May 8 2009 by Jane Hall, The Journal
Retro food - fray bentos and spam
IT could be a sign of the global economic crisis. Or the misty-eyed memories of middle-aged Britons carefree youth, when the sun always shone, the summer holidays never ended and there were three TV channels.
Whatever the reason, retro food is back. We may have thought we’d seen the last of Wispa bars, Arctic Rolls, Birds Eye Steakhouse Grills, Mellow Birds, prawn cocktail, vol-au-vents, fondue and Black Forest gateau, but it seems these old-fashioned classics are once again filling both supermarket trolleys and our stomachs.
Just as the music of Bananarama, Paul Young, ABC and Spandau Ballet is also back in fashion, so another harmonious refrain is sending those who came of age in the decade of Thatcher, shoulder pads, big hair and the launch of even bigger mobile phones, dewy-eyed.
Squeaky clean Doris Day may have made Que Sera, Sera her own with the lines: “Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me.”
But there is another and far more amusing version of the 1950s sing-a-long that caught the public’s imagination in a television advertisement in the 1980s.
Who can forget the beautifully penned lines: “Will it be mushrooms or fried onion rings? We hope it’s chips, it’s chips,” sung by a group of burly builders looking forward to their tea of a Birds Eye Steakhouse Grill.
The ground beef steaks and the advert were dropped in 1994 as people’s palates became more sophisticated. But now the steakgrills – minus the jingle – have been relaunched by Birds Eye, as a host of nostalgia-linked brands enjoy another turn in the limelight.
Even Marks & Spencer is jumping on the bandwagon. They have introduced a range of sandwiches with old-fashioned fillings such as jam, ham and salad cream and corned beef. And this month the high street emporium is set to launch a range of classic confectionery and cakes, some of which it has not stocked in decades.
The retailer is also resurrecting its first range of pre-packed cakes, with flavours such as cherry Madeira, Battenberg, iced fruit cake and Swiss roll. Jams, teas and biscuits will return in retro tins, with traditional sweets hitting the shelves in glass jars.
Similarly, all the supermarkets have reported phenomenal sales of traditional cuts of meat that had fallen out of favour. Corned beef, Spam and tinned ham are also all selling well. Sales of Bird’s Custard Powder are up 17% year-on-year at Sainsbury’s, while Fray Bentos steak and mushroom pies have notched up a 42% increase.
Ian Brown says the resurrection of foods not long ago deemed by consumers too downmarket or old-fashioned to grace the family dining table, is a direct result of the current economic crisis.
People are turning in their droves to the comfort foods that sustained them in their youth to see them through the bad times.
Ian, a senior lecturer in food studies at Northumbria University and a not now so-secret Findus Crispy Pancake scoffer, says: “When times get hard it is traditional for people to look back and for old-fashioned things to become important again.
“We now have a generation of workers who have reached their mid-40s and for whom the 1970s and 1980s were important. They will look back and think when I was 16, I remember this or this, in a misty-eyed way. There is no doubt we are obsessed with nostalgia, and food is an easy nostalgia to latch on to.
“The attraction is obvious. People expect the association to bring back the good times, which is the whole point of nostalgia.”
M&S’s head of product development April Preston agrees. “We carried out extensive customer research this year which revealed that rediscovering retro products and forgotten classics gave strong positive childhood associations, reminding customers of happy times.”
Ian, 61, says thanks to the go-ahead nature of Britain’s food industry, we had become spoilt for choice. “To paraphrase Churchill, never had so many had it so good as regards food, especially in the 1990s.”
But the nostalgia fest has had a helping hand from a certain famous AC Milan and England footballer. Last autumn David Beckham launched Findus’s GO3 range of meals, each of which contain Omega-3 oils, whole wheat and vegetables.
He was pictured holding a plate piled high with fish fingers.
Ian says: “Don’t you remember, when you were a kid and then a student, how important fish fingers were in your diet? Findus did a fantastic job linking David Beckham and fish fingers. They have managed to re-brand them and make them not only appealing to the older generation but youngsters too.”