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.”
To see just how big a hold nostalgia food has taken beyond memories of the Black Jacks, Flying Sherbet Saucers, Fruit Salads and Shrimps that generations of children scoffed slyly between meals, you only have to go on the internet.
Message boards and “Do You Remember” websites abound. A search for “retro food” on Google in the UK alone brings up 2,170 hits, with sites plugging everything from classic recipes of the 1970s and 1980s (pineapple chicken, anyone?) to rumour mongering posts on the next big nostalgic food return (peppermint creams and fruit jellies, apparently).
As a result, retro kitchen gadgets are also in demand, forcing animal charity the PDSA to launch an appeal for donations of once popular 1980s utensils.
Volunteers working at the charity’s 178 shops have been “inundated” with requests from shoppers searching for everything from melon ballers to apple corers and fondue sets.
Andrew Holl, PDSA director of business services, says: “The 1980s clothing revival is something that is extremely evident on the high street and has trickled down to demand for old school domestic items.
“With internet chatrooms full of enquiries from consumers asking for tips on 1980s food, the PDSA is hoping to make the most of the current revival by turning unused items into funds to help sick and injured pets.”
The mention of melon ballers raises a wry smile from Ian Brown. “Orange and green melon balls! That great restaurant staple in the 1970s and 1980s. How many people would have ordered them and then sat and wondered how the restaurant had produced those uniform melon balls?
“Nobody had melon ballers and then some bright spark started producing them for home use. Of course, the fad for doing such things at home didn’t last and people’s tastes moved on.”
As they did with Ian’s favourite nostalgia dish – crispy pancakes. Having recently spotted them on offer in a supermarket he couldn’t resist bringing a few boxes home to feed wife Carol, 49, and their two children at home in Seaton Sluice.
“I said, ‘this is what I used to like; I was brought up on these.’ I cooked them in the oven and my wife and two kids hated them. I don’t know why. The next night I said, ‘right, we’re having them again,’ to groans all round. This time I fried them, which is how we used to have then in the 1970s, and no-one could believe they were the same crispy pancakes. They went down a treat.”
Ian says the 1970s saw an explosion in Britain’s domestic food offerings. “I think it’s the decade when food manufacturers realised that if you wanted good food ideas, then you went into restaurants and stole them.”
Some people may be aghast that certain brands are either being revived or enjoying a resurgence. But Ian says it’s not about whether a product was good or not. “It’s about heritage, tradition and giving people a sense of security.”
Of course, reviving something purely for its nostalgia value doesn’t make any sense. There has to be an economic incentive if a company is to bring back an old brand.
The snack guaranteed to send the nostalgia-meter into the red every time is confectionery. Cadbury executives regularly receive letters beseeching the firm to bring back defunct but not forgotten favourites. Few are considered worthy of a second chance.
The exception is the Wispa bar, which found its way back on to the chocolate aisles last September following an internet-driven campaign backed by tens of thousands of fans.
Now the online pressure is building to push Cadbury into reintroducing the Wispa Gold.
But food experts say firms should be wary of just how far they are prepared to jump on the retro bandwagon. Graham Hales, managing director in London at Interbrand, a consultancy firm, says: “While consumers’ economic circumstances may have changed, their desires don’t necessarily change with their wallets. They still want great stuff.”
But it may be a case of canny companies making hay while the sun shines. The economic downturn won’t last forever – and neither, says Ian, will our current obsession with retro brands.
“As soon as people get more money in their pickets, then they will go back to their old ways of shopping and the good stuff they had become used to.”
There is no doubt we are obsessed with nostalgia, and food is an easy nostalgia to latch on to.
Redundant kitchen utensils but back in demand at PDSA charity shops
1. Retro cook books
3. Fondue sets
4. Egg slicer
5. Melon ballers
6. Garlic presses
7. Microwaves omelette makers
8. Salad spinner
9. Apple corer
10. Spaghetti servers
Cheese wires, cocktail makers, slow cookers, meat slicers and sandwich toasters just missed the top 10.