Thirty years ago, a young product developer in the poultry department at Marks & Spencer had her work cut out when the bigwigs on the board got cold feet. They feared Cathy Chapman's plan to launch a new product with an exotic ingredient would be too risky. "Garlic was only just becoming popular," recalls Chapman in the gleaming kitchens at M&S's west London headquarters. "It was a bold flavour but I was confident it would sell." And she was right – within days, her team's ready-made chicken Kievs were flying off the shelves. And this was not just a chicken Kiev; it was the dawn of a new age – the age of the ready meal.
The supermarket of the 1970s would be almost unrecognisable to the shopper of today. This was long before dedicated aisles groaned with posh nosh in Cellophane-topped plastic trays. You'd be hard pushed to find a butternut squash risotto or a Sri Lankan prawn biryani in a restaurant, let alone ready-to-cook in a chiller cabinet. But times were changing and, as the British housewife started hanging up her apron to go to work, developers like Chapman saw a gap in the market – the respectable ready meal.
"There was no such thing as a customer insight unit back then," says Chapman, 55, who this year returned to Mark & Spencer after a stint working for the South African Woolworths. "But we were aware of a strong drive for convenience and quality. It was an era of double-income families who had more money than time and we knew people were prepared to pay that bit extra for something they could entertain with if they wanted to."
That isn't to say convenience food was born with the chicken Kiev. Twenty-six years earlier, a marketing executive at an American food firm called Swanson was inspired by a post-Thanksgiving turkey surplus and the compartment trays used for airline food to create (and trademark) the TV Dinner. In the following year, Swanson sold 10 million meals, complete with packaging designed to look like a wooden television.
The TV Dinner became typical of the frozen ready meal. Together with the unappealingly entitled "ambient ready meal" market (essentially freeze-dried and tinned food) it was what retailers call products with "low aspirational appeal". It's cheap and none-too-cheerful, but in America, where the appetite for frozen food is bigger than here, there's a certain pride in its convenience. Swanson's original aluminium tray is even on show at Washington's Smithsonian Institute.
It's hard to imagine the British Museum showing the same kind of interest. Despite a brief period in which freeze-dried beef granules enjoyed a certain space-age appeal, the British frozen ready meal has suffered from a serious image problem. It's a view apparently shared by the supermarkets, who bury them in forbidding freezer cabinets in chilly aisles at the back of stores. Reach in and grab a frozen cottage pie, by all means, but don't shout about it.
Enter the chicken Kiev, a sophisticated proposition in those days. "I remember very well thinking it was rather posh," recalls the food writer Rose Prince, who had just left school when M&S launched its landmark dish. "It seemed like something exotic and quite bistro." The memory reveals much about the way Britain's food culture was undergoing a transformation in the 1970s. A new breed of restaurateur was introducing deprived palates to culinary delights from the Continent, while the first celebrity chefs, including the theatrical Robert Carrier, whetted viewers' appetites in their sitting rooms. So when a chef called John Docker gave M&S a call with a plan, the chain was all ears. "Docker believed that the British public was entitled to be able to buy restaurant quality food to enjoy in their own home," Chapman says.
Launched alongside a chicken cordon bleu in October 1979 under the St Michael label, the first chicken Kievs were handmade and flash-fried before being chilled and packed in foil-lined styrene trays. A pack of two set you back £2 – a fortune in today's money – but they sold out in days and were soon followed by Chinese meals in 1982, and Indian dishes in 1985. M&S went on to become synonymous with convenience food, but before long, all the supermarkets were giving prime real estate to aspirational convenience food. The ready meal had gone middle class.
Tasked with reconstructing the early 21st century British kitchen, a social historian of the future might determine that our apparently insatiable appetite for recipe books, cookery shows and ceramic kitchen knives would have all but killed off the ready meal since its 1970s heyday. How wrong they would be. Since that first chicken Kiev dispensed its buttery filling, the chilled and frozen ready meals market has exploded; according to the market analysts Mintel, it was worth £2bn last year (that figure is predicted to hit £2.3bn by 2013). It has also become a rather British phenomenon – nowhere else do supermarkets devote as much space or energy to such a range of meals. And it would appear to make sense. A third of British households are now home to single people. Meanwhile, we work ever longer hours as our taste for exotic cuisine keeps building. We lap up the "food porn" of television cooking shows, but when it comes to the act itself, well, most of us are found wanting.
Crucially, the patterns of British family life have changed radically. "We have seen a disappearance of regular mealtimes because the family no longer eats at the same time," says Alan Warde, a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and the author of Consumption, Food and Taste. "In places like Denmark and Spain they have kept that tradition but not here." It's a fact bemoaned by Rose Prince, the author of The New English Kitchen and The New English Table. "The rituals of preparing dinner and laying the table are an enormous part of happiness," she says. "By replacing them you remove an important part of social life – it's starvation in another form."
But does the ready meal represent the marinated chicken or the pre-boiled egg in this apparent decline? It would be easy to surmise that the chicken Kiev and its progeny have fuelled the change in our attitudes towards convenience food, but some suggest it is merely the result of those changes. Warde talks about the "polarities of care and convenience". He says: "We know it's better to prepare an elaborate meal from scratch for our families but increasingly we have realised that isn't always possible. Convenience becomes legitimate under certain circumstances."
Love it or hate it, the ready meal industry shows no signs of a decline. But there are signs of a change; some in the food industry believe we are coming full circle as consumers tire of the sound of pinging microwaves. The marketing buzzword here is "scratch cooking", although "kit cooking" or even "food assembly" would be more accurate (think marinated meat that can be thrown into a wok with pre-cut vegetables and a sauce of your choice). By giving us a taste of proper cooking, the "kit" meal recalls the case of the Betty Crocker cake mix. When proud American housewives refused to buy it in the 1950s, the manufacturers drafted a new recipe that required the addition of a single, essentially symbolic, egg. Sales duly soared.
"If you put food into a pan and follow instructions, you feel like you're doing something a bit more clever than re-heating," Prince says. If this is a trend, its natural conclusion would be a return to genuine scratch cooking. But, for as long as the mealtime is dead, and time pressures combine with a skills deficit to prevent us reaching for the rolling pin, that would appear to be a nostalgic pipe dream.
Back at the M&S kitchens, where huge Christmas turkeys are being perfected on the hottest day of the year, Chapman reflects on the case she had to make in her bid to launch the ready meal. "I stood my ground on garlic," she says of the chicken Kiev, which still occupies a spot on the supermarket's top-seller list (albeit for a relatively affordable £3.49 for two). "I knew Britain was ready for it, and while one didn't say 'I told you so' to one's bosses, one probably said it privately."
Changing tastes: A potted history of convenience food
The first canning factory opens in New York. By the mid-19th century, tinned food had become a status symbol in Britain
Inspired by the preserving effect of cold on dead Arctic fish, Clarence Birdseye founds Birdseye Seafoods
An American engineer called Percy Spencer patents the microwave oven
Inspired by airline food trays, the US firm Swanson launches the frozen TV Dinner
Edward Asselbergs, a Canadian technician, gives the world instant mashed potato
The first Iceland opens in Oswestry, Shropshire, selling frozen convenience food in bulk
Marks & Spencer launches the chicken Kiev and the cordon bleu, Britain's first chilled ready meals
Lamb dhansak and chicken tikka masala form part of the first range of Indian ready meals, made for M&S