Thursday, 16 April 2015

Back In Time For Dinner

Time travel isn't possible, unless you are The Doctor or Henry DeTamble. But this programme is the next best thing - dressing up, recreating and reliving an era. Or in this case, re-eating an era.

The lovely Robshaw family have been selected for this experiment. They are what I (and not necessarily others) think of as perfect television - charming, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, interested and interesting. Up for the challenge but unlike people on other fly-on-the-wall shows, not up anything else. Each week their house and lives are transported to a different decade from the past 50 years, and they have to cook and eat (as well as dress and look and live) like people from the era. They relive a different year each day. The recipes for their meals come from the National Food Survey and books from the time. They start off in the ultimate austerity of 1950s rationing, and finish in the 1990s with massive out-out-of-town supermarkets, a pull-out larder and IKEA Grundtal at their disposal. Ever so slightly smug Giles Coren and food historian Polly Russell help them along their journey.

I joined them in the 1970s, the first decade that I lived through. The programme was one long set of glorious (or not so glorious) flashbacks for me. Firstly, the arrival of a chest freezer, in our case in the garage. And then the excitement of a family trip to Iceland (or for us, Bejams) to stock it, scooping out entirely unpackaged frozen fruit and veg into plastic bags. Mary Berry demonstrates her system of colour-coding these bags to the Robshaws, since there are no drawers in their freezer: a freezer which has cost the equivalent of nearly a grand in today's no longer newly decimalised money.

And there's more: riding bikes around the streets and alleyways entirely unsupervised for hours on end, or at least long enough to lose your younger brother somewhere. (Sorry about that, Stu.) Silver Jubilee street parties, though the only one I went to was inside owing to rain. A cream rotary dial telephone. (We kept ours til 1990.) A brown Tupperware lunchbox just like the one that carried my jam sandwiches to school. Frequent power cuts at dinner time, during which our next-door neighbour always arrived with a freshly brewed pot of tea from his gas stove and a plate of home-made coconut ice. Pot Noodles, which I don't believe I was allowed to try until the mid 1980s. An explosion of new varieties of crisps, all laced with possibly lethal chemicals - Skips, Discos, and Smith's Squares. And the health-food rebellion against said chemicals, which I experienced by watching The Good Life and The Flumps, and which others witnessed by eating brown rice and houmous in Cranks. (Although I did endure several thousand trips to my dad's allotment on Sunday afternoons.) Indian restaurants opening all over the UK, but none near our house. A fondue party, but this last one is a flashback for me to the real thing in 1992 on a Swiss farm, where I was told I might die because I didn't drink hot tea with my melted cheese.
You can't beat 70s style dining
Or kitchen decor
At the start of the 70s, the dad is made (with little persuading) to sit in the pub while his wife cooks him tea. He can't be contacted so he can stay as long as he likes. In those days, a pub was still allowed to bar entry to a woman by herself. By the end of the 70s, women aren't necessarily going in to the pub, but they have had to go back to work to mend the family finances. And this has raised the need for convenience foods - boil in the bag fish, Arctic Roll and packets of Smash. Or Delia Smith's much forgotten first book, How To Cheat At Cooking, where every ingredient comes out of a tin. Or - as happened in our house - the dads are made to start cooking. (It helps that some of them are on a three-day week.) Modern-day dad Brandon is the main cook in the Robshaws' house, but this is the first time he has been allowed to set foot in the kitchen in this series. He is given a book called Pots and PanTs, which explains to husbands what an oven is and how to to turn it on. Brandon rustles up a coq-au-vin, determined (as he jokes to his son) not to "cock it up".

By the 80s, the convenience food trend has escalated. Packets of sandwiches mean that lunchbreaks can be halved and confined to office desks. It is the era of the Magimix, the sandwich toaster, the microwave and oven chip. Kitchen fires have also been halved as a result of the latter, although a fear of microwave radiation has replaced the fear of the chip pan going up in flames. Fizzy drinks come in plastic bottles in the supermarket, or can be made by Soda Streams. They also come in the form of Perrier and champagne lunches for the yuppie high-flyers trading in the City. Wine comes in a box. There is nouvelle cuisine for the rich, Walls' Viennetta for those who aspire to be rich, and McDonald's and pizza delivery for the kids. One slice is never enough. Certainly not of nouvelle cuisine. (But oh, the excitement when our town got a Pizza Hut!)

Rochelle is asked to create a nouvelle cuisine dinner to impress her boss at work. She burns the top of the goat's cheese tart while the bottom is soggy (Mary, come back!), and serves a raspberry instead of a raspberry coulis on the side. Brandon covers a poached salmon with cucumber slices to resemble fish scales. They flambé the creme brulée at the table. Would Rochelle get a promotion at work as a result of this meal, Brandon asks the guests? The answer is no.
1987 fine dining at my 14th birthday party

A genuine Ken Hom wok. 
Ken Hom turns up with his wok. Cooking is becoming a hobby as well as a necessity. Chinese cuisine is popular with the man in the kitchen, as it's noisy, active and ready almost immediately. Diets become fads. The F plan. The Grapefruit. The Green Goddess makes people exercise in front of Breakfast TV. For the Robshaw family are ever more slumped on the sofa, all eating different food at different times, generating packaging waste and staring at the television. On it they see the miners' strike and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They have a video party, wearing blue mascara and eating bright orange cheese toasties. Despite their encroaching couch potatodom, the kids still play for twice as long outside as kids do now, roller-blading in velour shorts, listening to Walkmans.

Riverford set up its organic veg box scheme in the 1990s.
Its founder, Guy Watson, was featured on the programme,
showing the Robshaws around his farm in Devon.
The 1990s sees Pop Tarts and Nutrigrain bars herald the end of the sit-down breakfast, and gastro pubs and sushi bars increase the sit-down lunch. Bags of salad, sauce jars and fresh pasta keep cooking easy but at least feel more home-made than the 1980s microwave ready meal. Value ranges in supermarkets make food cheaper than ever before. The threat of BSE, a tragic consequence of mass and cost-driven farming, gives rise to the organic veg box. Brian Turner turns up to host a mini Ready Steady Cook in the Robshaws' kitchen. Of which I subtitled several hundred episodes from 1999 onwards. It's hard to accept that something I see as so recent is now considered ancient history.

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