Food and eating in the UK, 1950s: what it was really like

Grateful thanks to my good friend Eleanor S. who has handed down this not-all-that-old gastronomic overview of Britain. What a long way this country has come since those days … but do any remnants still hang around in your life, if you’re here in the UK?

Food and eating in the UK, 1950s: what it was really like

In the 1950s a Big Mac was what they wore when it was raining, and a Pizza Hut was an Italian shed…

It’s only around 60 years since…

* Pasta had not been heard of.
* Curry was an unknown entity.
* Olive oil was kept in the medicine cabinet.
* Spices came from the Middle East where they believed that they were used for embalming.
* Herbs were used to make rather dodgy medicine.
* A takeaway was a mathematical problem.
* A pizza was something to do with a leaning tower.
* Bananas and oranges only appeared at Christmas time.
* The only vegetables known to them were spuds, peas, carrots and cabbage;
anything else was regarded as being a bit suspicious.
* All crisps (chips) were plain; the only choice they had was whether to put the salt on or not.
* Condiments consisted of salt, pepper, vinegar and brown sauce if they were lucky.
* Soft drinks were called pop.
* Coke was something that they mixed with coal to make it last longer.
* A Chinese chippy was a foreign carpenter.
* Rice was a milk pudding, and never, ever part of their dinner.
* A Big Mac was what they wore when it was raining.
* A Pizza Hut was an Italian shed.
* A microwave was something out of a science fiction movie.
* Brown bread was something only poor people ate.
* Oil was for lubricating your bike not for cooking, fat was for cooking
* Bread and jam were a treat.
* Tea was made in a teapot using tea leaves, not bags.
* The tea cosy was the forerunner of all the energy saving devices that we hear so much about today.
* Tea had only one colour, black. Green tea was not British.
* Coffee was only drunk when they had no tea….. and then it was Camp, and came in a bottle.
* Cubed sugar was regarded as posh.
* Figs and dates appeared every Christmas, but no one ever ate them.
* Sweets (candy) and confectionery were called toffees.
* Coconuts only appeared when the fair (carnival) came to town.
* Black puddings were mined in Bolton, Lancashire.
* Jellied eels were peculiar to Londoners.
* Salad cream was a dressing for salads; mayonnaise did not exist
* Hors d’oeuvre was a spelling mistake.
* The starter was their main meal.
* Soup was a main meal.
* The menu consisted of what they were given, and was set in stone.
* Only Heinz made beans, any others were impostors.
* Leftovers went in the dog.
* Special food for dogs and cats was unheard of.
* Sauce was either brown or red.
* Fish was only eaten on Fridays.
* Fish didn’t have fingers in those days.
* Eating raw fish was called poverty, not sushi.
* Ready meals / fast food only came from the fish and chip shop.
* For the best taste, fish and chips had to be wrapped in and eaten out of old newspapers.
* Frozen food was called ice cream.
* Nothing ever went off in the fridge because they never had one.
* Ice cream only came in one colour and one flavour.
* None of them had ever heard of yoghurt.
* Jelly and blancmange were only eaten at parties.
* If they said that they were on a diet, they simply got less.
* Healthy food consisted of anything edible.
* Healthy food had to have the ability to stick to your ribs.
* Calories were mentioned but they had nothing at all to do with food.
* The only criteria concerning the food that they ate were … did they like it and could they afford it.
* People who didn’t peel potatoes were regarded as lazy so and so’s.
* Indian restaurants were only found in India .
* A seven course meal had to last a week.
If you love food and eating out, you’ll enjoy this series of articles by the late, great restaurant critic Sam Worthington. Here’s a link to the first article – click here. Bon appétit! Alternatively, buy his book: How To Be A Savvy Restaurant Reviewer … makes a great little gift for anyone who loves eating out.
* Brunch was not a meal.
* Cheese only came in a hard lump.
* If they had eaten bacon lettuce and tomato in the same sandwich they would have been certified.
* A bun was a small cake back then.
* A tart was a fruit filled pastry, not a lady of horizontal pleasure.
* The word” Barbie” was not associated with anything to do with food.
* Eating outside was called a picnic.
* Cooking outside was called camping.
* Seaweed was not a recognized food.
* Offal was only eaten when they could afford it.
* Eggs only came fried or boiled.
* Hot Cross Buns were only eaten at Easter time.
* Pancakes were only eaten on Shrove Tuesday – in fact in those days it was compulsory.
* “Kebab” was not even a word, never mind a food.
* Hot dogs were a type of sausage that only the Americans ate.
* Cornflakes had arrived from America but it was obvious that they would never catch on.
* The phrase “boil in the bag” would have been beyond their realms of comprehension.
* The idea of “oven chips” would not have made any sense at all to them.
* The world had not yet benefited from weird and wonderful things like Pot Noodles, Instant Mash and Pop Tarts.
* They bought milk and cream at the same time in the same bottle.
* Sugar enjoyed a good press in those days, and was regarded as being white gold.
* Lettuce and tomatoes in winter were just a rumour.
* Most soft fruits were seasonal except perhaps at Christmas.
* Prunes were medicinal.
* Surprisingly muesli was readily available in those days; it was called cattle feed.
* Turkeys were definitely seasonal.
* Pineapples came in chunks in a tin; they had only ever seen a picture of a real one.
* They didn’t eat croissants in those days because they couldn’t pronounce them, they couldn’t spell them and they didn’t know what they were.
* They thought that baguettes were a serious problem the French needed to deal with.
* Garlic was used to ward off vampires, but never used to flavour bread.
* Water came out of the tap: if someone had suggested bottling it and charging treble for it they would have become a laughing stock.
* Food hygiene was all about washing your hands before meals.
* Campylobacter, Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria, and Botulism were all called “food poisoning.”
* The one thing that they never ever allowed on their tables in the fifties …. elbows.

