New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Back in Time for Dinner challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s

Brandon Robshaw
Sunday 01 March 2015 01:00 GMT
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s

Last summer my family and I took part in an unusual social experiment. For two-and-a-half months, we opened our house and lives to a television production company, which filmed us 12 hours a day, while we travelled in time from the 1950s to the 1990s. And in each of those decades, we wore the clothes, lived among the soft furnishings, and most important of all, cooked and ate the food of the period. From 1950 to the end of the 1990s, the government ran the National Food Survey, in which families recorded what they ate, and our menus were planned from this, so that every meal we ate had been eaten by a real-life British family some time in the past half-century.

There will inevitably be something artificial about such experiments; yet there is also something real. It's remarkable how swiftly you can switch from chatting with the cameraman one moment, to being immersed in eating your first fish finger the next. Yes, we were playing roles. But we were also living them. Some moments come back to me with startling clarity. I remember a picnic trip at Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns, where we ate corned-beef sandwiches and flew a kite, as if I really did that back in the 1950s (and in a way I did, even though I wasn't born then).

I suppose our family is a reasonably typical example of the 21st-century British model. My wife and I both work; I do the greater share of the cooking, while she does pretty much everything else. Family meals around the table are not unknown, but infrequent, because our three children (Miranda, 17; Rosalind, 15; Fred, 10) are out during the week at various clubs and activities – diving, dancing, fencing, music lessons – so it's not that often we're all in the same place at the same time, and meals tend to be staggered, and eaten in front of the telly.

Our diet is typically a fusion of the functional and the foodie: during the week, simple, easy-to-cook stuff (pasta with pesto, omelettes, pizza, jacket potatoes, sausage and mash, stir-fry from packaged supermarket ingredients); at the weekends, more ambitious roasts, risottos, casseroles, curries.

None of us is a fussy or faddy eater – like most 21st-century first-world kids, ours are well acquainted with foods and flavours from around the world and happy to try pretty much anything. Heading back to the 1950s, though, was a new kind of challenge.

The experience was a brilliant crash course in British postwar social history for the kids; for my wife and me, it was also an exercise in sensurround nostalgia. It brought home to us all how British food has been revolutionised in an incredibly short time; within living memory, the way we eat has been utterly transformed, not once but several times, and is still changing. And it made me realise how much of what we take to be individual choices are in fact driven by much larger forces – changes in technology, economics, culture and fashion.

The 1950s

For the first four years of the 1950s, food was still rationed. For us, this meant only a few days of privation, but that was quite enough to feel hungry all the time. There were no biscuits in the larder, no snacks in the fridge (there was no fridge). The children would come home from school looking for crisps or chocolate spread, and find nothing. (I wonder if it is a coincidence, by the way, that the comics of the period, The Beano, The Dandy and so on, featured so many stories about characters chasing food?)

This was particularly hard on Fred, who has a sweet tooth; he literally danced with joy the day sweets came off the ration. I'm not a great snacker, but I do tend to drink copious cups of tea throughout the day. That had to be given up – rationed tea needed to be measured out scrupulously, and careless use would mean none left for breakfast.

Breakfast, by the way, tended to consist of bread and dripping (for 21st-century readers I might need to explain that dripping is the fat from roasted meat, forming a salty, greasy spread that you keep in a pot in the larder).

I was the only one who tolerated the dripping – but none of us found the National Loaf easy to digest. As flour was scarce, it was padded out with potato starch and just about everything they could sweep up off the floor of the warehouse. Rosalind passed a miserable birthday, with a small cake made with powdered egg, and cold liver for tea (which she flatly refused to touch). But I wasn't at her birthday tea – as a 1950s pater familias, I ate in splendid isolation after I got home from work. I wasn't allowed in the kitchen either. That was now my wife's domain, and I had been banished.

I remember one meal with pleasure – a cow-heel pie that took my wife about five hours to make, served with fresh vegetables from the allotment. The cow heels weren't actually in the final pie, but boiled to make a rich gravy that bulked out the small pieces of mutton that were the pie's star ingredient. It did actually taste nice. But there wasn't nearly enough of it.

