Back in time for dinner – history and food

What we eat and how we eat has changed over time. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but the recent BBC series Back in Time for Dinner brought this concept home – literally – to the Robshaw family.

The premise of the show was relatively simple. Using the National Food Survey to direct the family’s eating and shopping habits, the Robshaws would spend a day living each year in food from 1950 to 1999. Each episode covered a single decade. At the beginning of each episode, their kitchen and dining room were redecorated and fitted with the latest appliances. For the 1950s, that meant no refrigerator. By the 1990s, the family was popping off to a Tesco megastore in a people carrier to do their big shop.

By reducing each year to a single day, of course, it was difficult to recreate all of the aspects of life in twentieth-century Britain. It was remarkable, however, how the family of five reacted to “new” appliances, foods and techniques. The end of rationing, for example, was a welcome relief. The refrigerator allowed the mother to shop once every couple of days rather than every morning. And the microwave helped the two working parents to prepare quick and filling meals in minutes.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the gender roles being performed by the parents and the eldest daughter (17). In the 1950s, the mother spent almost all her time on housework. Without a vacuum cleaner, fridge or freezer, everything had to preserved in the larder. The food was bland and, until the end of rationing, there wasn’t much of it. The 1960s, however, saw a plethora of labour-saving devices, and food became plentiful. The daughter was able to “move out” into a sixties-style bedsit. Meanwhile, the mother – unable to work, and with less to do around the house – spent most of the 1960s completely bored. While thankful in some ways for the spare time, she noted that the supposed “freedom” of the 1960s seemed to apply to the young and to men more than it did the middle-class housewife.

In the 1970s, the three-day week and spiralling inflation forced her to take on a part-time job. But while her husband was allowed down the pub with his mates, she was still expected to do the housework and cook when she got home. This seemed to be difficult for both parents. In the real world of the twenty-first century, the father is the usual cook and housework is shared between them. This slowly changed over the 1980s, and both parents seemed more comfortable in their roles.

The youngest son (10) seemed most excited by the changes in diet. Mostly the increase in sugar. In the 1950s sweets were a rare treat. By the 1970s he was stuffing himself with flavoured crisps, chocolate and biscuits. Indeed, the family noticed that as the “years” went on, they were snacking more and consuming far more sugar. On the days in which they tried “alternative” diets – such as wholefoods in the 1970s and organic vegetables during the BSE crisis of the 1990s – they were somewhat glad to be getting away from instant mash, pot noodles and processed ready meals.

As with most television history, there was plenty that could not be shown. But the nuances of the twentieth century were articulated fairly well. During the miners’ strike of the mid 1980s, for example, the family ate a very meagre stew as written in the survey by a Northern housewife struggling to make ends meet. And rather than presenting a narrative of progress in nutrition or downfall into obesity and diabetes, the family and presenters both showed that there were gains as well as losses.

Despite being a good series overall, there are some caveats. First, the family were clearly of the middling sorts – not rich, but certainly not from the lower working classes. They were also from the South East, which did improve their access to food and to the “new” fashions. New appliances arrived when around half of households would have had them – which is reasonable, but still means that they had a refrigerator in the early 1960s, when many would not. The final episode, which opened by saying they would use the food survey to predict future trends, also made the historian in me wince. Still, it did show how present-day issues such as meat production, the decline of the large supermarket, obesity and price will have to be dealt with as matters of public health and government policy.

For those interested in a potted history of the late twentieth century through the lens of food, this programme offers an entertaining overview. It deals with issues around health, politics, culture and society with a good level of balance and sensitivity. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

All six episodes of Back in Time for Dinner are, at the time of writing, still available to those in the UK through the BBC’s iPlayer service.

Gareth Millward, Research Fellow, Centre for History in Public Health