More entertaining words to chew on:

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

photo credit: x-ray delta one via photopin cc




  1. As far as I can remember – and I was born ‘only just’ in the 50s – it was very similar in Germany, but as a baby/ toddler I didn’t really care 🙂

  2. Very amusing, but like so many of these things, there is only an element of truth. For example circa 1955 there were at least four or five flavours of ice cream. No takeaways? What were our fish and chip shops? Even our village had one of those.

    Going the other way, no ordinary family had turkey at Christmas. People were lucky if they could save up for a chicken, which were expensive until well into the Sixties. However, we raised our own, or my parents did. Even we were only allowed to eat one at Christmas or if one needed disposing of. 🙂

    • I take your word for it Jon – wasn’t a) old enough or b) in the UK to know the answers. Interesting that chickens were expensive then – presumably they were genuinely “free range” in those days and probably tasted miles better than what’s bred and produced now…

  3. Well, Suze I wasn’t very old, but a three to four-year-old would be bound to know what ice cream one could get.

  4. I was 10. I can remember being poorly (thats North of England for ill) and my mother giving me white bread cut into squares with milk on top and white sugar. We were lucky at christmas as my mother was a head cook at as Grammar School so knew the farmers that supplied the school so we had turkey at xmas. We used to have bread with syrup/brown sugar or treacle (not sure whether marmite was around) My cousin lived on a US air base so I had the latest music. Funnily enough we had sometimes which was sold in a high class supermarket in town. Bananas & oranges appeared at Xmas, well oranges did but they called them satsumas (which they are picking now here in Spain) We must have had a good life then up in the North – my Mum was a cook (which hasn’t passed on to me lol) so we had some fabulous meals and travelled a lot

    • Great to hear from you.

      Your mother’s treatment for you when you were poorly must have been one hell of a carb hit, as people say nowadays … but I bet it made you feel better all the same! Somehow I get the feeling that although people’s diets back then were nowhere nearly as “exotic” as they are now they were probably a lot healthier, with few if any additives and largely organic produce.

      Anyway enjoy the satsumas in Spain … I think they’re beginning to appear here in the UK now, too…

  5. Cod fish fingers produced in Great Yarmouth were introduced in Britain in 1955. Chickens were for high days and holidays only as they were very expensive. Rabbit was eaten a lot those days. It was always stew and dumplings on Mondays as it was wash day and it was easiest to cook and always fish on Fridays. Mums used to do their weekly baking on Saturdays. In the summer we always went blackberry picking so had plenty of jams and pies. Some families had allotments so soft fruit was available. We certainly ate dates, they were delicious.

  6. Hi Jean – good to hear from you! It’s interesting that rabbit was so popular then; it isn’t so popular now although it’s probably quite good for you as it’s not a fatty meat. Do you think that’s because chicken is comparatively cheap nowadays, or could it be that people have come to think of rabbits more as cuddly pets than as food?

  7. Michael Garfield says

    This seems to be a very American view of how things were here. What I find ironic is the mention of things we hadn’t heard of yet or didn’t have. Believe me, there are things we have now that we could well do without. Rationing was gradually phased out and finally came to an end in 1954. It also doesn’t take into account the many local dishes that were available. We didn’t all eat exactly the same food every day. I find it a rather clichéd view to be honest -i.e. ‘the food’s terrible over there’, etc, not to mention a rather sneeringly sarcastic one. Well it’s all relative I suppose, I sure there are foods in the States (then and now) that I’d find revolting. Now let’s take a sarcastic view of American food shall we?
    They all eat apple or blueberry pie because that’s all that grows there.
    Their main gastronomic contribution to the world is the cheese/hamburger.
    They only drink coffee or coca cola because tea only exists in England.

    The list goes on. Now that’s about a true a reflection reality as what was supposedly going on over here – i.e. not very realistic. It would be interesting to find out just how many Americans were tucking into curries in the 1950s. Very few if any I would have thought.

    On a non gastronomic view of the States:
    The didn’t have jet engines until we invented them (just to be clear, the Germans didn’t invent the jet engine. It was invented by Sir Frank Whittle).
    They didn’t have light bulbs until Joseph Swan invented them (no, Edison didn’t invent the incandescent light bulb, look it up).
    Millions of Americans sit down to watch TV. Now who invented that I wonder?
    Other things we ‘stodgy’ Brits provided the States with include:
    Space exploration (jet engines again)
    The P51 Mustang (we gave it its name and its Rolls Royce engine)
    Now this list could go on and on and on, but you get my drift.

    One last thing. We gave birth to something that Americans could not do without – in fact they wouldn’t even exist without it. The American nation – or have you forgotten who the Pilgrim Fathers were or where they came from? (I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t from Ireland, Scotland or Wales – even though you think every American is descended from the Irish or Scots) It was from a place called England. You know, that place that has London and Stratford-upon-Avon in it – not to mention the thousands of other worthwhile places that Americans don’t bother visiting.
    I’m not really trying to be sarcastic you understand – no more than the above article anyway.

    P.S. Oh, don’t tell me, you saved our asses in two World Wars. Actually you didn’t. You helped win the war. Surprising though it may seem but the other allied forces didn’t stop fighting when the Americans decided to join in. Anyway, what has saving our donkeys got to do with anything? Ah, I see, you mean ‘arses’!