Birds Eye sold £7.5m worth of its Traditional Chicken Dinners last accounting year – and as these meals are made in the Republic of Ireland with imported chicken breast, “homestyle” gravy, potatoes and garden vegetables, I can understand why. True, they’re not exactly what I’d call hearty, but the chicken tastes fine, and while Birds Eye cannot vouch 100 per cent for the bonelessness of any given foreign breast, mine was reassuringly pliant, and even had a stippling of recognisable skin. The roast potatoes were firm little nuggets, the stuffing – shaped like a pellet of solid fuel – worked for me, and although the gravy was insipid, the carrots and peas swam friskily in its brown slop, and were surprisingly al dente. I can say with some certainty that I have paid five times as much for a chicken dinner in a restaurant – while enjoying it five times less and having to wait five times as long for it. The only cooking required here was an eight-minute spin in the microwave.
Yet, when I triumphantly bore my Birds Eye Traditional Chicken Dinner home from Mohandra’s convenience store, Mrs Self was dismissive: “Oh, you’re going to eat a TV dinner, are you?” Mohandra, when I queried the £3.90 price tag – there were other frozen roast dinners in the gondola costing less than two quid – observed that: “You pay for the brand.” Both of them implied I was engaging in unspeakably infra dig behaviour. And yet . . . and yet, what could be more real than a Birds Eye Traditional Chicken Dinner?
Patented in the late 1920s by Clarence Birdseye, the quick-freezing method, whereby food is pressed between cold metal plates while bathed in super-cooled air, has become the staple food-processing technique of our era. Birdseye was quite a character, perfecting his method while ice fishing with the Inuit of Labrador. That frozen food should have allowed for a colossal expansion of the volume of exploitable resources in the world, and so undoubtedly assisted in the destruction of the Inuit’s traditional lifestyle, is hardly Birdseye’s fault – unintended consequences of actions that seemed perfectly all right at the time are all around us. I’m one myself.
No, quick-freezing food has to be seen as the fourth agricultural revolution, which followed in a direct line from Mesopotamian domestication, through crop-rotation and the synthetic production of nitrogen fertilisers, to our own benighted decade. No! I was not having a TV dinner – I never eat in front of the television. (Mostly, it must be admitted, because applying a knife and fork to something in my lap always makes me think of the sequence in that film La dernière femme, where Gérard Depardieu cuts his penis off with an electric carving knife.) No! I ate my Birds Eye Traditional Chicken Dinner in the traditional way: at the kitchen table with my children, who were tucking into fancy Waitrose chicken goujons.
To begin with, the kids showed some interest in my novel menu choice, and we all marvelled at the non-standard shape of the compartments in the tray (something like cedillas), but they soon veered off on to other subjects – string theory, Boulez vs Stockhausen, the deciphering of Minoan Linear B – leaving me to wonder how they might have fared if sent to sea with Captain Birdseye, an advertising personification of such legendary effectiveness that a nationwide poll once established him as the best-known sailor in the realm after Captain Cook.
I have to say the continued plain-sailing of Captain Birdseye in the current miasma of paedophile obsession is something of a mystery to me. You don’t have to be that paranoid to be suspicious of a white-bearded fellow in a yachting cap who likes hanging around with a “crew” of pre-teens. Still, I assume he’s been CRB-checked – so that’s OK. Nor can my enthusiasm for Birds Eye altogether blind me to the human costs of that form of corporate cuisine, whereby one fat enterprise chows down on another.
In 2006, Unilever sold the business to that sinister form of words “a UK-based private equity group”. This one’s called Permira, which sounds to me like a neologism coined out of pudenda and permafrost – and possibly a rather suitable one. Back in 2005, Unilever closed the Grimsby factory where fishy fingers had been made since 1929, with a loss of 650 jobs. There’s no suggestion that Permira is contemplating any further closures, although when I called the Birds Eye press office to ask for sales figures, they did seem a little . . . wary. So, I thought I’d do my bit for the recovery and urge all of you to stay in this week and eat a Traditional Chicken Dinner – and none of your home-cooked muck: make it a Birds Eye.