Din­ner with Mrs Dick­ens

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country -

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

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