I rarely, if ever, eat Sunday lunch. I think it's important to state that upfront. I often eat lunch on Sundays, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to go hungry, but it’s not a Sunday lunch as my parents or grandparents would recognise it. That is to say, it is not a traditional British Sunday roast. There is no roasted meat and trimmings, there is no gravy. There is no sitting at a table in a too-warm house and waiting whilst the resident alpha meticulously carves and distributes whatever has been cooked that Sunday.
I’ve been musing on Sunday lunch recently and have developed a hypothesis that Sunday lunch is dying. Or to put a finer point on it, the Sunday roast is dead. Having given it thought, I can remember my last Sunday roast and it was in 2019 in Batcombe, Somerset, in a charming little pub that did a very good line in gravy.
So certain was I in my hypothesis that I took the liberty of using what scarce powder one has as a jobbing freelance food writer and pitched the notion to the UK’s highest-brow weekend newspaper supplement. The commissioning editors’ response? ‘I don't think this idea will work, I'm just not convinced by the premise.’ Fair enough.
And I guess that if I was to put this to a straw poll, many would agree. The Sunday lunch is alive and well, much loved and routinely upheld, they’d state. And at the concept of it dying off, the same would decry and lament and eulogise, despite, that is, the fact that, in my opinion, they themselves are letting it pass away.
In a laughable attempt at anthropological research, I’ve been spending time in various supermarkets during the sacrosanct hours meant for Sunday lunch, and guess what? I’ve found them busier between midday and 4 pm on a Sunday than at almost any other time of the week. We should all be at home carving the leg of lamb, shouldn’t we? Not out and about scrambling for the coming week’s basket of Charlie Bigham’s ready meals and jars of enticing sauce and paste.
When considering matters of culinary tradition, romantically upheld, I always think of the bucolic notion of traditional Italian Sundays. Tales of super slow-cooked tomato sauce, bits of meat bubbling away inside, hours of gentle simmering before nonna gathers sixteen generations of her family about her table, a table they’ve been gathering at for millennia in an unbroken run of Snudays, and serves up her ritual Sunday meal, the same meal she’s been serving since…it’s not real is it? Yes, I’m sure some families do have such wonderful unbroken tradition, but in the same vein so do some corners of England have families whose progeny still return to the nest week in and week out for a Sunday roast before a board game, a Sunday roast and an afternoon film, a Sunday roast and a walk, a Sunday roast and two hours of Fifa, you get my point.
I’m not sneering at the notion of tradition, nor the concept of nice family values and the joy of communal ceremony, I wouldn't dare, I do however question the reality of the all-encompassing tradition as we’ve been sold it. Rhetoric versus reality, the nuance of all life surely exists in the gap between the two.
It is not hard to plot the narrative arc of the Sunday roast’s downfall. In the last decade, changes in lifestyle, diet, cultural makeup, the economy, and our changing attitude to social issues such as climate change, sustainability, etc, have moved quickly. When sitting down to a side of roast beef or a big old roast chicken is tantamount to a political statement, it’s no wonder the Sunday roast is on the out.
The thing is, and I say this as a Sunday roast denier, there is something lovely in the concept of the coming together of friends, family, community, etc and sharing in a meal steeped in tradition and ceremony.
Of course, Sunday roast originates as a meal that was designed to be eaten after a Sunday church service. As Roman Catholics and Anglicans traditionally abstained from eating meat on certain days of the week, the Sunday roast was seen as a fitting celebration as any and all meat and dairy could be consumed on Sundays. Dating back to the rule of King Henry VII, the Sunday roast as we know it gained popularity during the industrial revolution. It became the norm that before going to church, people would put a joint of meat into their oven along with vegetables and potatoes. When they returned from the church service, their meal would have been slowly cooked over time and ready to eat. In a move that would tickle the fancies of many chefs with romantic notions of small European villages with rich culinary traditions, families without their own ovens would drop off covered trays (perhaps rough-hewn from local clay and cast by a local potter, if increasing the bucolic romance is your thing, although more likely made from cast iron or the like by a local blacksmith, which I guess also sounds good) for cooking at the local bakery in the cooling bread ovens on their way to church. Although fast industrializing, these were still agrarian communities connected to local farming. Framed in this traditional sense, it all starts to sound a little more romantic, doesn’t it?
And it was a frugal meal in the same way the Italian Sunday sauce tradition is. You’d be served bread and gravy, or indeed pudding (the most famous being the Yorkshire sort), in order to fill you up before the slicing of the joint. The Sunday roast, you see, would be expected to last you well into the following week in one form or another. Seconds we’re not a thing, unless that is you wanted more bread and gravy, which you might or might not have been allowed.
Considered in this way, removed as it is from gastro pubs on the upsell or notions of Mondeo man and his comical apron and special carving knife, the Sunday roast positions itself closer to a sensible, sustainable and economical meal. Gently roasting a joint and plenty of vegetables, making a good gravy from the drippings and juices, using cheap ingredients like flour and water to make a bulking element to fill you up, then enjoying all of this throughout the week in stews and pies and pasties and sandwiches. That, my friends, can stand shoulder to shoulder with any sensible way to feed a group, and given a sepia grading and a whimsical soundtrack, could even become the basis of an enticing culinary ideal. Imagine the styling, the earthenware trays and plates, the rustic utensils and ceramics.
As the dubious sage Anthony Bourdain once said, 'Food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go.’ So with the fading light of the Sunday roast tradition as my guide, I would like to have a stab at suggesting a few ideas for a revitalised Sunday tradition, taking its lead from its own personal history, a history that is largely forgotten.
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