Gordon Ramsay is not happy. He's taken a look at the way the average British family ignores one of our happiest national traditions and he doesn't like what he sees. More and more people are turning their backs on the family Sunday lunch. Inspired by Jamie Oliver's success in starting a school dinners revolution, Ramsay is calling for us to change our ways.
So today we launch the Sunday Lunch Campaign. We'll be publishing regular recipes and reporting on what we hope will be the first green shoots of the tradition's revival. And we won't be fighting alone. A whole kitchen full of celebrity chefs, including Michel Roux, plus Supernanny Jo Frost and experts from Childline, Relate and leading hospitals are backing us in trying to restore something as venerable as, well, as the roast beef of old England.
Never has such a message been so needed. In the 1950s, British families sat down together for a meal nearly every day. Today a mere 29 per cent of families eat together more than once a week, and, even when they do, more than three-quarters watch television rather than talk. A quarter of families don't even have a dining table, and among the ones who do, most never use it for eating on. Instead, around 80 per cent of them use it as support for those great family meal wreckers: the computer and television.
Where did it all go wrong? According to many, the Sunday lunch dates back to medieval days when the village serfs would be fed mugs of ale and a feast of spit-roasted oxen afterweaponry practice on a Sunday morning. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and here is mother, cheeks flushed, carrying the rib of beef, leg of lamb or joint of pork to the table as father stands by, sharpening the carving knife. Not just last Sunday, but the Sunday before, and before and before. That's the idea of Sunday lunch: continuity, family, security, bonding and plenty of horseradish.
It's time we picked up our weapons - carving knives and roasting pans - and fought to defend a tradition that has the power to keep us together. There used to be feast days, church on Sundays, and a sense of community. There used to be a village hall, a village pub. Hell, there used to be a village. Now it's just Mum ferrying the kids around, and Dad getting home late (or vice versa). Meals are for re-fuelling; breakfast is skipped; lunch is something you do, rather than have.
Sunday lunch is all the quality time we have left. Come on, you know you want it. You want the security, the warmth, the wine, even the arguments. Most of all, you want the roast. When the BBC asked the British public about their favourite foods, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding romped in as the top lunch. Antony Worrall Thompson agrees: "My favourite meal is a roast rib of beef. A big joint can last you the week. Cold on Monday, curry on Tuesday, shepherd's pie on Wednesday and so on."
But rather than go back to the Sunday lunch as was, we should go forward to a new, improved version that takes into account modern life, the changing role of women and the needs of our children. Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George's Hospital in London, says: "For toddlers, family meals around the table are a constant learning experience ... Studies show that eating as a family tends to involve more vegetables. Children tend to favour ready-made or junk food."
Everything should be looked at anew. Does Sunday lunch have to be every Sunday, or could it be every second or third Sunday? Can it be cooked occasionally by Dad? Does it have to be a roast with all the trimmings, or could it be a roast with a light, fresh salad? Does it have to be overcooked? Does it have to be British? Look at the way the Italians throw their family feasts; how Australians gather around the barbecue in summer; how Chinese families gather around tables of steamer baskets in dim sum restaurants. Indeed, does it even have to be at home? Perhaps once a month it could be in a good pub, with all the other families.
It's not where it is and what it is that is important, it's who it is. Parents, children, the parents' parents, the children's children. Modern life is so segmented, each generation leading such exclusive lives, that to place a six-year-old at a table next to a 72-year-old is to leave both entranced. Jo Frost, TV's Supernanny, says everyone should be brought into the table talk: "Encourage each family member to share details about their day, including challenges and positive things that may have occurred at work or school."
There has to be one meal a week that lasts for more than 30 minutes, when you can relax, eat more slowly, digest more easily, and let your body ease out. Then, because it's Sunday, there is time to have a good old-fashioned walk or an even better old-fashioned nap; further proof, if any were needed, that all is well with the world.
What's the secret of getting the family round the table for Sunday lunch? Each month we will publish a selection of your letters, with a mouth-watering prize for the best one. Write to: Sunday Lunch Campaign, The Independent on Sunday, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS. Or send us an email (subject: Sunday Lunch) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Author and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, right, says: "There's no point in getting hung up on having a traditional roast. Get the kids involved. Why not let your children discover what a real burger is by getting them to make one themselves? Youngsters love making the little meat patties with their hands. The beef is the most important ingredient - it's best not to buy it ready minced, as the beef used is often quite poor. Ask your butcher for 'topside' or 'top rump'. A little bit of fat on the outside will improve the flavour."
The recipe: Home-made beef burgers
INGREDIENTS (to make four burgers):
Coarsely minced topside or top rump of beef, about 500g; half a small onion; parsley; a small bunch of thyme leaves stripped from their stalks; about 1 teaspoon (or a pinch) of dried mixed herbs.
A little oil for frying; salt and black pepper; four floury baps or large, flat burger buns
Chop the onion finely and add to the mince. Chop the parsley and add, along with the thyme, a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper.
Divide the mix into 4 portions, form into balls and flatten with palms. Around 2cm thick is about right.
Heat oil over a medium heat. The burgers cook through in 7-10 minutes
From 'The River Cottage Family Cookbook' by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr, published by Hodder & StoughtonReuse content