1987 Mackay Report on Food in the 1980s

Aussie "spag bol"

Social researcher Hugh Mackay turned his attention to food. His 1987 Mackay Report, Food and Social Change, available in the National Library of Australia, categorised major responses to food in the 1980s, a time he dubbed the ‘Age of Anxiety’. Mackay identified  Adaptors ( Experimenters, Fast Eaters or Faddists) and Regressors (True Conservatives, Neo-Conservatives and Self-Indulgers / Compensators). He also noted the ubiquity of pasta and Caesar salad.

The Mackay Report was a regular study that explored aspects of Australian society. The 1987 issue suggested that our relationships with food, especially the food we prepared in our own homes, reflected our response to the angst of the age. It’s the way of reports like this to fit people neatly into groups, with catchy names that will then be used as buzzwords by advertising people when they’re defining a “target audience”.

This report identified Experimenters, who saw food in the 1980s as a never-ending quest for novelty, with a “commitment to new experience as the pathway to enlightenment”. Then there were Fast-Eaters: fashion-conscious, very competitive, very materialistic, abandoning traditional mealtimes in the search for quick and easy solutions. And Faddists, leaping from oat bran to chocolate, eschewing or embracing foods based on the latest health scare, with a deep suspicion of modern food technology.

While these groups were embracing change, others were resisting it. The True Conservatives thought that modern society had got “out of hand”. In re-discovering the virtues of a pot of soup that stayed on the stove for three days, glorifying the roast dinner or showing renewed interest in puddings, they were clinging to patterns from the past. Self-indulgers / Compensators, defeated by the challenges of modern life, took refuge in overeating and especially in chocolate

Walking a fine line were Neo-Conservatives, who tried to mix traditional eating patterns with more contemporary methods. According to Mackay, this group focused on “balance”, feeling that McDonald’s was fine “sometimes”, sugar was fine “sometimes” – in fact, most things were fine as long as you ate them in moderation.

Mackay pointed to informality as a characteristic of eating in the ‘80s. Certainly, separate kitchens were a thing of the past, with the breakfast bar now commonly separating the kitchen from the family room or family eating area. Another theme was lightness, or what seemed to be lightness. Thus, chicken had become popular at the expense of meat, fruit juice was replacing milk as the preferred drink for kids, salads were emerging in fancier guises.  The ubiquitous Caesar salad seemed healthy; never mind that its fat content was probably the equivalent of a Big Mac. The other big news in food in the 1980s was pasta. It may not have been light, but it was certainly quick, convenient and usually very acceptable to kids.

We all have different memories of food in the 1980s. Good Food includes French Onion Dip among its ’80s classics. More like the 1950s, I would have thought. But yes, it probably was the decade of the baked potato and the Tequila Sunrise.

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