Being Modern: Posh ready meals

There are truffles in the macaroni cheese and star anise in the lasagne: yes, Heston has unveiled a new range of ready meals for Waitrose. And he might not know it, but he owes a great deal to a 1913 fishing trip through the icy outreaches of Newfoundland.

Back then, Clarence Birdseye was working with Canadian Inuits when it struck him that the fish they ate – naturally frozen by the -40C temperatures – tasted far fresher than anything on sale in New York. He was inspired to create a new method of fast-freezing seafood, and a decade later Birdseye Inc was born.

The journey from Birdseye to Blumenthal has been fuelled by some fine Archimedes-style inventiveness. In 1945, an American engineer patented the microwave after an experiment with a magnetron melted a chocolate bar in his pocket. Eight years later, the US firm Swanson & Co produced the first recognisable ready meal, inspired by a post-Thanksgiving turkey surplus.

This history of innovation hasn't saved the ready meal from criticism, however. A recent study by Glasgow University recommended that they, like cigarettes, should carry health warnings. The study's showpiece was a luxury Morrisons macaroni cheese, loaded with 140 per cent of our RDA of saturated fat.

Yet, pierce-and-ping progress continues unabated, and if you go down to the supermarket today, there are new nutritious lines making the case for ready meals. Take Innocent's Veg Pots: packed within these microwaveable tubs are three of your five-a-day. Three out of five! Healthy eating has never been simpler. And with Tuscan bean stews and coconut curries in its range to compete with the Hestons of this world, it's never been more gourmet, either.

Still, a question remains: how do we really feel about ready meals now? Are we entirely at ease trusting in the invisible alchemists to conjure our evening meal? Or do we still feel a tremor of self-doubt, as we stand in the orange glow of the supermarket aisles, selecting a quick-cook meal for one?

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