There was certainly a time when anything 70s was frowned upon. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight we’ve written off the music, the fashions, the attitudes, every aspect of 70s life, though the greatest of the withering contempt often came for the food of that decade. Against that backdrop, it is strange that many of the tastes of the 70s have in recent years come back, though often done with a knowing ironic twist, as if that makes serving grub that would otherwise be regarded as deeply unfashionable the green light. If you eat it with tongue firmly in cheek, you are excused what would otherwise be a social faux pas of epic magnitude.
This was after all a decade that came hard on the heels of the 60s, a period of social and cultural revolution in many spheres, but one which saw food stay in many ways the same as we had eaten since post-war austerity. Families ate a roast on Sunday, and men came home from work expecting their wives to have cooked them shepherd’s pie with the leftovers, or a tasty stew from cheaper cuts. Many of us were still wedded to what we saw as traditional British food – meat and two veg with the occasional treat of fish and chips, faggots and peas, or maybe pie and mash with stewed eels.
Desserts were probably good old-fashioned steamed puds along the lines of jam roly-poly and spotted dick, served with custard (Bird’s custard out of a packet, natch), though we kids at the time had to make do with Angel Delight “whipped desserts”, which at the time we thought was magical, and a step up from the blancmange of the 60s.
But those ten years saw the food industry and the retail sector commoditise many convenience foods for the first time, and at the same time immigrant communities were turning the few Indian and Chinese restaurants into a flourishing trade as we Brits began slowly to learn to love tastes from overseas – even if those in the far-flung corners of the British Empire had been amending local dishes to their own tastes for generations.
These and other new ideas developed our tastebuds, though progress was slow. I remember my first trip to an Indian restaurant with my family and my dad’s best friend. The restaurant was in Chester, and while the menu contained a number of dishes I had never heard of, the lunch special placed in front of me was more akin to the generic “curry” made up from a packet sauce or a combined powder from a pot bought in the supermarket (long before separate spices were available.)
Strangely enough there is a cult following for those too, both through the “Chinese restaurant curry” phenomenon and indeed curry sauce served on chips, “currywurst” served at fast food outlets in Germany and other outlets. It bears no relation to Indian dishes, but it’s spicy and satisfying in its own particular downmarket way.
Worse, my mother served us the most appalling Vesta dishes when we were away on holiday. These were basically dehydrated meals sold in a packet, a culinary abomination that you prepared in a fashion not unlike pot noodles nowadays. They included “chow mein”, a beef curry, paella and other dishes that attracted a cult following but were never any excuse for real food, and had not the slightest whiff of authenticity to any dish from the orient, the Indian subcontinent or Spain. We have come a long, long way since then, though it appears the company and its products have been revived and still sell. No accounting for taste!
However, a special night out at a restaurant for most people probably meant something like a Berni Inn steakhouse. The “classic 70s” menu of the time was possibly stereotyped but ask most people who were around at the time and they would say an awful prawn cocktail, a small rump steak (grilled to within an inch of its life and served with chips or mash and frozen peas), then that luxury dessert of the time, Black Forest Gateau (or rather, a very rough and cheap approximation of a creamy chocolate and cherry gateaux originating around southern Germany but probably nothing remotely like the original.)
In fairness, there were other options: starters may have included half a grapefruit (made more exotic by virtue of being topped by half a maraschino cherry), a vile orange-coloured liquid that tasted stale, metallic and over-sweetened (probably rehydrated from a can and designated under the title of “orange juice”), and so on. The gammon steak photographed above (minus the fried egg that invariably accompanied it) gives you an indication of how unappealing foods looked, and you can imagine how they tasted. Then there were the adaptations of classic dishes like coq au vin, chicken kiev and chicken cordon bleu (never the original veal, of course.) Chicken became a ubiquitous choice for those who were not sure of red meat but didn’t like fish.
Pub food was generally in its infancy, that archetypal invention of the 60s marketing industry, “ploughman’s lunch“, notwithstanding. But if you got any hot food at a pub, it would probably be of the “chicken in the basket” ilk. In my youth I thought this must be something very special. It didn’t occur to me until some time later than it was simply fried chicken and chips, although even that might have been an evolutionary step towards the American Southern Fried Chicken, which eventually materialised over here into the KFC chain. Ditto, the first burger bars I can remember were Wimpy, though eventually the likes of McDonalds and Burger King took over and fast food became the norm.
Sadly for us, most of the special dishes available at the time were probably boil-in-the-bag, these being the days before microwaves – the continuation of the same industrial tradition that so many pubs and cheap restaurants continue to this day, much to my chagrin. Restaurants cooking fresh food from locally-sources ingredients were rare, even to the extent that London restaurants like Wheelers and Wiltons may well have sold you some fine grilled seafood in a recipe which included canned veg and even fruit.
Home entertaining was unquestionably revolutionised by the popularity of great cookery books, not only the likes of Mrs Beeton and the Constance Spry but especially Marguerite Patten and others. Later we lusted after the food made by the first TV chef, “galloping gourmet” Graham Kerr, which encouraged us to learn some basic rustic French and Italian recipes and to repeat them in rough approximations without any authentic ingredients – only what the supermarkets would flog us.
For example, for the first time we began to learn the virtues of pasta and sauces, which my mother took up enthusiastically in the form of a bolognaise sauce. At my 13th birthday party, this dish was cooked for me, my sister and a small, select group of friends. While Sally and I polished off ours with aplomb, my mates struggled to cope with the technique of eating spaghetti, more because they had evidently never had the chance to practice. Shame that we only had an awful long-life version of grated parmesan to accompany it, but this was long before the days when the real cheese was sold in blocks in supermarkets.
If you wanted to impress, you might serve fondu. This was highly fashionable for a time in the late 60s and early 70s, the height of sophistication, you might say. I’d have to say that as a cheese lover I never went off the fondu, and continued to make them into the 90s, by which time the nearest living relative was probably the chocolate fountain.
So, what are your memories of 70s food: any better than mine?