By Magpie Group
What were people in Canada eating 50 or even 70 years ago and why? This article is part of a series on Canadian society and food from the 1940s to the 1980s.
The 1980s: From Recession to Excess
In Canada, the ‘80s were ushered in by financial instability. Unemployment was at 12% by 1983,1 while interest rates continued to go through the roof. However, by the mid-80s the economy roared back into gear.
The 1980s is associated with big hair, big shoulder pads and a big appetite for consumer goods. As Madonna’s song “Material Girl” hit the airwaves, ‘shop ‘til you drop’ became the mantra. People were spending money like crazy on clothes, cars, homes, travel and dining out. The extravagance was also reflected in our choice of furnishings, which usually featured glitzy brass and glass as the interior design standards.
Now in their late 20s and early 30s, the majority of Baby Boomers had entered the workforce. Known as “yuppies” (young urban professionals), and motivated by parents who had grown up during the Great Depression of the 1930s when poverty was widespread in Canada, they were encouraged to work hard and be successful. This fostered a generation of high achievers who craved the good life and everything associated with it.
By the 1980s, the middle class dual-income family was the standard. The continued rise in women working outside of the home meant that men had to start picking up the slack, including taking care of the kids, helping out with the housework and making meals. At the same time, families were getting smaller. The numbers of singles, childless couples and single-parent families were rising rapidly.
All of these factors contributed to the unparalleled fast pace of this decadent decade. The ‘80s were all about “go big or go home.” And many people certainly lived their lives large.
Food becomes high fashion
Food became trendy; the kitchen was a place to show off your style and sophistication.
What was hot in the culinary world seemed to change overnight. Pink peppercorns and white chocolate were “in” one year, and then were upstaged by golden caviar and purple broccoli the next. We hopped from fat-and-sassy to lean-and-mean: junk food to spa cuisine and sinful chocolate truffles to extra-virgin olive oil. A new interest in gourmet at-home cooking brought new kitchen gadgets into Canadian homes, including the food processor.
Food was high fashion. During this decade, dining out and travel broadened our horizons. Never had we tasted so many new foods or tried so many different cooking styles.
The ‘80s had a huge impact on the Canadian culinary experience, probably more than any other period in our history. Exotic international ingredients were widely available at specialty stores and even supermarkets. We tried out Tex-Mex and Cajun, Northern Italian and Southeast Asian food, bought pasta machines and discovered Chinese five-spice powder. Every kitchen had a wok for stir frying.
Across the country we discovered the pleasures of our own homegrown products through farmers’ markets, cookbooks, U-pick fruit and vegetable operations, and greenhouses. We learned to appreciate produce in season, fresh herbs and properly cooked seafood. Many restaurants created distinctively regional menus, using local ingredients in innovative new dishes. Our best chefs helped put Canadian cuisine on the map by capturing all the gold medals at the 1984 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany.
Across the country we discovered the pleasures of our own homegrown products through farmers’ markets, cookbooks, U-pick fruit and vegetable operations, and greenhouses. Many restaurants created distinctively regional menus, using local ingredients in innovative new dishes.
Most households now had two busy working adults. Ambitious Baby Boomers enrolled their kids in extracurricular activities and kept them just as busy as they were. Sitting down for a meal together was a rare occurrence. Tighter schedules meant that people were looking for quick and easy meals, like pizza, Sloppy Joes and one-pot slow cooker dishes – with a ready-to-eat frozen cake for dessert.
Our obsession with health
In the 1980s, dieting was replaced by a fitness craze: enter celebrity fitness icons like Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons. Everyone took up aerobics – the compulsory exercise gear included Lycra leotards and leggings, slouch socks and headbands.
Before this decade, gyms and health clubs were mostly for bodybuilders and serious athletes. But in the early 1980s, they were big business. You weren’t just pumping iron or doing aerobics, you were engaging in self-improvement. A warm-up suit worn as streetwear made a statement about who you were.
Canadians were determined to have the perfect body, and were willing to try anything to get it. The image-conscious Baby Boomers were turning to exercise to fight off impending middle age and dragging both their children and their parents along to the gym with them. Suddenly, everyone was trying to keep fit and (ideally) have fun.
And there was also evidence on the health front that influenced consumers’ food choices. Research on diet and health showed a link between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. People’s concerns about eating fat – a “fat phobia” – gave rise to countless “lite” and low-fat products, including low-fat sour cream, yogurt and cheese, as well as lean beef and pork. Restaurants began adding more poultry and fish to their menus. Salad bars sprung up everywhere. Canada’s Food Guide changed track to focus on chronic disease prevention. In addition, consumers demanded more organic, preservative-free produce and free range and hormone-free poultry and meats.
People’s concerns about eating fat – a “fat phobia” – gave rise to countless “lite” and low-fat products, including low-fat sour cream, yogurt and cheese, as well as lean beef and pork.
Revisiting the past and looking to the future
So that was the flamboyant ‘80s, during which we indulged ourselves in so many ways, including the foods we ate. We were increasingly trying new and different dishes at home, developing a greater appreciation for locally grown foods and having influence on the world stage. This – and the experiences from previous decades – would have a cumulative impact on the Canadian diet in the years to come.
This concludes our five-part series that provided a historical glimpse of the ‘40s, ‘50s’ ‘60s’, ‘70s and ‘80s – what we were eating and why. We hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the history of Canadian culture and food.
Other articles in the series:
- Carol Ferguson & Margaret Fraser (1992). A Century of Canadian Home Cooking. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
- CBC (2018). Back in Time for Dinner.