Food historian and Radio 4 regular Dr Annie Gray explains why the current adage to ‘eat what your great grandmother ate’ for healthier nutrition may be misguided.

You may have heard experts say: ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’, but Dr Annie Gray (PhD) isn’t so convinced.

According to the food historian, eat how your ancestors ate and you could end up with gout.

there’s bad and good cooking in every period of history

“People romanticise the past,” she says over a video call. “They think we all lived in harmony with everything, but they forget that the diet of the poor was awful — and in many ways, the diet of the rich was too.”

Dr Annie Gray

Gray, a broadcaster, writer and cook, has specialised in the history of food and dining in Britain for more than a decade, focusing on the 17th century onwards.

You name it, she’s eaten it; from kangaroo brain cakes (“tasted a bit like spam, to be honest”) to an “epic” boar’s head during a Tudor feast.

Since 2012, she’s been a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and her latest book of the same name, which delves into Britain’s culinary past and present, was published in September 2021.

So she is perhaps well qualified to declare that insults thrown at British cuisine are “total baloney”.

British food heritage

“Britain has a really good food heritage both in terms of British dishes — roast meat, fish and chips, and pork pie — and our own food culture going backwards,” she says.

She does, however, believe that British food suffered after the Second World War — another reason why modelling your grand- or great-grandmother’s diet mightn’t be the best approach.

By and large in history; does it make you poo and does it make you randy? If it does one or both of those, then great, bring it on!

“I think a lot of people don’t realise that during the war, rationing was bad. But after the war it became worse,” she says.

“And when you think about kids growing up, you’re eight when the war breaks up, but you’re probably married with kids by the time rationing ends. That chance to learn, that transition of knowledge [about good food], isn’t really there.”

Food variety through time

According to Gray, one of the biggest differences between historic and modern day diets is the variety of what we eat.

“There were 3,000 varieties of apples in the Victorian era, but today you walk into the average supermarket and get five, and they’re all enzyme treated.

“We’ve both reduced the number of things that we eat, but also in some ways we’ve got too much variety in others. You can get 20 different varieties of pasta or five different types of tomato ketchup.”

Certain vegetables have also disappeared from modern day diets completely; skirret (a root vegetable), scorzonera (similar to parsnip) and salsify (a root vegetable with an oyster-like taste).

When it came to meat, every part of the animal would be eaten, but meat was “very much for the rich”.

“We get this skewed idea that everybody ate loads of meat, very plainly done with some vegetables on the side,” she says. “But it’s a very tiny snapshot.”

Like today, foods and flavours were subject to trends across time periods; the cuisine of the medieval aristocracy, for example, was filled with Persian spices.

Ultimately, says Gray, “there’s bad and good cooking in every period of history”.

Historical superfood

What people considered ‘healthy’ has also changed over time although, she says, it was often the food that no one else could afford.

I wouldn’t even know what was in the convenience aisle

And when it comes to so-called superfoods, she says that these have historically been based on an “obsession with bowels and sex”.

“By and large in history; does it make you poo and does it make you randy? If it does one or both of those, then great, bring it on!”

Real food

Testing recipes for a living, Gray says she is mindful of getting good nutrition and notices changes in her body depending on what she’s researching.

When writing Victory in the Kitchen (2020), which focused on 1930s and 1940s style dining, she would eat a two course meal, with a proper dessert, every evening.

“But actually it was pretty good for [me]!” she says. “Because [I’d] have much smaller main courses and then a tiny piece of crumble or starchy pudding.”

Whenever she serves a historic meal, she always pairs it with lots of vegetables.

“Lots of recipe books in the past contain seasonality lists which are interesting in themselves, because they’re very different from modern seasonality lists,” she says.

She also enjoys fusing the past with the present, working through a modern recipe book and a historic recipe book each month.

But whatever Gray eats, there is an underlying theme of real food.

“I wouldn’t even know what was in the convenience aisle,” she admits. “The reason junk food is cheap is because there’s bugger all in it and farming properly costs money.”

Here, she believes, we can learn from our ancestors. “In the past, a food shop cost a fifth of a household income. Good food systems benefit everybody and it’s worth paying for.”


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