First Encounters: Food writers Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell

‘Our friendship is a food friendship, we talk about food all the time’

Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell. Photograph: Alan Betson

Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Biddy White Lennon has been a food writer for more than 30 years and is a founding member of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild which this week held its 21st annual Irish Food Awards. She is known to many as Maggie Riordan of RTÉ’s ‘The Riordans’ and more recently, as one of the judges in the ‘Great Irish Bake-Off’. From Dublin, she lives in Wexford with her husband, Denis Latimer

I have a strong memory that four of us – Marilyn Bright, Nuala Cullen, Georgina and myself – were at some event and went over to Buswell’s to chill out. We’d discovered people were being undercut, so we said, come on, let’s form something. Like Georgina, I was involved in recipe development for years and years. I did stuff for Irish Sugar and remember writing what was almost a small book on using yogurt in baking for Yoplait. The family were in utter rebellion because everything they ate for months had yogurt in it.

Georgina and I and other Food Guild members met socially all the time, because there were a lot of events – promotions of Irish food by groups like the CBF, the beef board, or BIM.

The things Georgina and I have in common, that make us friends, is that she’s as straight as they come, she doesn’t have agendas. And we both like to explore: some people like to drive from A to B, others like to take a left turn and explore. We’d both take the left turn.

What holds us together is that we exchange confidences on things we’d say to very few other people, whether it’s work or family. But we’d say them in the absolute confidence that it would not go beyond the two of us. It’s lovely to have someone with whom you can have a very honest conversation.

I’m big into food history and I’ve written 13 cookbooks, some of them with Georgina. One was a whole history of Irish food along with recipes. The publisher wanted it in two months. I said I can’t do that but got on the phone to Georgina immediately, and said we might do it together. There’s very few people you’d do that to because we knew it was going to be hell.

In the early days, some people in the Guild would throw up their eyes if somebody recognised me as Maggie from The Riordans. But I’d been acting since I was about four, was taught to smile sweetly and ignore everything. The transition from the acting to food was in about the mid-1980s, when I stopped acting completely. My mother, Ursula White, was a professor of drama and had a little theatre on Ely Place. I was four when I started acting, 18 when I began in The Riordans. My mother was a can’t cook, won’t cook person. After my father died, before my 10th birthday, she’d hand me money at the beginning of the week and say, sort the food shopping out.

Georgina Campbell has been a food writer since the 1970s and editor and author of the ‘Georgina Campbell Ireland Guides’, a family-run hospitality guide and cookbook publishers set up in 1997. She is a founding member and president of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild. Originally from England, she lives in Howth with her husband, WM Nixon

Biddy and I had known each other for some time but the first time I actually remember meeting her properly was when we sat around a table in the old Jury’s and started the first Food Writers’ Guild meeting.

We were having trouble with a company that was trying to bounce food writers against each other and get the price down for recipe leaflets. We’d do things like recipe development – I did stuff for the Cider Council for years, thinking up recipes that used cider. We decided we needed to band together. We also thought we’d be better placed to encourage our readers to cook at home. Theodora [Fitzgibbon] was the first president.

What I found in Biddy was straight talking – what you see is what you get. I recognised she was someone to be respected. I’d been in Ireland a long time, but I hadn’t been watching The Riordans. I’m not sure I admitted it. What impressed me was that that side of her life didn’t come into it. She wasn’t jumping about the place being “an actor”. She still has a huge following: very often, people do a double-take when they see Biddy, their jaws drop.

Our friendship is a food friendship, we talk about food all the time, don’t talk about families or other parts of our lives very much. We’re both quite private and respect that, but absolute trust is the unspoken foundation of our friendship.

Biddy and I both feel constant frustration with people and businesses who don’t operate to the standards that we would hope they would. Most particularly annoying are the ones who pretend to be something that they’re not. Some of the very big companies run advertising campaigns that ape artisan values and give the impression that they are like that. They use weasel words like farm fresh and home-made, that don’t have legal definitions. Or the biggest weasel-word, style – artisan-style bread, butcher-style sausages.

Biddy and I have a lot in common in our backgrounds – we both thought we were slaves to our parents: my mother was a cookery teacher and she wanted to come home to a dinner. My brother and I were expected to produce family meals from a very young age, even younger than 10. It was great training.

The kind of support that developed in the Guild is not just professional support. Biddy looked after Honor Moore – who was president from 1991 until she died a day after her 90th birthday. Biddy is a carer; if someone needs looking after, she is there. She’s a really good person at keeping up friendships and keeps an eye on people in a way that’s very low-key ad nice.

At this stage we can almost read each other’s minds, finish each other’s sentences. She’s just so honest in all her dealings, it makes it easy to get on with her.

 

The 21st Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards, which recognise producers of high quality food as well as people who support and promote Irish food, were announced this week. See irishfoodwritersguild.ie