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Why we are more than what we eat

24 April 2015

BACK IN TIME FOR DINNER is a wittily titled BBC2 series about families and food, featuring Brandon and Rochelle Robshaw and their three children, who re-lived 50 years of domestic cooking and eating, from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Along the way, their kitchen evolved from an austere fridge-free box to an expansive family room, via the orange-and-brown weirdness of the 1970s. Their shopping and eating was patterned on the fascinating archive of the British Food Survey, which documented family meals prepared by British housewives from 1940 to 2000.

The Robshaws began their reliving of food history in the '50s, with no fridge, 5 oz of meat (liver), one egg per person per week, and the hideous National Loaf, often with dripping. This was austerity; and they were visibly hungry on post-war rations. Rochelle slaved away in the kitchen all day; Brandon came home for a cooked lunch, which he ate in solitary splendour.

"This could break a woman," Rochelle said desperately, as she leaned over the cooker. (I remember my mother saying much the same thing to my seven-year-old self, as she sagged over the wringer.)

Of course eating is about more than food, as religions have always recognised. It is about conversation, relationship, inclusion. Who cooks what and where and for whom, and how it is eaten, shapes families and thus society. It was gripping to see the friendly and gregarious Brandon beginning to act the part of distant patriarch when he found himself excluded from the kitchen.

The trend over 50 years has been for cheaper and cheaper food, access to different cuisines, and new ingredients. With this is a greater informality in dining, and much greater individual fussiness about what we eat. The Robshaws still eat together, but perhaps less often.

The technology of eating has influenced us less than we might think. Cookers are still cookers, but we don't use the freezer or the microwave in quite the way it was assumed we would. All that chopping and blanching never really happened, and as for the whole Sunday lunch in the microwave - surely no one really used Bovril to "brown" the chicken breast?

Research into our shopping and eating habits continues, but I was sad to discover that some people now refuse to take part because they think it is an invasion of privacy. That speaks of real fragmentation in society, the family meal no longer educating us into an attitude of hospitality to neighbours and strangers.

It occurred to me, as the series ended this week, that the ministry of the Church in its lunch clubs and coffee mornings is more important and sacramental than we might think.

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