The Sheila Dillon Interview

I’m deeply bothered when people don’t associate food and joy.

I get all something-must-be-done-about-this-right-now.

But what really upsets me is when people associate food with fear. And it seems to be everywhere.

There’s always a new crackpot diet lulling even the most sensible people into strange ways of thinking.

A fresh menace is always forcing itself into our consciousness, ready to steal the limelight from last month’s favourite enemy. Be it gluten, be it fat, be it cooking vegetables (ffs).

So when I hear someone talking with zeal about food I feel enormously spirited.

And that’s exactly how I feel listening to Sheila Dillon on Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

She’s hosted the show for more than 20 years making simple sounding topics like potatoes or jam completely compelling.

For me they offer light relief from the food-fearing ‘wellness’ movements of today.

Here, I chat to no-nonsense Sheila about fad diets, her love of cheese, storytelling through food and “not eating crap”.

Plus she reveals her favourite restaurants in London for joyful food.

I set up this website because I sense a great tension around food and eating at the moment and I wanted to explore it. As a veteran observer of eating culture what can you tell me about our relationship to food right now?

Wow, that’s a large question. It’s a very interesting moment because technology has made it possible for us to have food of all kinds brought to us, and yet there’s also this fantastic sense that there’s something wrong.

Take clean eating – the title is fading but the idea hasn’t gone away – and it’s an almost entirely female movement. Young women who are frightened of food.

They’re fearful and I think what draws them to clean eating are the rules. There’s a structure and they needn’t be afraid.

Then you get the backlash against it which I think can contain quite a lot of misogyny. No one’s attacking Joe Wicks. It’s all about these young women with their ridiculously unscientific notions – as if the food industry was based on science.

But the damage done by clean eating is nothing compared to what the processed food industry has done.

We can see with our own eyes the obesity problem. Every day there’s a new study telling us how much Type 2 diabetes is costing.

But we’re all operating in a culture in which cheapness is the first value in food.

The choice is often between different varieties of crap. When you walk down the cereal or biscuit aisle. We’ve created this strange situation that’s very difficult to get out of.

You do feel bombarded and afraid. Then there are other pressures like how many food programmes there are on TV. So much of that is fancy food. It doesn’t make you feel like you can do it. You feel like if you’re going to cook you have to cook like that – well how realistic is that when you get back from work?

Cooking is perceived by a lot of people as a very difficult skill.

So we have all of these things coming together at once.

sheila

The language of food elimination seems terrifyingly prevalent at the moment. Cutting out food groups is now a ‘lifestyle choice’ instead of a medical necessity. Has it always been like this?

We are reaching a kind of boiling point. There is this desire for control.

But as we move away from understanding shopping and understanding ingredients people don’t really know enough to say ‘this is madness’.

We don’t need to avoid gluten, just don’t eat crap bread. Eat good bread.

And animal fats are great. How do you think the human race got to where it is now? We’ve lost our rootedness in what food is.

How can we make people see food and all its many facets as joyful and not something riddled with pitfalls?

I think we have to have cooking in all schools for everybody. It has to be seen as a survival skill.

Every kid should leave primary school knowing how to make soup. You just need some basic skills.

We just need to get back to understanding what food is, what raw ingredients are, what you do with them and that they’re not frightening.

Are there any foods you’re wary of, and we should be as well? I know you’ve previously advocated a tax on sugar saying it has ‘no nutritional significance at all’. Can you expand on why you think that?

I think we’ve become a sugar culture. Instead of playing the role it’s played for centuries, acting as a celebratory ingredient in things like cakes, pies and tarts, it’s become something that’s in everything all the time. That’s what’s gone bonkers – that you would drink coca-cola 20 times a day.

Sugar has a place. But that place is not the one it now occupies.

Somebody was saying the other day how you have to run this gauntlet when you pay for your petrol and it’s true. Can you resist the temptation? Even for someone relatively sensible like me (well, I’m not particularly sensible) it’s hard. How can you not pick up a bar of chocolate?

There there when you buy your newspaper too. You have to reach over 35 varieties of tempting bars. How can you resist them if you’re a child? If you’re 12? It’s very difficult.

Have you ever tried a fad diet?

Oh, of course yes. I’ve been on the cabbage soup diet. You just made this big vat of cabbage soup and ate it all the time. Then there was the grapefruit and boiled egg diet. You’d suddenly go ‘omg I need to lose six pounds’ and try a ridiculous diet.

A wonderful producer of mine was frightened of fat. He used to drink tomato juice and eat some kind of cracker. We followed it for a week, this ridiculous diet. But ridiculous diets, there are just lots of them.

Why were you tempted by them?

I was like those women. I felt out of control. I knew it would be for 10 days and I wasn’t going to be doing it for my life. Then I could fit into the dress I wanted.