Will miss: cow-heel pie

Won't miss: pilchards on National Loaf bread

The 1960s

It's become a cliché that the 1960s was the first decade in colour. Like many clichés, it contains a large element of truth. We gasped when we saw the 1960s kitchen for the first time, with its luminous sky-blue walls and radioactive yellow curtains. This was an exciting decade. Breakfast cereals arrived, Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies and Frosties, and we ate them while listening to a radio broadcast about Yuri Gagarin orbiting the Earth. The future was here.

Food became fun – there were new, modern products such as fish fingers, in fluorescent packaging. It all felt extraordinarily liberating after the austerity of the 1950s. We got our first fridge – that meant Rochelle no longer had to go out shopping every day. New flavours appeared, miles away from the bland food (the Spam, the corned beef hash) of the 1950s: it was in the mid-1960s that we ate our first spaghetti bolognese, rich with garlic and tomatoes – a now commonplace dish that tasted unbelievably exotic to us.

The Robshaws in their 1960s kitchen, with its luminous sky-blue walls and radioactive yellow curtains (BBC)

In the 1960s, I also had the hallucinogenic experience of watching England win the World Cup while eating a Vesta "beef curry". At least that's what it said on the box. I'm sorry to report that Vesta meals don't taste as good as they did when I was a kid. Made of powdered chemicals, they taste of powdered chemicals.

With the arrival of new flavours and food technologies came a downside: food was getting more processed, stuffed with added sugar and salt. It was in many ways a childish decade, with the emphasis on novelty and instant gratification – and the children loved it. Rochelle, however, was starting to feel trapped. She looked great in her beehive hairdo, but had nowhere to go except the kitchen. Liberation had arrived in time for her daughters, but too late for her – even though she knew we were in a TV programme, she found it hard to shake this illusion off.

I did make my first foray into the kitchen towards the end of the 1960s, though, as I made chicken in cream sauce with grapes (a Graham Kerr recipe), with the aid of a newfangled electric blender. This was the first time we'd had chicken – until now, few could afford it.

Will miss: being able to eat spaghetti bolognese for the first time

Won't miss: Vesta beef curry

The 1970s

This was the decade when we ate together most as a family – the kitchen was now no longer an independent fiefdom of my wife's but an integral room of the house where we'd all hang around together, eating in the newly open-plan dining-room. A vivid memory, which is somehow mixed up with my own real memories, is of sitting at the table in candlelight during a power-cut in 1973; I'd tried to cook lamb chops on a little camping stove but it didn't work and we ended up with bread and cheese. It was exciting, and unifying, to huddle there in the flickering light, as if crouched round a fire in a Neolithic cave.

The processing of food went on apace: it was in the 1970s that the first aerated corn snacks, Quavers and Skips and the like, made their appearance: insubstantial but tasty, full of calories but lacking nutrition. Most of the lollies and ice-creams that we now think of as classics also made their appearance: the Fab, the Sky Ray, the Cornetto.

And in the late 1970s, the Pot Noodle arrived – even worse than the Vesta meals, if that were possible (although I have to confess that we all scoffed them). All these developments were made possible by new technologies and a growing affluence. There was no longer any shortage of snacks: our cupboards were full, and so was our fridge, and so was our deep-freeze, which, like every other British family, we acquired in the mid-1970s.

In a reaction to the growing processification of food, we felt the first faint stirrings of the need for a healthier diet. Miranda cooked her first proper meal for us: a vegan bean casserole with brown rice, which might sound dismayingly virtuous, but was actually lipsmackingly good.

The best meal I had in the 1970s was a curry (served "half-and-half" – with rice and chips) in a Brick Lane restaurant that my wife and I went out to. How did we ever manage without "proper" curries? There's nothing like that richness, that vibrancy, that refreshing pungent heat.

