Dinner with Mrs Dickens
How times have changed! The last report, in 2014, showed that only 3.1% of fresh fruit and vegetables entering the average household came from gardens and allotments. Conversely, a third of household income in the 1940s went on food purchases, compared to 11% in 2014.
By 1960, the survey was highlighting the increasing popularity of the convenience foods that had been more prevalent since 1956; these were now taking up one-fifth of the average household food budget.
The switch to processed foods, such as breakfast cereals, frozen peas and beans, canned fruit and vegetables, was partly attributed to housewives taking up paid employment, which diminished the opportunity—‘and perhaps inclination’— to prepare meals. The rise in refrigerator ownership must also have
As Charles Dickens was penning his famous stories, his wife, Catherine, was also writing a book from the point of view of the beleaguered housewife. Entitled What Shall We Have For Dinner?, it was written under the pen name of Lady Maria Clutterbuck, after a character she had played in the theatre, and had an introduction from her husband, under the guise of sir Charles Coldstream. Mrs Dickens explained that the book’s purpose was to ‘rescue many fair friends from such domestic suffering’. There are recipes for scotch minced collop, turbot with smelts and shrimp sauce, oyster curry and Italian cream, but toasted cheese makes frequent appearances—she owned a utensil that was a precursor of the fondue set. The Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty street, London WC1, has acquired a copy of the 1852 book from an antiquarian bookseller; it forms part of an exhibition, ‘The Other Dickens; Discovering Catherine’, which runs until November 20 (http://dickensmuseum.com; 020– 7405 2127). played a part. The 1968 report—which declared that the supermarket was now commonplace—discovered that, in the previous six years, the proportion of households possessing a fridge had risen from about a third to more than half, with more than two-thirds of the population of the southeast owning one. By 1973, deep-freezer ownership had jumped 50% in two years to 14% of the population. A curiosity of that year’s report was the attention given to farmers. Of those sampled, 50% owned a deep freezer and the energy in the diet in farmers’ and farm-workers’ households was recorded as greater than in others, partly because of their greater physical activity and the amount of carbohydrates, fat and animal protein they consumed.
The reports offer an insight into how the trend towards eating out increased dramatically between the immediate postwar period and the early 1980s. In 1950, half the adult population of Britain never ate meals in any kind of catering establishment. Fewer than a third did so occasionally, and only about one fifth did so regularly. By 1983, the average person ate three meals a week away from home, although the 2014 report shows the actual amount of food eaten out has been in decline since 2001.
Defra has its work cut out in its drive to champion British food and regional enterprise. ‘Local food’ has been a buzz-phrase in the marketing of domestic farm products for more than a decade, but the last Family Food survey suggests the average consumer in the cost-conscious 21st century has reacted to food-price inflation by trading down. Jack Watkins
Fast foods: exotic dishes also became a staple of our diet, although the trend now is towards authenticity