, Jane.) I heard about the pesticides being used on potatoes in Long Island, and how these were getting into wells and water supplies. I began to read more on the topic. I saw how bad the safety testing and control of pesticides were which enraged me as I’d been feeding my young son a lot of potatoes mashed with fish, meat and other veg. The anger made me want to write about food. I started by volunteering to write about the food industry for a New York based magazine, Food Monitor. After about three months they offered me a proper job.

If you could have an alternative career what would you choose? Anything at all.
Well, I love what I do but I have always enjoyed being with farmers. I worked on a local farm as a teenager at weekends and during school holidays. I really envy them, although I know it’s a hard life. I would like to rear animals, not arable farming. I think I would have been a happy animal farmer. I sometimes wish that I had studied agriculture at college.

And finally, who is your hero in the food world, favourite cook, supplier, writer, presenter, anyone? Although I think you may have already told me the answer to this one.
Yes, I’d have to say Derek Cooper. But I also love Bee Wilson’s writing and her attitude to food and life.  Oh and  Carolyn Steel who wrote the brilliant and original Hungry City.  She’s one of the world’s most inspiring talkers—a real head and heart person.  Then there’s Kath Dalmeny, director of Sustain.  My friend pig farmer and market trader Peter Gott.  And I can’t leave out the remarkable, thoughtful chefs… Jeremy Lee, Angela Hartnett, Jamie Oliver……  It’s a long list!!  Heros all! 

Sheila, thank you so much. If anyone wants to check out some episodes of the Food Programme you can do so here.

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Posted on January 22nd, 2019 by

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