On the whole, though, the 1970s weren't great for food. But that's not how the children saw it – being let loose among all those lollies, snacks and confectionery felt like a holiday k to them. I look back on the decade with affection. It ended with a fondue party, naturally.

Will miss: fondue

Won't miss: Pot Noodles

The 1980s

Another true cliché is that the 1980s were a decade of contrasts: if you were wealthy, you lived the high life; if you weren't, you didn't – which is of course always true, but never more conspicuously so than then. My on-screen experience diverged sharply from my memories. In real life, I was a student at the beginning of the 1980s and a teacher at the end of them; but in this re-run we lived the life of a pretty affluent family.

Rochelle now had a job and big hair, and went off to work in a taxi. We fuelled our busy lives with coffee from our new filter machine; we gave a dinner party with ambitious recipes you couldn't make without a Magimix – but that was OK, as we had one. Best of all, we went to Anton Mosimann's restaurant and dined on nouvelle cuisine sluiced down with champagne. The food was fresh, colourful, beautiful and utterly delicious. People say that nouvelle cuisine isn't filling, but if you eat enough courses, it is.

Everyday food, though, continued to get less fresh and more processed. In our new microwave we cooked ready meals, which tasted of salt, fat and monosodium glutamate; as it's difficult to serve up this kind of food all at the same time, we started to stagger meals and drift off to eat in different parts of the house, or in front of the TV.

The dining table as the focus of family life dwindled in importance. But this hedonistic decade was the decade the children enjoyed most: they had roller-skates and BMX bikes and, at last, games consoles, and when they weren't playing on them, they could, for the first time, go into the kitchen and cook, or at least heat up, food for themselves – microwave chips and Pop Tarts.

Will miss: being able to afford to eat at Mosimann's

Won't miss: horrible takeaway pizzas

The 1990s

In the 1990s, it was as if we all suddenly stopped and thought, "Wait a minute, we've gone wrong somewhere with this food thing." For the first time we started to worry about whether we'd had our five-a-day, and to buy products such as Yakult and Nutrigrain bars. When we went shopping at the supermarket in our Previa "people mover", we were faced with a bewildering variety of food – 20 types of tomato, peppers of every hue. It's true that most of it was chilled, shrink-wrapped and flown in from the other side of the world – still something to work on there – but generally there was a new sense that we wanted to know where food came from, and that it was fresh and reliably sourced – a feeling intensified by the BSE crisis.

The menus from the National Food Survey started to place more emphasis on fresh, or quasi-fresh produce: pasta with broccoli, home-made Thai green curry. We even went to the lengths of making pasta with our new pasta machine. The results were good. But really, life's too short to make your own pasta.

The family found that there was much greater choice in the 1990s - and much bigger portions (BBC)

This was also the decade when wine started to flow like Niagara. We'd got through the whole of the 1950s on a single glass of sherry. By the 1990s, supermarkets had whole, sweeping aisles devoted to booze at knock-down prices.

Restaurant food stressed good-quality, untampered-with ingredients. A simple meal we had in that new invention, the gastropub, of free-range Moroccan chicken with cous cous, was one of my taste highlights of the series. And the eve of the Millennium saw us cooking seared tuna from a Jamie Oliver recipe. It was as if we'd come full-circle back to the 1950s, eating fresh, unprocessed food again. Only now there was greater choice. And much bigger portions.

Will miss: eating home-made pasta

Won't miss: making home-made pasta

Taking part in the series made me realise two things: one, that we are very lucky to be living at a time when it's possible to enjoy such a rich variety of foods – neither the possibility nor even the concept of being a "foodie" existed for ordinary people until the 1980s. And two, that in the few brief years we are all together under one roof as a family, we should make more effort to eat together regularly, for reasons of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

And the future of food? The final episode had us look forward to eating trends to come – perhaps we'll be dining off sustainable, protein-rich locusts and worms in the next decade or two. All one can say with certainty is that future trends are unpredictable, but when they materialise, they'll feel as inevitable as all the previous changes.

'Back in Time for Dinner' begins on BBC2 on 17 March at 8pm

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