Food historian reveals how diners went from a sparse meal of root veg in the 1920s to quaffing prosecco in this decade.

With the decade coming to an end, many people will be tucking into what they deem a ‘traditional’ turkey dinner this year, with trimmings of winter vegetables, pigs in blankets and roast potatoes. But the Christmas dinner has not always been this way and 100 years ago many would tuck into a vegetarian meal on December 25th instead.

Throughout the years, food trends would dictate what was on a Christmas dinner plate, with fondue and prawn cocktail being a popular choice in the 1970s, while poultry didn’t become a staple until the sixties.

London-based food historian Tasha Marks has given her insight into the changing festive feasts over the years…



‘Back in the early twentieth century, Christmas wasn’t all about the turkey centrepiece and in fact, a lot of families had vegetarian Christmases as meat was not guaranteed on the Christmas table. In the 1920s, Christmas was still a fantasy for many children.

‘The festive period has always been a time of luxury, so people would save up to be able to afford meat on Christmas day. However, it wasn’t possible for everyone as meat was more of a rarity during the shortages of the interwar years. Root vegetables and seasonal eating united us all. As true now as it was then, winter Christmas feasting meant seasonal root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots and sprouts were in abundance.

A Christmas dinner goose was out of the reach of many but each child would have got an orange and perhaps some sweets and a small toy. However, for those Christmas luxuries, the working classes depended on the kindness of others; charities, companies and businesses would put on parties for their employees and their children, and even the workhouses would provide some extra treats such as tea for the women and tobacco for the men.


The 1930s was all about zero-waste with nothing thrown away, something we could all learn from now! Think festive soups incorporating potato peels and turkey carcasses, and mincemeat bulked out with grated carrot.

‘Canned food, pickles and chutneys were all the rage, as well as something of a necessity. Not everyone had a new-fangled refrigerator yet, so rather than a bulging festive fridge, imagine a fully stacked kitchen larder.

‘Christmas is becoming a more and more important part of family life, and this is also the first time we hear a monarch address the nation on Christmas Day, since Christmas speech has become an integral part of British Tradition and families gather around the wireless to listen.

‘Canned food, pickles and chutneys are all the rage, as well as something of a necessity – since kitchens do not feature fridges yet. It was also the decade that tin-based meat product first hit the shelves The Canned Foods Advisory Bureau suggested each house had a surplus of flour, tea, cocoa, coffee, sugar, cereals and dried fruit, to be kept in metal containers with tightly fitting lids.

‘In the inter-war years food was still a primary concern, learning from the mistakes of World War I and feeling another conflict in the air, the government stockpiled sugar and wheat and encouraged people to stockpile food at home.


‘The 1940s were the key rationing years for Great Britain. World War II ended in 1945 but rationing carried on until 1954. Christmas cards doubled in price because there was a 100 per cent tax on them to save paper, only one family in 10 had a turkey, but near Christmas everyone got an extra ration of sugar and fat.

‘Vegetables remained unrationed, so carrot was a mainstay in any Christmas cake or Christmas pudding recipe, plus mashed potatoes in pastry, apples to bulk out mincemeat, or occasionally savoury dishes as in the revolting sounding ‘Mock Goose’ – made from layers of potatoes and apples, flavoured with sage and sprinkled with cheese.

‘For centuries, gardeners and smallholders kept poultry and the odd pig or two for their own house use. The powers that be recognised that such practices would continue come what may, so they encouraged groups of people to form clubs, to buy, feed and look after pigs.

‘The pigs were fed mostly with scraps from homes, cafés, bakeries, and anything edible that came to hand. Clubs were allowed to purchase, legally, small rations of feed or corn, to supplement this meagre diet. When the pigs were ready for slaughter, half of the carcasses were sold to the Government, to help with the rationing, and the remainder was divided between Club members, as either pork or bacon. They might have had chicken, beef or pork. Even in smaller portions, meat would be a feature where possible!


‘The end of war in 1945 brings families back together, husbands back to wives and parents back to their children. The country is united, and national spirit is at an all time high! Families sit together around the dinner table for the first time in years, celebrating and enjoying their Christmas meal! Beef is the meat of choice at most tables and veg being unrationed meant a lot of potatoes on our plates

‘After the war, the nostalgia for a Victorian-Christmas-Carol-esque Christmas remained strong, and while rationing was still in force until 1954 the Christmas table as a place of plenty was a feature for the majority of society.

‘However this was the origin of many trends we see today, and 1957 saw the first mention of a pig in blanket recipe in a Betty Crocker book. The food writer Elizabeth David published a series of books that celebrated European flavours and encouraged the British home cook to experiment.

‘As a result the palate of flavours at Christmas increases, think Mediterranean and French fare!


A rise in the price of red meat meant that turkey and chicken were the more sensible festive choices, and the Christmas lunch favourite hasn’t been toppled since. The 60s see families choose chicken and turkey for Christmas dinner, as poultry becomes the new mainstay meat.


‘Delia Smith first appeared on television in her 1973 BBC series Family Fare, known for her ‘Kitchen Shortcuts’ Christmas was about time management and minimising chaos.

‘At Christmas cold starters like Prawn Cocktail or Avocado Boats were ideal time  savers and still fancy. In fact from the 1960s until the 1980s, there was only one starter worthy at a dinner party or festive feast – the prawn cocktail.

‘Originating as a peasant dish in seventeenth-century Switzerland, the fondue reached peak popularity and was the dish to serve at any 70s dinner party.


‘Canapés became very popular as Christmas in the 1980s, including vol-au-vents, devilled eggs and anything on a stick

‘More global desserts also emerged, a continuation from the 1970s including Black Forest Gateau, Baked Alaska, Meringue Roulade, Profiteroles, Trifle, Yule Log & Stollen.

‘Now a very popular dish on British tables, the Vienetta launched in 1982.


‘The 90s is a time of invention and thinking out of the box. It is an era dominated by girl bands, boy bands and sitcoms. But it is also the time of the mixologist.

‘Dubbed ‘the cocktail renaissance’, the 90s dreamt up many iconic cocktails that are now an integral part of any menu. One such cocktail, that is now the UK’s favourite, is the Passionfruit Martini.

‘The 90s also saw a boom in processed foods (much like the 80s) and vegetarianism go mainstream, with the likes of Linda McCartney launching her cookery books and line of vegetarian meals.


‘The 00s brought the epidemic, now known as the ‘cupcake craze’! None were safe from the influence of the cupcake, and it dominated recipe books and high street stores.

The 00s decade also truly embraced the now legendary Christmas Jumper. Despite being around for nearly 30 years, the 00s was when it became a requisite to own a piece of garish knitwear.


‘Modern-day Christmas is still about family values; about sitting together and enjoying delicious food, playing games, telling stories and spending time with your loved ones. The growth of social media means we can communicate with friends and family all over the world, and send cheesy E-cards at the click of a button

‘A trend that none could have predicted is the dominance of Prosecco in our modern age. Prosecco has topped Champagne as the most popular sparkling wine in the UK. And we have the Italians to thank for this!


‘It’s likely through recent trends that we’re going to be eating more meat-free and sustainable dishes. The rise of the flexitarian, moderating meat intake and Christmas choice, meaning we’ll see veganism as a central choice rather than the exception.

Christmas traditions that define our Festive Season will persevere, however, we can expect households to begin adopting more socially responsible trends from the past. Think healthy indulgence, no sacrifice, flexitarian, sustainable farming, zero-waste production, fair trade, etc… Less modified, natural and unfiltered foods.

Original source: www.dailymail.co.uk