The Seventies are served
This Tuesday, the new BBC Two cookery show Back in Time for Dinner has a very special guest at the table, none other than moi. This series, where the Robshaw family eats, cooks and shops its way through the decades, has now got up to the Seventies, my decade, as I like to think of it. And on Tuesday, the Robshaws give a dinner party. The Seventies was the decade when the dinner party came into its own and young sophisticates such as myself daringly served up fancy foreign dishes and showed off our newly acquired culinary skills to family and friends. Either that, or we faked it with recipe books such as Delia Smith’s 1971 How to Cheat at Cooking, the inspiration for this Tuesday’s fare. Delia showed us how to jazz up tinned soup with fresh herbs and how to incorporate newly introduced convenience foods such as instant mashed potato into dinner-party dishes. According to Delia, there was no need to be snobbish about preparing meals from scratch as, when enhanced with her sneaky little additions, nobody would ever know the difference. So the guests, writer Mary Gwynn and myself, sit down to carrot and potato soup, cottage pie with dried mince and Smash, and brandied tinned plums served with double cream. Along with this cheat’s food went the cheat’s wine, and so we are poured glasses of Blue Nun, the semi-sweet German wine so popular in the Seventies. It was specially blended for people who didn’t know anything about wine and, as such, soon acquired a reputation for being naff. I understand the wine has been reformulated since the Seventies, but our Blue Nun (yes, you can still get it) still tasted very sweet. Mind, it could have been worse in the actual Seventies, as you might have been treated to a home-made wine made by the man of the house from a kit. These, and home-brew beer kits, sold in their millions during this decade and were produced with a triumphant flourish, even if the poor guests had the urge to pour the stuff into the nearest potted plant. As we sat around the table, we discussed what it was like to be a Seventies host, or hostess. Although in 1971, 42 per cent of women worked outside the home, compared with only 21 per cent in 1951, roles remained strictly segregated and women’s work was still women’s work, even if you brought home an equal, or greater, wage. I, as one of the 42 per cent of women workers, would rush around the shops in my lunch hour buying ingredients and then lug them home, because however hard you cheated, you still had to cook. Then on Saturdays, I would trundle around one of those newfangled things, the supermarket, while my husband sat in the car park reading the paper. You would never see a man in a supermarket in those days and all supermarket advertisements were aimed at housewives. Men were nervous of being seen as under the thumb, so it was considered a major concession if your husband drove you to the supermarket and helped you unpack back home. I’m not saying the man didn’t do his bit. If you were really lucky, he might buy you a dishwasher for Christmas. Or a Magimix food processor. I still have the Kenwood mixer that my then husband bought me in 1975 for my birthday. Just what I had always wanted! In the event, it has done sterling service and is still in use, long outlasting the husband. In the Seventies, the man would always buy, uncork and pour the wine, filling the glass of each guest as the little woman would wheel in the dinner on a heated hostess trolley. Even in those days these appliances were seen as horribly nouveau, and many people said they preferred cold food to being served from a hostess trolley. My own Seventies guests were served through the hatch, a useful device for handing food through the wall rather than walking it down the hall. Hatches have pretty much disappeared, as during the Seventies knocking through became popular and once-separate sculleries, kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms gradually became open plan. This at least meant that the cook could join in the fun rather than be out in the kitchen all the time. One thing that was not authentic in this episode was the lack of smoking. In the real Seventies, every guest would smoke, not only before and after the meal, but during it as well. It was common to have a smoking break between courses and some people even smoked while eating. Nobody thought anything of it, or even of the overflowing ashtrays and fags stubbed out in the remains of the spaghetti bolognese. Nobody bothered, either, about drink-driving and guests often drove home horribly drunk. It was common for dinner parties to last until four in the morning, but ours ended long before that, to the relief of the Robshaws no doubt. Music always accompanied a dinner party: Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens’s Teaser and the Firecat, Roxy Music – ah, those were the days. For me, this deservedly popular series has a particular resonance as it marks the television debut of Dr Polly Russell, a food historian and copresenter with the witty Giles Coren. I have known Polly since she was 12 and at the same boarding school as my son. As teenagers, Polly and Will were girlfriend and boyfriend. In the end they married other people but remain friends, living just around the corner from each other, and no doubt inviting each other to strictly 2015-style dinner parties. ‘Back in Time For Dinner’, BBC Two, Tuesday March 31, 8pm Throughout this decade, households were obsessed with electrical gadgets and the more you had in your kitchen, the merrier. These came into their own during the Seventies: The eye-level grill Margaret Thatcher had one in her Seventies kitchen and they were all the rage, along with ceramic hobs decorated in a wheatsheaf pattern. The Breville sandwich toaster Launched in Australia in 1974, it soon became hugely popular all over the world. Its inventors were Bill O’Brien and Harry Norville, who put their names together to form the word Breville, which has become the generic name for a sandwich toaster. You can still get them. The electric carving knife Every modern home had to have one during the Seventies and they were billed as “the glamorous way to carve a turkey”. The chest freezer Every home aspired to a vast chest freezer, often kept in the garage, and cooking for the freezer became popular. Often housewives would cook a full week’s meals and then freeze them. The magazine Home and Freezer Digest enjoyed huge sales and whole cookery books were written for the freezer. What you kept in your freezer was a popular dinner-party topic of conversation.
Relived: Liz joins the Robshaws in ‘Back in Time for Dinner’, top