Food in the 1970s: What went wrong?

Time has moved on and the two greedy young scamps from the 60s, Ronnie Hughes and Barry Ward are now teenagers about to experience the gastronomic sophistications of the 70s. Or are they?

Food in the 1960s, as long-time readers of the blog might remember, was nowhere near as bad as our memories might have us believe. Trawling through said memories with my North Liverpool contemporary Barry Ward, we found a world where food was shopped for fresh and locally most days of the week, and then cooked from scratch by our mothers, the stay at home housewives of that age.

But come the early 1970s things have gone badly wrong.

An early 1970s larder.

An early 1970s larder.

Everything’s in tins or boxes and there’s some powder up there on the top shelf called Milquick. Yes, convenience foods have arrived in a big way.

The money's just changing over to decimal and Cadbury's Smash is changing the taste of mashed potato.

The money’s just changing over to decimal and Cadbury’s Smash is changing the taste of mashed potato.

I’m seventeen years old as the money changes and have got a Saturday job at Lennon’s Supermarket in Central Square Maghull. So I’m good at doing the conversions into what I will call ‘the new money’ for many years to come.

A Lennon's Supermarket. No pictures of mine, this one's in St Helens.

A Lennon’s Supermarket. No pictures of mine, this one’s in St Helens.

Our prices, pre-decimalisation.

Our goods, pre-decimalisation.

There’s not much fresh food in our supermarket. There’s a meat counter, where I’ll get my long hair all matted up with grease carrying in sides of pork from the delivery lorry. And there’s the veg counter run by smiling and popular Ron the Racist (There are no black people in Maghull in these days for him to insult, but I know he’s a racist from his reactions to the music papers he’ll find me reading at lunch times).

There's fresh bread too.

There’s fresh bread too.

But here’s a clue to what’s gone wrong. We never stack the bread shelves because they’re owned by the bread companies who fill them with replacement Wonderloaves every day. These are the new industrially produced kind of bread, churned out in vast amounts and stripped of virtually all their nutritious ingredients.

We don’t know it at the time but the people of Britain are losing control of their food chain.

Ask any kid.

Ask any kid.

Goodness only knows what chemical concoction resulted in that yellow colour but I do remember this powdered dessert tasting much better than its direct competitor.

Slop, and nothing to do with raspberries.

Slop, and nothing to do with raspberries.

For Sunday tea there might well be a posh dessert.

Still out of a box though.

Still out of a box though. (And yes it’s clearly recently ‘back’)

Everything is now coming pre-packaged.

Even fish are now rectangular.

Even fish are becoming rectangular.

And the food chemicals industry is beginning its decades long pseudo-scientific onslaught on butter.

From a 1070 TV Times.

From a 1970 TV Times.

So talking of TV, isn’t anyone providing any advice to counteract all this corporate hokum?

Well Fanny and Johnnie are still going, but no one's taking much notice.

Well Fanny and Johnnie are still going, but no one’s taking much notice.

So what does a stylish night in look like for most of us?

Yes, along with the 'steak' boxes of 'foreign' food are arriving.

Yes, along with the ‘Swiss steak’ boxes of ‘foreign’ food are arriving.

In Lennon’s we have a single shelf marked ‘Foreign Food’. As well as the Vesta boil in a bag meals there are packets of spaghetti and something called Paté de Fois Gras. Hardly anyone touches the stuff, except for me taking a box of Vesta Beef Curry home one day for a bewildered mother to boil up. I liked it.

And how are Barry and his family doing in this food revolution?

“The 1970’s saw me experience for the first time the delights of curry, proper spaghetti and other forms of pasta, pizza and wine, but these were occasional treats rather than staples of my diet. I lived with my mum & dad until I got married in 1976 and looking back, I’m pretty sure that such sophistication remained alien to them, although my dad’s appetite for pigs trotters and tripe perhaps declined as the decade progressed.”

In my memory most of our mothers are still at home at this time. Women returning to work in large numbers is still years away. So they’ll still serve up the nutritious meals of the 1960s when they can. But of course they’re under pressure from the TV, the supermarkets and us lot to give us all this new stuff.

And when friends come round on a Saturday night?

Oh yes.

Oh yes, ‘Dinner Parties’ have arrived.

“Yes, the ‘Dinner Party’ culture, shown in all its awful reality in ‘Abigail’s Party’ by Mike Leigh, and best of all to my mind, a classic episode of ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads’ in which aspirational couples such as Bob & Thelma invited their newly-posh neighbours from the Elm Lodge Housing Estate to admire their soft furnishings, and eat stuff like vol-au-vents, and cheese and pineapple on sticks whilst listening to a bit of Demis Roussos in the background.”

Abigail...and Demis Roussos.

Abigail…and Demis Roussos.

As well as this at home sophistication, ‘going out for meals’ is starting to happen for the working classes. Naturally for us, as we’re starting to have girlfriends. But also for our parents. And where do we all go?Food in the 1970s12 Food in the 1970s13

As you can see, prices - even for then - are amazingly cheap.

