Busy lives and small families: Why Britain has a beef with the Sunday roast

On any given Sunday, the streets outside the pubs of west London are littered with signs announcing a tradition as British as red phone booths and double decker buses: “Sunday Roast.”

But look closer and you may see there are more signs outside than there are roasts inside as Britons choose to eat quicker, cheaper meals.  

Chloe Seymour, 23, used to eat a roast dinner every Sunday with her family in northern England. But since she moved to London in 2015, those meals have become a rare occasion.

Sunday roast sign

Signs outside pubs in London often promote ‘Sunday Roast” but patrons often opt for other meals. (Dylan Short/CBC)

“It’s expensive and I’m a student,” Seymour says. “I don’t live with my parents and quite frankly I’m not going to cook myself roast every Sunday.”

A traditional roast dinner in England consists of beef, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes and vegetables. It’s a meal that first became popular under the reign of King Henry VII. Families would start cooking the meat before attending church and finish the side dishes when they returned home.

But as Britons move on from a traditional life of big families and relaxing Sundays, as Seymour has done, the number of traditional roast dinners being served across the country has fallen greatly in recent years.

Chloe Seymour

Chloe Seymour says she hasn’t cooked a roast dinner since she moved out of her parents’ house. (Dylan Short/CBC)

“Over a 10-year [period ending in February 2017], the year-on-year decline was between five and eight per cent,” says Nick White, head of beef and lamb domestic marketing for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. “In terms of meal occasions, that’s about 100 million occasions lost.”

Too much time

With so many Britons living in smaller households and Sunday no longer a day of rest, White says roast dinners just take too much time out of a person’s day to be made every week.

“It used to be that virtually nothing was open on a Sunday, but now the high street is just as busy on a Sunday as it is on a Saturday,” White says.

“It used to be people just shopped on a Saturday and when you’re shopping, you’re eating on the go. It tends to be takeaway or something that’s really easy and quick to cook because you’re out and you haven’t had time to do preparation and Sunday has become like that.”

The idea that Sunday is no longer a day of rest is especially felt among students and young professionals who are still learning how to make the most of their week as they try to manage their time away from home.

Meat Display in Lidgate.jpg

While sales of roasts have fallen at C Lidgate Butchers in Holland Park, west London, they’ve have increased for other cuts. (Dylan Short/CBC)

“It’s just another day for me,” Seymour says.

“When I was working fulltime, Sunday was a get-everything-done-for-Monday kind of day…. I wouldn’t have cooked thoroughly because I had to get my ironing done or it would have been a social day.”

 As Sunday becomes busier and roasts sales drop, vendors across the beef industry are being forced to adapt to this new way of life.

More short ribs

Danny Lidgate, a fifth-generation butcher and the managing director of C Lidgate Butchers, Prince Charles’s personal butcher shop in Holland Park, a neighbourhood in west London, says that since roast sales have gone down in his shop, sales for other cuts of meat have gone up.

“There has been a massive increase in the other parts of the animal, sort of secondary cuts or however people want to label them, things like beef short ribs, which went out of fashion throughout the ’80s and ’90s,” Lidgate says.

Danny Lidgate

Danny Lidgate, a fifth-generation butcher, says that he has seen a rise in sales of ‘secondary cuts’ in recent years. (Dylan Short/CBC)

These secondary meats are selling so quickly because they offer a way to overcome all the problems found by White and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. They’re quick to cook, they’re cheap and they’re sold in portions appropriate for smaller households.

In fact, Lidgate’s sales of short ribs saw a 45 per cent increase from 2016 to 2017. Flat iron steaks rose by 780 per cent over that same period.

‘Foodie heaven’

“You’ve got that option of ‘Do I really want to cook a roast for an hour and a quarter?’ or ‘There’s only two of us this weekend so I’m just going to get a couple of fat ribeyes and chuck them on the grill,’ ” Lidgate says.

These things are like treasures that have been rediscovered and I definitely think that all age groups are enjoying it. It’s kind of trendy and foodie heaven.”

Butchers aren’t the only ones are being forced to address the lack of interest in Sunday roasts.

Churchill Arms Exterior

The Churchill Arms in west London looks like a traditional British pub from the outside, but now only sells Thai food. (Dylan Short/CBC)

Local pubs are also trying to find ways to address their customers’ new preferences. The Churchill Arms in west London, a pub named after former British prime minister Winston Churchill, looks like a traditional British pub from the outside, but customers looking for a hearty British meal will be disappointed once they get inside.

“We used to do Sunday roast years ago, but it wasn’t doing well, so we got rid of it,” says manager James Keogh. “Now we actually only do Thai food.”

Fish and chips, please

Just down the road, the Castle on Portobello Road advertises its Sunday roast throughout the week. While the pub hasn’t scrapped its British menu, the Sunday roast has taken a backseat to other meals.

“We advertise Sunday roast but a lot of the time, where we have other things on the menu, people are still voting fish and chips and burgers, not so much the roasts,” says assistant manager Paul Hardy.

Paul Hardy

Paul Hardy, assistant manager of the Castle pub on Portobello Road in London, says he has seen a decline in roast sales in recent years. (Dylan Short/CBC)

While social factors may be stopping Britons from indulging in the age-old tradition, it does appear that once they start talking about the meal, their appetite for it returns.

“I have had conversations recently with friends to be like, we should do Sunday roast and actually properly do it, maybe it is still a thing, maybe we can bring it back,” Seymour says. “Now I actually really want a Sunday roast.”

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