Supersizers: Historical Food + Comedy + Costumes = Win!

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The Supersizers Go… and The Supersizers Eat… are BBC TV documentaries that focus on the food eaten in different periods of (usually British) history. Restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins spend one week living the life of a couple in different historical eras, primarily discussing and eating the menus and dishes of the day. Both have an incredibly dry sense of humor that, coupled with the fact that Sue is a sometime vegetarian, creates comedy gold.

The show started as a one-off episode as part of a series that the BBC produced on the Edwardian era in 2007 (Edwardian Supersize Me). It was so successful that it launched two seasons in 2008 (The Supersizers Go…) and 2009 (The Supersizers Eat…), with each episode focusing on a different era.

The French Revolution: "The Supersizers experience the lives of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI, devour a 5,000-calorie breakfast feast, try the exotic new vegetable craze, the potato, and also observe the advent of the restaurant."

The French Revolution: “The Supersizers experience the lives of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI, devour a 5,000-calorie breakfast feast, try the exotic new vegetable craze, the potato, and also observe the advent of the restaurant.”

The “Supersizers” reference is to the documentary Supersize Me. Each show is book-ended by one or both of the hosts going to a doctor before and after a week of eating (and drinking) in various historical eras to see how the diet of the era affected their health. It’s actually quite surprising just how quickly things change in their bloodwork, etc., although I do question just how accurately they are eating and whether the fact that their diet changes so radically and so quickly affects anything.

The meals are prepared by chefs working from historical cookbooks and recipes, and there are various points at which food historians comment on (and sometimes eat) the food. Depending on the era, their diets tend to get really meat heavy, and not in a good way — we’re talking tongue or fish heads or coxcombs. They usually show you the food being cooked, although the emphasis is on the eating experience.

Looking at the raw ingredients with the chef in the French Revolution episode.

Looking at the raw ingredients with the chef in the French Revolution episode.

One thing I do wonder is whether they are actually being served accurate portions. For example, here’s one menu from the Elizabethan episode:

Dinner (taken between 11am and 2pm)

1st course: Pumpkin pie, meat pottage, stewed mutton steaks, manchet bread, small beer

2nd course: Capons with damsons, calf’s foot jelly, custard

The Supersizers Go...Elizabethan

The Supersizers Go…Elizabethan. In which they are served calf’s foot aspic, to which Sue says, “It’s the color of sadness.”

I wonder whether any of these menus were intended to feed large families and/or dinner parties rather than a couple (sometimes Giles and Sue have guests join them, but they’ll be served a menu like that just for the two of them)?

I mentioned above that Sue is a sometime vegetarian, but she’s always game and willing to try all of the various foods. Both she and Giles give often hilarious commentary on what they’re eating (Sue, on sucking the eyeball out of a cooked fish head: “It was like an oily plug of snotty, tense material.”). You also get their thoughts on the experience, including how they’re feeling (often, not well). I think the most hilarious episode for me is the Restoration, in which they ONLY drink alcohol for a week. Let’s just say being drunk for a week is NOT as fun as it sounds.

The Supersizers Go...Restoration. In which Giles and Sue eat meat, meat, and more meat and get completely dehydrated on alcohol.

The Supersizers Go…Restoration. In which Giles and Sue eat meat, meat, and more meat (“It’s just layers of sad, dead things”) and get completely dehydrated on alcohol.

To mix things up, both Giles and Sue will (separately or together) participate in various period-appropriate activities, like dance lessons or period games. Neither Giles nor Sue are historians, so both tend to approach these activities from a very modern viewpoint, and there’s a lot of “We’re so much more evolved now” and “Things were weird back then” that you have to put up with … but it’s usually entertaining, so I can let it slide. Sue has some choice commentary whenever she’s forced to sew or do embroidery (I like both activities, but I’m still amused by her modern feminist take on things).

Sue expires from boredom after practicing saying "How is your embroidery going?" in different languages.

Sue expires from boredom after practicing saying “How is your embroidery going?” in different languages.

And, of course, they wear historical costumes — which are (USUALLY) surprisingly decent! You have to accept that Sue is always going to wear her modern glasses (which I find funny) and sometimes her modern short hair, but if you can get past that, the clothes (while not the focus of things) are quite good. I’m sure they’re all rented from Cosprop or wherever (it’s probably much easier to get decently historically accurate costumes in the UK vs the US).

The Supersizers Eat...Medieval. Some of the more chintzy costumes are in this episode.

The Supersizers Eat…Medieval. Some of the more chintzy costumes are in this episode.

So, if you are interested in history, and you like documentaries and/or sardonic British humor, check out the Supersizers! You can watch most of the episodes on Hulu or YouTube.

Yes, they even do the 1980s.

Yes, they even do the 1980s.

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

5 Responses

  1. MoHub

    The question is whether they are burning equivalent calories to what was expended in the periods they visit. Are they walking more, climbing more stairs, and taking activity breaks between courses? Or is it just about the food consumption and no other activities of the various periods?

    At any rate, it looks like fun, and I adore Giles Coren, food, and costumes, so I’ll be watching.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Oops! Missed the bit about the activities. But will it be to the same extent as it was during the respective periods?

      Reply
  2. Stephani

    I LOVE the Supersizers!!!! They’re so funny, and it’s a really fun, witty look at food and life in ‘ye olde tymes’. I think it would be slightly less entertaining if they were history buffs, honestly. I think their modern perspectives, unfiltered by historical knowledge or a “Serious Professor” mentality, also underscores just how vast the changes that have occurred in the ways we looked at food and the ways we thought about food, and how we ate food in any of those time periods to the way we do now. Despite the fact that their historical personae’s lifestyles were not remotely like what their real-life counterparts would have experienced (aside from the menus), I really would love to see more from this series.
    And as to the portions, I always looked at it from the basis of: they’re portraying wealthy or upwardly mobile people who would have wanted to show off their wealth, so they may actually have had all those dishes on offer, even when dining amongst themselves and not entertaining. The individual portions of each dish may have been smaller than depicted. And perhaps leftovers recycled for other meals or for the servants. I don’t really know, but that’s the thinking I brought to viewing the portrayals.
    Anyway, LOOOOOOVE the Supersizers.

    Reply
  3. Liza D.

    So pleased to have found your blog. Was already enjoying your FB posts, which are reflected in my ever-growing Netflix queue! This show looks like great fun. Will check it out on Amazon. Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Donna

    Kendra, I’ve not seen this show, but it has been discussed several times on various historical cooking lists I’m on. The general consensus on those lists is that the representations of, at least, the early modern and medieval food is not particularly accurate. I know your focus is on the clothes, not the food, but I thought I’d point that out.

    Reply

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