As you can see, prices – even for then – are amazingly cheap. That’s eight shillings and nine old pence (44p in the new money) for fish, chips and an afters!

” Lovely to see the full glory of their menu reproduced.”

This pre-decimal Berni Inn hasn’t yet developed the standard starter and dessert that will come later in the 70s.

Prawn Salad to start.

Prawn Cocktail to start.

And of course Black Forest Gateaux to finish. Barry here on an early Berni Inn experience with his soon to be wife, Ann.

“An early date at Chester Zoo was followed by a slap up meal at a Berni Inn (Prawn cocktail, rump steak with the inevitable side order of onion rings, black forest gateaux…all washed down with a half bottle of Blue Nun’ liebfraumilch ! Yes I was that sophisticated and knew how to treat a lady, even in those days…ha. ha). Then we went to a nearby pub. A bit of a dive, but it had a jukebox.”

(Despite this Barry and Ann are still together, with three daughters and a new grandson. Well done that Berni Inn!)

“Wine…….the success of Berni Inns made many people of working class origins realise that you could ‘enjoy’ a glass of wine with a meal. This seemed like a huge leap in sophistication at the time, and I can recall the first appearances of bottles of wine in our household. Invariably these would be ‘Blue Nun Liebfraumilch’ or a bottle of ‘Mateus Rose’. After the bottles were drained, another leap into new areas of sophistication was to put a candle in the top to replicate the dining experience of a Berni Inn, even better when the melted wax ran over the lower part of the bottle and solidified!”

Even Jimi enjoyed a drop of Mateus, early in the 70s.

Even Jimi enjoyed a drop of Mateus, early in the 70s.

Talking of such sophistication, if Fanny and Johnnie are not much use in the advice department any more don’t worry, help is on the way!

Delia will soon be here.

Delia will soon be here.

The first cookery book I ever bought.

The first cookery book I ever bought.

But all that’s in the mid-70s as we get our first flats and discover you can’t live all that well when the most sophisticated food you can produce is a boil in the pan Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie.

So meanwhile we can always drink.

So meanwhile we can always drink.

Cue a top quality social history memory from Barry:

“The picture of the can of ‘Party 7’ brought back memories of the annual ritual of watching live football matches on TV in the early 1970’s once colour TV had arrived. You’ll recall that there were very few matches screened live on TV in those days, but the exceptions were of course the FA Cup Final and the Home Internationals in May. The tradition in our household on Cup Final Day would be for me to get up early to watch the coverage, which seemed to start at about 9am with pictures of the players taking a stroll in the grounds of their respective hotels. This would be followed by live footage of them getting on the coaches and someone like David Coleman conducting interviews on the coach, whilst helicopters showed us how near to Wembley they were getting. In between was the traditional ‘Meet the Players’ feature, as well as ‘The Road to Wembley’ and a football themed edition of ‘It’s A Knockout’.  The excitement mounted as the cameras focused on the fans swarming up Wembley Way, and the inevitable shots of those fans without tickets attempting to scale the walls. Then there was the ‘Community Singing’  usually led by someone like Bruce Forsythe and culminating with ‘Abide With Me’ before the teams emerged.

Colour TV has arrived.

Colour TV has arrived.

Back to the food and drink theme!  My mum, sensibly, would go out shopping for the afternoon but before going would prepare a huge plateful of sandwiches, usually cheese or ham. At about 2 o’clock various neighbours would arrive, so there were usually about a dozen men & boys crowded around the telly. Here’s the thing…..every one of the dads brought along a can of Party Seven and a pint beer glass (dimpled with handles obviously) !  The cans were opened in the time honoured way, by bashing the top with a large screwdriver & hammer, and the drinking began in earnest.  By the end of the game everyone was bladdered. My dad held the record for missing the most goals over the years….I don’t think he had a particularly weak bladder, but invariably whenever he had to visit the toilet….which during the 2nd half was fairly frequently, he always missed a goal. During quiet periods of play my next door neighbour would always urge my dad to go for a wee.

And then there was Home Brewing.

And then there was Home Brewing.

Sticking with the beer theme, in the mid-1970’s my dad fully embraced the craze for ‘Home Brew’. You’ll recall that a substantial area of Boots The Chemist was given over to the paraphernalia of Home Brew kits. Various sections of our house….the cupboard under the stairs, the space next to the boiler, the loft…..were filled with demi-johns and bottles of beer in various stages of development. Obviously much of the stuff was drunk long before it was properly ready, and I can still recall the dreadful hangovers that resulted, but looking back, it’s amazing how massive this craze was at the time.”

Or eat sweets. Remember Bar Six?

Finally, there were the sweets. Remember Bar Six?

And when Curly Wurly were a decent size?

And when Curly Wurly were a decent size?

See? It wasn’t all bad.

