Giles Coren on taxing the fat, being an "urban food ponce" and why life wasn't better in the 1950s
The food critic's new series Back in Time For Dinner considers what our changing meals have said about us, and society at large...
Giles Coren has a new food obsession and it’s not the high-end fare that you might expect from the man who once declared (half jokingly, half not – it’s hard to tell with Coren) that his last meal on Earth would consist of Beluga caviar followed by ortolan – a tiny, gorged songbird drowned in Armagnac, which was banned from French restaurant menus in 2007 for animal rights issues.
“I’ve been eating dripping recently,” he declares plummily. “The other day, I saved the fat from the roast and the next morning, I gave it a chance to warm up and spread it on toast with a bit of salt. Absolutely delicious, pretty nutritious.” It’s an odd addition to a diet that, by his own admission, usually revolves around the best cuts of meat sourced from his local, north-London butcher – but not a completely inexplicable one.
Although best known as an acid-tongued restaurant critic and columnist, Coren is in TV presenter mode this week with Back in Time for Dinner, a six-part BBC2 series-cum-social experiment that sees a modern, middle-class family rattle through 50 years of British food history in a bid to discover what our evolving diet says about us as a society. From the comfort of their own east-London kitchen, the Robshaws (dad Brandon, mum Rochelle, Miranda, 17, Ros, 15, and Fred, ten) will munch their way from 1950 to the modern day at a rate of a decade a week.
Every meal is based on findings from the National Food Survey, which ran from 1940 to 1999, meticulously recording what families across the country were serving up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Initially, the Robshaws were happy to try anything – they even agreed to have their kitchen refitted every week to reflect changing trends in decor. However, spirits dived a couple of days into the austere, rationed reality of 1950s life. “It starts off bleak, all bland and dull with clearly defined gender roles and Mum stuck in the kitchen,” says Coren. “We look back to that era and think it was better that they all ate together but they found it a bit oppressive.”
The end of rationing in 1954 cheered them up. However, Coren sees the family’s eagerness to embrace sugar in particular as a retrospective morality tale for a nation currently experiencing both an obesity crisis and a toxic obsession with fad diets and thinness. “You see Ros pouring sugar on her Frosties. She’s a slim girl, so it’s fine but it’s a metaphor for what happened when all this sugary food was put in front of us. We’d come from the 1950s where everything was government-regulated and boring but it was actually quite healthy and it gets freer and freer until the 1990s, where people are buying torpedoes of cola and you’ve got the beginning of the Buy One Get One Free offer and people eating on the go.”
Unsurprisingly, considering that Coren has built a career around trashing acclaimed restaurants and expletive-laden Twitter rants, he’s got a controversial solution to the country’s weight worries. “I think the Government should step in.” Really? “I do.” He pauses. “It’s hard to tell whether I really think that or whether I just say it for effect, but in 2006 I made a documentary called Tax the Fat and I suggested you should tax people directly to combat the obesity crisis.You could certainly impose penalties on parents who don’t feed their children properly.”
So is he advocating an attack on poor families who can’t afford to stock the fridge with fresh, nutrient-dense ingredients? “In Britain, we spend a smaller proportion of the family income on food than anywhere else in Europe. In the 50s, something like one third of the household income was spent on groceries but now it’s something like a tenth. A massive reduction. So although income is important, the truth is, no one’s spending enough on food as there are so many other things to spend money on these days.”