According to a number of different surveys, the Sunday roast dinner is Britain’s favourite meal. But where did this tradition come from?
The British have always enjoyed eating beef. So much so that, since the 15th century, the royal guards have been known as Beefeaters. The tradition of eating roast beef on a Sunday was established during the reign of King Henry VII, who seized the crown in 1485 and ruled until his death in 1509.
William Kitchener, in his 1817 book Apicius Redivivus: The Cook’s Oracle, describes how to perfectly roast a 15-pound sirloin over the fire for 4 hours. This would have required a considerably large fireplace, though, and so only the wealthy could apply the method. Less wealthy people, who could afford neither the large quantity of meat nor the large fireplace to cook it over, adopted a different method. On their way to church on a Sunday morning, they would drop their portion of meat off at the baker’s where it would cook in the bread oven – bread wasn’t baked on a Sunday. And thus began the tradition of eating roast meat on a Sunday. The meat would not only be consumed on Sundays though, with leftovers subsequently eaten throughout the week as cold cuts, in stews and in pies.
There are some other theories as to the origins of the roast dinner. In Medieval times village serfs, who served the squire six days a week, would do battle practice on a Sunday and were rewarded with a serving of roasted oxen if they did well. It is also said that most Catholics and Anglicans abstain from eating meat on certain days of the week and so the Sunday roast was seen as a celebratory meal as all meat and dairy could be consumed on a Sunday.
To accompany the meat, the Sunday roast has always been served with roasted potatoes and root vegetables together with green vegetables, such as cabbage and spring greens, and lots of gravy. For centuries, the Yorkshire pudding has also been a staple of the Sunday roast, though it was originally served as a starter with gravy rather than a side dish as it is today. The reasoning behind this was the hope that, as meat was expensive, people would fill up on Yorkshire puddings before the meat was served and therefore be too full to eat it all during the main course. This would help to ensure that lots of meat was left over to be consumed later in the week.
So there we have the history of the roast dinner! Whilst there have been many changes to the traditional meal over the years (people now eat meat other than beef), next time you eat a roast dinner, take a moment to think about the millions of people who have consumed that same meal over the past 500 years.