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Bee Wilson pays tribute to BBC Radio 4 Food Programme

This year’s annual Oxford Cultural Collective Dinner, held on 17th March 2018 at St Cross College, University of Oxford, was staged in honour of the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme.  This British feast was prepared by four of the UK’s most distinguished chefs – Angela Hartnett OBE, Jeremy Lee, Margot Henderson and Fergus Henderson OBE, in partnership with Chef Paul White of BaxterStorey and his team at St Cross College. 


The dinner served as the opening event of the 2018 Financial Times Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. 


Distinguished food writer and journalist Bee Wilson delivered a moving tribute to the Food Programme.  Published here is the transcript of that speech. 


Some said that Derek Cooper’s melodious and humourous voice was like treacle.  Others compared it to a peaty Scottish whiskey.  Still others said it was like the voice of a ‘gigantic labrador hewn from honey-baked ham’. To me, it was simply the voice of sanity.  For so many years, Cooper, and his successors Sheila Dillon, Dan Saladino and others, seemed to be almost the only people in British food media who understood that the pursuit of good quality food for all was not something pretentious or trivial, but rather urgent and essential.

In an obituary of Derek Cooper in The Independent, it was said that he and the Food Programme probably exerted a bigger and better influence on the eating habits of the British than anyone, including Elizabeth David.

Many people’s favourite episode of the Food Programme found Derek Cooper in a Walls ice cream factory in 1982 asking its technical director why so much air was pumped into the ice cream. The ratio of ice cream to air was 50-50.

“When I’m paying a pound for an ice cream I’m buying 50 pence worth of air.”, commented Cooper.

“You could put it like that if you wanted to. I wouldn’t.”, replied the factory’s technical director.

“How would you put it?”, asked Cooper in that quizzical voice of his.

“I’d say you were getting the air for free and buying a pound’s worth of ice cream.”

It’s a perfect little exchange, largely because of the friendly warmth of Derek Cooper’s tone.

The Food Programme continues to be animated by that wonderful spirit of humour.  No matter how dark or dispiriting the subject – and recent episodes have included everything from suicides among chefs, to dementia, to the terrifying food crisis in Venezuela – there is always this tone of warmth that keeps you listening.

When I was asked to celebrate the programme tonight I felt simultaneously proud and daunted. How can you celebrate something as so big and multifaceted and so firmly rooted in British cultural life?

This institution is at once the cosy friend that has kept us company as we cook our Sunday lunch and the whistle-blower that makes us feel uneasy in the supermarket. It has been a force for changing the food supply by exposing the bad, and by celebrating the good through its Food and Farming Awards.  When I eat a good piece of crumbly creamy Lancashire cheese, or a proper British apple, or an undyed piece of smoked haddock, I think of Derek Cooper because all these were passions of his.  He is the reason we can now buy undyed fish in the supermarket.  But more than that, his programme has made millions of people in Britain better informed about what they eat, which has to be a good thing.

Most of the British media puts food in a narrow little box. As Derek Cooper remarked when he started in 1979, food was not discussed in an ‘enquiring’ way on television or radio. And it still isn’t in most media.

If you search for food in most newspapers online, you have to scroll through a category called ‘lifestyle’. What does lifestyle even mean? It seems to involve perfectly arranged plant pots and wellness juices and aspirational dinner parties. The Food Programme changed the conversation by showing us that food is not about ‘lifestyle’ but about ‘life’.

While multiple media outlets are telling us that African food is set to be the next hot food trend, the food programme, in its most recent episode, points out quite rightly that more than 50 different cuisines already eaten and enjoyed by people across a whole continent can’t exactly be called a new ‘trend’.

The Programme has been a unique force for good in British cultural life in showing that there is no box large enough to contain the vastness of food.

Over the past year alone, the food programme has covered everything from the joy of Georgian food to cooking with blood; from supper clubs to clean eating; from turmeric to macaroni cheese. 

The producers and presenters are not afraid to make us uncomfortable.  A case in point was a recent episode on running and Dr Tim Noakes advocacy of extreme low carb and high fat diets. I saw the subject and thought no, I can’t stand fad diets, I don’t want to listen that, especially if it’s going to tell me to give up bread and steamed lemon pudding and Parmesan biscuits. But Dan Saladino’s sympathetic voice kept telling me to stick with it and keep listening, and so I did, and at the end I felt much better informed about the debate between Noakes and his critics. I still have no plan to abandon carbohydrates, least of all now, just before this amazing dinner cooked by Jeremy Lee, Angela Hartnett, Fergus Henderson and Margot Henderson.

Whatever the topic, there is always that same wonderful spirit of curiosity and humour.

I’ve been binge listening to episodes on iplayer in preparation for this event. And I listened to two back to back that really stuck in my mind.

One was Dan Saladino travelling to Tanzania to eat like a hunter gatherer with the Hadza tribe, a tiny community who live as our ancestors might have lived before the invention of farming, gathering wild roots and honey and hunting for porcupines with sharpened sticks.

The other was Sheila Dillon documenting the British obsession with crisps which, it transpires, we eat no fewer than 4 packs of per person per week. That’s an average, and as Sheila points out some eat no crisps at all and some eat a lot more, including the people with whom the programme opens who are attending a bottomless crisp party, where waiters empty packets of crisps of all shapes and flavours into various bowls.

On the surface the episodes couldn’t have been more different, but what united them was a kind of anthropological curiosity about different ways of eating.

I was left thinking how crazy it is that the way we ate thousands of years ago was so much more diverse and better for our gut microbiome than the monocultures of modern Britain where a varied diet may just mean the choice between cheese and onion or salt and vinegar crisps.

Here was Dan standing in the arid Savannah and marvelling that the Hadza tribe could recognise so much nutritious food in a landscape where he saw no food at all.

And here was Sheila standing in the crisps aisle of a British supermarket and marvelling at the sheer mindboggling abundance of this non-food, and the craziness of selling 24 packets of crisps for £3.

Derek Cooper once wrote (in Snail Eggs and Samphire) that what was wrong with the British food culture was that we have 2 different kinds of food. We have the cheap and nasty stuff which he called ‘tins of highly coloured rubbish’. And then we have expensive foods which attract words such as ‘real’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘traditional’, ‘pure’ and ‘handmade’. But, he asks, ‘shouldn’t all food be as safe and as pure and as fresh as possible?  Why have cheap, bad food at all?’

The Food Programme has never stopped asking this question and beating the drum for good and delicious food for everyone.  For this and for so many happy hours of companionship in the kitchen, I salute you. Long may you continue.


To view photos from this event, follow this link.

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