The Five Ages of Television Dinners
If I invited you to partake in an evening filled with TV Dinners and snacks no doubt it would conjure up images of frozen pizzas, tray sealed curry, microwaved lasagne and bags of crisps, but the same invitation in the 1960’s would see you being be treated to an evening of dishes that might include Bermuda Brunch, bacon pizza pie, cheese life savers and corned beef tart.
In the 1960’s the model for the correct way to eat was a meal at home with your family, sitting around a table, but as television sets became more widely available and popular television was revolutionised with the invention of investigative journalism and situation comedies television watching became the new family communal activity and the need for substantial television snacks and sandwiches became recognised. Tea trolleys were stacked up with easy to eat snacks such as pigs in blankets, sausage toasties, club sandwiches and food that was easy to serve in bowls such as spaghetti Bolognese and macaroni cheese – this was the birth of the original TV dinner.
Today the ready meal market is a part of the British consumption culture and is an industry that is worth £2.6bn in the UK alone, but originally it was a while before the ready meal took off in the UK. It was not until the late 1960’s to early 1970’s that domestic freezers became common and this initially slowed down the popularity of the ready meal, but as freezers became a common domestic appliance and more women entered the workplace anything that saved time was looked on as good thing and dinner became all about convenience. Indeed the first ready meals were advertised as being helpful reliefs from domestic labour. Whilst ready meals are now seen as a quick fix they were once viewed as exotic and exciting and from the mid 1970’s to the early 80’s, frozen food took off and was set to form a culture of convenience. The likes of Vesta Curry, Findus Crispy pancakes, potato waffles and Viennetta became regular additions to the weekly ‘big shop’. These were the days when prepared mashed potato came in a tin and chilled and frozen mash was just a twinkle in the ready meal-maker’s eyes.
By the late 1970’s the trend of convenience food that was fresh and like ‘home made’ was starting and in 1979 Marks and Spencer launched its ready-made chicken Kiev, this was a revolutionary step as it was chilled not frozen. This met consumer demand for freshness and made people feel a step closer to the idea that they were serving up healthy food that was close to cooking it themselves.
As we entered the 1980’s we entered a culture of health conscious sophistication where avocado salad and quiche replaced bacon pudding and fried gammon. The extra-virgin olive oil consuming foodies of the eighties wanted fresh cuisine, quickly and chilled ready meal sales steadily overtook that of frozen throughout this era. The arrival of microwaves in the domestic kitchen also aided the sale of ready meals and ease and convenience had now become a well-established part of everyday food preparation. Healthy eating was fashionable and the industry responded with the likes of Findus Lean Cuisine, offering meals that were express and low calorie.
Increasing awareness of healthy eating continued in the 90s, as people became more concerned about e-numbers, additives and continued to explore the lighter side of cuisine. The calorie counting, health conscious consumer prompted the emergence of premium ready meal ranges as manufacturers realised that customers would pay a premium for the promise of ‘posh nosh’ and ‘freshness’. Supermarkets introduced seductive luxury ranges, with fancy sounding descriptions, glossy images, well designed labels and a focus on fresh and healthy this was encapsulated by Sainsbury’s 1998 slogan ‘Fresh food, fresh ideas. Eat healthy’.
The focus on quality and aspirational dishes continued as we entered the new millennium with the 21st century seeing ranges such as ‘taste the difference’ from Sainsbury’ and Tesco’s “restaurant collection” as well as the introduction of a Waitrose range created by three-Michelin starred chef Heston Blumenthal. Ready meals have certainly come to promise gastronomical delights in less than twenty minutes and whilst the nutritional content of such food has attracted negative publicity, the market keeps on growing and the opinion on the quality of ready meals remains divided.
When it comes to ready meals some people were never fans and never will be, for me the home-cooked television meals of the 1960’s hold far more appeal than a dinner that comes sealed in a plastic tray, no matter which celebrity chef endorses it.
Bean Delight Club Sandwiches
1 tin of baked beans
5 large pickled onions, chopped finely
2 tsp. Worcester sauce
8 rashers of smoky bacon
12 slices of white sliced bread, toasted
8 crisp lettuce leaves
Drain any excess tomato sauce from your baked beans. Mash the baked beans until they are paste –like. Add the chopped pickled onions and Worcester sauce and mix well, heat in a saucepan and then keep warm.
Fry the bacon until crispy and arrange the bacon and lettuce over four slices of toast. Cover with a second slice of toast. Spread generously with the bean mixture and top with a third piece of toast. Cut diagonally and garnish with pickles.
Soufflé Potato with Baked Egg
4 large baking potatoes
8 tablespoons double cream
1 tin of baked beans
4 pickled onions chopped finely
2 large pickled gherkins chopped finely
2 rashers of bacon, fried and chopped finely
Bake your potatoes in the oven as you would for plain jacket potatoes. Once cooked remove the potatoes from the oven and gently scoop out the centres, being careful not to damage the skins.
Mash the baked beans to a paste; add the pickled onions, gherkins, bacon and 1 egg. Mix thoroughly. Add the mixture to the potato and stir to combine. Scoop the filling back into the potato skin halves.
Press a deep well into each potato filling with a teaspoon (or your fingers if you’re a messy cook) and gently crack an egg into each well. Don’t worry if the eggs whites over-flow, all will be fine once baked. Pour a tablespoon of cream over each egg in each potato half and bake in a moderate over for 10- 15 minutes or until the eggs are set.