Back in time for dinner – British nostalgia, or just bad food?

Inspired by Giles Coren's new BBC programme, Back In Time For Dinner, Rhodri Marsden wonders whether his fond memories of meals gone by are all imagined...

Nostalgia lends a glossy sheen to things that were probably rubbish. But it’s a powerful force, used by musicians, stand-up comedians, fashion designers, TV executives, film producers and politicians to persuade us that things used to be great. Sometimes we believe them because our memories are bad. Nylon sheets, carbolic soap, Spangles and power cuts somehow combine to form an idealised, fuzzy picture of our past. But today is much better. Honest.


And food is better. Way better. British food used to be a small step up from mud garnished with sticks, and if you try to get nostalgic about it you will fail. Giles Coren’s current series, Back In Time For Dinner, makes this clear. With the assistance of period furniture and retro clothing, he’s been guiding the Robshaw family through the last 50 years of British cuisine using data provided by the National Food Survey. And while the Robshaws are lovely and the programme is great, the food is unspeakable. Unlike an old photo album, a 1980s episode of Top Of The Pops or a school reunion, there are absolutely no redeeming features. From a Vesta beef curry to a glass of Rise and Shine, it’s a deep-frozen, just-add-water, boil-in-the-bag horror show.

Reams has been written about Britain’s lengthy and difficult emergence from rationing and the unusual items we found ourselves eating as a result. It’s a fascinating subject, but it’s not one you can get nostalgic about. You rarely find yourself saying to a pal: “Oh, mate, I miss those days when we used to boil beef for hours on end and when everyone was scared of broccoli.” These were barbaric times. Food was merely fuel, lumps of matter that enabled us to move to and fro. Olive oil came in tiny vials on a chemist’s dusty shelves. Herbs were merely stop-motion characters in a children’s TV programme. Grapefruit was purchased by hotels, cut in half and served for breakfast with a glacé cherry on top. No one knows why, but one thing’s clear – no one wants it any more.

There are odd moments during Back In Time For Dinner where you think, “Oh, maybe that wasn’t so bad”. A Family Circle biscuit selection. Wall’s Viennetta. Soda Stream. A Breville toasted sandwich or an Arctic Roll. But all these things are all still available, and have somehow stood the test of time. The other stuff – eyebrow-raising food in brightly coloured packaging, unencumbered by nutritional information in case it prompted widespread panic and rioting – died out for one good reason: people realised it was bad. In the year 2015, I don’t want to lose a tooth in a TEXAN toffee bar any more than I yearn for a chip pan fire, the Black And White Minstrel Show or 15% interest rates.

We’re lucky to live in a time where Britain has shaken off much of its dubious culinary past, although admittedly things still aren’t perfect. It’s not that long since I saw some “Chip shop style chicken curry pasta” in a supermarket just outside Cwmbran. Remembering that godawful product made me laugh. But would it ever prompt nostalgia? Surely not. 

Why not make your own Vienetta? Try our recipe here

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