Why are fad diets so alluring?

Because of that control thing.

And in a way it makes you feel more interesting. You know, ‘I don’t do gluten’ or ‘I don’t do dairy’.

It irritates the hell out of me, I must say. I find it tiresome and I feel like saying ‘pull yourself together’.

I want to start a proper food movement. Enjoy steak and kidney pie and just stop it.

How did it make you feel when you were trying these fad diets?

Oh it felt wonderful for a few days. I felt pure. But I wouldn’t do it now. I wouldn’t do the cabbage diet again and I certainly wouldn’t eat grapefruit and boiled eggs. I think I was mad. But I certainly did those things when I was younger and cared more about looking a certain way.

I just want people to understand. And if they’re not going to eat bread, be able to explain why not. Their reasoning is always ludicrous.

If you eat bread like we’ve been doing for hundreds of years where you ferment the grain it changes and the gluten changes.

The kind of crap bread people are eating is very modern. I don’t believe many people do have discomfort but those that do are reacting to that.

Eat proper things, don’t eat crap.

My position is like yours. I want people to eat everything. Recognise that if you’re going to eat rubbish there’s a price to pay.

Why do you tell stories about food? Why do you care so much and when did you realise that you did?

Well I’m quite a greedy person. Some of my earliest and most powerful memories are food, I realise looking back on it now.

In my childhood I loved food. My mother was a good cook. She worked full time but she was a good cook. And my grandma was a good cook. I know this is all a terrible cliche. I had very nice food when I was growing up and I loved it. I really loved it but I never thought it could be a career.

When I was living in New York something happened to me that made me think food was a political issue and suddenly food was so central. It wasn’t just nice to cook and eat and entertain your friends. Food was also this thing that helped shape the world we live in.

I’m quite a political with a small p person. I’m interested in who has power and who doesn’t and why the world is as it is and oddly I found a way into being a journalist through my pleasures in food.

It was a revelation to me that I could write about serious things but I could do it from the basis of pleasure.

I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed by food but I really like food and the people who make it. I like farmers and cheesemakers, fishmongers and people who cure meat. They’re very interesting people.

sheilany

What does it mean to you – food and eating?

It means good times. It means sharing food with my friends and family.

I live near a really good greengrocer and I feel like a madwoman. I say to my neighbours “do you know they have three varieties of plums in the greengrocers at the moment?” and they go “yeh…” I can see their eyes glaze over like “who cares I’ve just been to Tesco.”

But food also means understanding the world. I’m sitting in my office and looking at my files which say ‘food prices’, ‘wheat’, ‘nutrition’, ‘development’, ‘children’, ‘food corporations’, ‘fish’, ‘feeding the world’.

On The Food Programme we go backwards from a plate to its roots and see what it’s all about.

In 2008 you were given an honorary doctorate by City University for changing “the way in which we think about food.” Did you set out to do that?

I was living in New York and I was contemptuous about the American food system. Cream in aerosol bottles and cheese in slices. Then I had this Damascene moment where I knew I needed to be a journalist in this area.

I thought I had to make people understand the joy that food adds to life but also who’s working the land, who’s farming, the state of the animals.

I wanted people to understand the link between the pleasures of the food on the plate and how the world works.

I think you can, to quite a great degree, understand a lot about the world if you care about food. I suppose I wanted people to understand that.

What’s next on the agenda?

Next on the agenda is reminding myself to be optimistic.

There is this web of people producing amazing food not to become rich but for the pleasure of it.

What makes for a good eating experience?

At home or in a restaurant? Both? Well, generosity. It can be really simple but you want that nice, big piece of cheese or a bowl of apples. You don’t want mingyness. It’s about a welcome, a sense of sharing.

One of the things I kind of dread is when somebody’s done something really fancy but haven’t cared about the ingredients. It’s just fancy manipulation of food. It’s just showing off. I think, I’d rather have a toasted cheese sandwich thank you. I do like cheese…

When I’m out in a restaurant I want ease, informality, generosity. Good cooking but somebody who’s trying to make the ingredients shine.

I’m coming to realise that I’m all about straight-forward deliciousness. An unpretentious offering of joyful food. Where do you go in London to find that?

There’s a really great pizza place by me called Yard Sale. They do lovely pizzas, with toppings like bitter Italian broccoli, and wine in a tumbler.

The people in there are just delightful and I can go in there with the dog.

Or Quo Vardis. It’s pretty near a perfect restaurant.

You feel like you get something and every single component of it tastes lovely.

The staff are nice and it’s warm. Jeremy Lee wanders through. I love his lavish attitude to food. You know, chocolate cake.

Bocca di Lupo is another of my favourites. It’s more expensive but there are lovely things. Generous small plates.

Moro too. I love sitting at the bar there. Having a couple of things and a glass of wine.