See our other food blogs:
Food in the 1960s: Actually it was quite good
Food in the 1960s: What else were we eating?
Sweets in the 1960s: Or, where did all those fillings come from?

 

18 thoughts on “Food in the 1970s: What went wrong?

  1. stan cotter

    oh ron all so true my friend.. some now call cooking a meal by putting unwrapped in the microwave, plus instant tea bags instant coffee oh the list is endless, thanks for that reminder ron its good

    Reply
  2. Cathy Alderson

    What memories! I remember all that and also the advent of yogurt. I plagued my Mum for it and then hated the taste! I soon acquired it though, along with Vesta meals and forays into Town to try Chinese in Nelson St. and Indian food cooked in a Tandoori at the Mumtaz.
    I can recall watching Fanny and Johnny when she was cooking doughnuts,and at the end of the show Johnny said, straight to camera, without any guile – ” Well that’s all for today, and I hope your doughnuts turn out like Fanny’s” !!!!!

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      I remember a lot of Johnny’s comments being lost on me throughout the 60s. But by this point he was the main reason to watch their programmes! You could get away with a lot with a posh voice.

      Reply
  3. robertday154

    The Fray Bentos S&K pie is still available, and frankly, I keep one in most of the time. But then again, that’s a bit of a treat for me as I usually do most of my cooking from scratch.

    Reply
  4. Stephen John Roberts

    Brilliant post. I remember it all so well. Do you remember toast toppers? Fortunately, my mum and my grandmothers denied the temptations of these instant foods and continued to make everything for themselves. This is wonderful social history.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      I certainly do remember Toast Toppers. Would live off them all week before pushing the boat out on a Sunday with said Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pie.

      Good to hear from you Stephen.

      Reply
  5. studiotower

    I remember being told that TV dinners, tinned complete meals, were the outgrowth of military rations from WWII. As soon as someone invented the fast-food drive through window all thoughts of real cooked food departed the reach of mortal man, and woman. I for one am still a sucker for toaster pop-up pastries. Here in Indiana we just deep fry everything and it shows.

    Reply
      1. studiotower

        Ronnie and Friends, I have to apologize. It’s me, Mitch. It turns out without my remembering that I registered under 2 names. Once a while back, and then recently in answer to the Overhead blog. I’ll remedy this over the next few days. Again my apologies….Mitch

      2. studiotower

        I must have given you a start alright. Out here in Indiana, where if you ask to be seated in “No Smoking” at a restaurant, they just take the ashtray off the table, people do say the same thing. But it may not be what you and I want to hear.

  6. jbaird

    An amazing trip through memory lane, Ronnie. The British culture of that era differs a bit from the American culture, but not that much. My stay-at-home mum used to can everything we grew in our garden and orchard. I remember helping her in the kitchen with the pitting and the sterilisation of the Mason jars. And then all too soon came the blitz of boxed and commercially canned foods of every sort. Fortunately, we’ve gone back somewhat from chemically processed fare into the slow-food movement and organic produce from farmer’s markets. They make a huge difference. The pictures you show are amazing. x.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thank you Jan for your California memories. I never heard of anyone over here doing their own canning, certainly not in Liverpool. We’ve got a couple of ‘Canning Streets’ here but they’re named after a Georgian prime minister, not a food preservation process!

      In these latter years, in food matters, we also have a brutal class divide now thanks to ‘austerity’ politics. Where many are queuing for the basics to survive at food banks, while just down the road others are at farmer’s markets or, worse, cooing over artisan foods at divisive, pay to enter ‘food festivals’. History will, I’m sure judge this to be an unsustainable situation.

      Great to hear from you again. x

      Reply
      1. studiotower

        This is Mitch from Indiana. My wife and mother-in-law do a lot of canning. More importantly I’m quickly learning how similar things are in terms of economic situations between my area in rural Indiana and yours in Liverpool and England in general. It’s the same story here. Every month more and more families have to use food banks, and similarly there are stores in our area that provide “Designer parsley,” etc. for eye-popping prices.

        I’m pleased that I found your blog, Ronnie.

      2. Ronnie Hughes Post author

        Yes Mitch, I think we’re all under the same IMF regulated/Banking bail outs political cosh Mitch.

        And the mind boggles over ‘Designer Parsley’. I’ve just seen some on Sarah’s allotment growing in the ground. Doesn’t that count any more? Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  7. Kim Hewitt Thompson

    I want to thank you for making my Saturday morning, smiling, giggling and craving, I remember all. I do also remember a cream fomula came in a can and we mixed it with water, it was fizzy. I also remember not having lemonade and drinking Andrews liver salts added to juice to get the bubbling. Wonderful job you have done, thanks, I thoroughly enjoyed reading, I was born and raised in Belfast 1963, Today I live in Canada, have shitty teeth, and eat sweeties every day mostly chocolate, we have an import place to get Frys Turkish delight, makes me Very happy

    Reply

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