This is a feature I wrote for Channel 4 Food which never saw the light of day…*sigh*. So you can read it here instead:
Retro food: so very right when you were young, so very wrong today…
Think back to when you were about nine and you’d come home from games practice, all scuffed knees and totally starving, and your parents would make you a nice plate of instant noodles with ketchup and melted cheese on top. With some tinned rice pudding and hot jam for pudding. It seemed like the best comfort food ever back then, but not necessarily something you’d want to eat now, because most of us are pretty spoilt when it comes to food these days. The British food revolution has kicked us all into touch with farmers’ markets, fresh rocket and 30-day aged beef. We’ve got all snooty about ingredients and the retro dishes that Mum and Dad cooked for us, some as strange as they are eclectic, have been totally left by the wayside. But would you eat them now? We asked a bunch of you to think back to the meals of your youth…
Lunchboxes of love
Back in the 70s and 80s, nobody turned up to school with carrot sticks, houmous and sprouted grains in their lunchbox unless they lived in a commune. Most of us got sandwiches made with crap bread filled with things like peanut butter, Marmite and plastic cheese slices. Suzy remembers her favourite lunchbox sandwich as a simple concoction of “white bread, marge and sugar. Brilliant!”, while Molly says that all her sandwiches contained one crucial ingredient: crisps. David almost wipes away a tear of emotion when describing ‘Jamborees’, a ‘dessert sandwich’ that his mum used to make: “She’d sandwich together two slices of really cheap white bread and spread marge and jam on each one, stick them together and cut diagonally, they’d then be dipped in white sugar and batter and deep-fried. You can imagine what Jamie Oliver would say about that today.”
Meanwhile, Stuart says that his mother used to make him cheese and strawberry sandwiches, and when he wanted a quick snack, she’d serve him a delicious bowl of grated Cheddar mixed with…er…raisins! Bleurgh! “Yeah, I’m not sure I’d eat that now, but I used to love it,” he says. Xavier’s mum had a rather inventive take on the toasted sandwich: “She used to make jam puffs in the toasted sandwich maker, by cutting up squares of puff pastry and spreading them with jam and cooking them in the Breville. When you opened it up, the pastry had blown up like a balloon, it was so exciting! And of course yummy.”
While we might obsess about eating free-range and organic meat nowadays, many of us used to eat extraordinary amounts of Very Scary Meat, usually tinned. Memories – or should we say ‘hauntings’ – of Spam fritters, tinned Frankfurter sausages and corn beef hash will always be with us, yet they have made us into the people we are today. Suzy remembers one of her mother’s tastier dishes, the corned beef pie. “She’d open a tin of corned beef, fork it out, mix it up with ketchup, put in a dish and plonk some ready-rolled puff pastry on top. She’d then bake it and serve with lots more ketchup. It’s amazing we made it into adulthood, really.” She also ate a lot of Spam fritters, which were deep-fried and “dipped in ketchup to make vaguely edible, and when you bit into them, the fat dribbled down your chin.” Mmm.
Anna has mixed memories about cheesy chicken bake: “Mum would cover chicken breasts with grated cheddar and crushed McCoy’s ready salted crisps and bake it in the oven. I loved it at the time, but now? I’m not so sure!” Stu’s mother would make ‘Coca Cola chicken’, where she’d brown some drumsticks in a frying pan, dump them in a roasting tray and add a packet of chicken soup powder and a can of Coke. The mixture was baked until tender and sticky. “Honestly, it was nice,” he says.
But not all memories are positive. Jon cringes at the thought of his mum’s curry, made from cold, cooked sausages. “She’d mix up the sausages with Del Monte pineapple chunks, raisins and sultanas and the classic curry powder that had been around for about 100 years out of a yellow tin, and mix in a tin of tomatoes.” Dear God!
Fish was generally regarded with faint suspicion and bemusement by our parents. It was usually best if it came from a tin or was frozen in a nice little block. No bones, no hassle. The following dishes are not for the faint of stomach. Jo remembers her mother’s ‘Fish Surprise’: “It was basically those nasty grey squares of frozen Coley put in a dish on top of a layer of frozen spinach blocks, and a can of Campbell’s concentrated mushroom soup would be poured over the top, and sprinkled with grated cheese and baked. It was incredibly salty and strangely tasty, but I would never eat it now!” Chris balks at the memory of his friend’s mother’s ‘Pilchard Surprise’, where a tin of pilchards in tomato sauce would be added to some bechamel white sauce, ketchup added to taste and served on buttered white toast. “It was like pilchardy sick,” he laughs.
Feeling ill yet? It gets worse. Ben will never forget ‘Pacific Pie’. He says: “My friend Harry’s mother would mix together one can of chicken soup with a can of tuna and some frozen peas and bake it with with crisps sprinkled on top covered in melted cheese. It was like Surf and Turf in one pot, it had the consistency of vomit, and we’ve taken the piss mercilessly out of Harry for years, because he carried on eating this until well into his university years!” But Harry is still fond of this dish: “I feel I must defend Pacific Pie against any detractors” he retorts. “I ate it every week from the age of three to eight.” He’s now six foot 3. Go figure.
Puddings for kids were so much fun in the 70s and 80s – no stressing about sugar and E numbers, hell no. You just heaped on the Angel Delight and sugar jelly diamonds and rode the sugar rush! Alice was particularly partial to her mother’s ‘Swiss Toffee Apple’: a tooth-rotting confection of tinned stewed apples covered in squirty cream and cornflakes dipped in Golden Syrup. “It was amazing!” she says. “It was intensely sweet and gloopy but also crunchy, and great for food fights as it was perfect for flicking at people from your spoon.” Debbie is less sure about her mum’s ‘Peach Flan’. “She’d cover a brioche-type sponge with tinned peach slices and pour ‘Quick Gel’ on top.” For those not familiar with Quick Gel, it’s a versatile and pourable form of liquid gelatine. Mmm!
Claudia’s dad used to make her special ‘coffee’ ice cream: vanilla ice cream with instant coffee granules sprinkled on the top. “If we were lucky, he’d spoon in a lump of smooth peanut butter,” she says. And Anna’s mum would serve her version of ‘cheesecake’, which constituted butterscotch Angel Delight poured into a glass on top of crushed ginger biscuits. “It made me and my brother get into terrible tantrums afterwards, possibly because we were going hypoglycaemic!” However, the prize of Most Ridiculous Retro Pudding goes to Ruth, whose parents used to make a dish called ‘Dambydoopoo’. “It was a layer of Swiss Roll slices in a big glass bowl, topped with chocolate Angel Delight and lots of hundreds and thousands. So wrong, yet so right. It used to make us totally hyperactive – and that was before we’d even taken a bite. It was just the delighted anticipation of it!” Ah, those were the days, eh?