Edible Economy

“How to catch the early, early show with an easy, easy dinner.” The centrepiece is a golden trifecta of chicken: a “rich portion of breast, meaty wing, and a plump thigh or drumstick”, the crisp breaded skin reflected from multiple angles in the moulded metal tray. Buttressing the meat in triangular compartments, the sides are a passing reference to a balanced meal (corn, peas, carrots and lima beans to the left, mashed potatoes to the right, each topped with their own angular wedge of stoplight-yellow butter). Not advertised, but equally important, are a supporting cast of additives that allow this meal to be “quick frozen” and reheated “oven-quick” weeks later: antioxidants stop the fat from going rancid, stabilisers keep the potatoes at a smooth consistency, sodium sulphate maintains the colour of the “garden good” vegetables.

In theory, the natural habitat of this object is the dinner table, a place where the formality of place settings and cutlery meets the geniality of family gathering. Printed with a wood grain pattern, the cardboard packaging even makes a passing allusion to the table as background for the meal. Yet the accompanying vignette is bereft of any such furniture: a mother and blonde pigtailed daughter rest their trays on tiny folding tables, while the father dispenses with the table entirely and simply balances the dinner on his lap. Instead of dining chairs, they lounge on patterned sofa cushions. Meanwhile, their gazes are directed towards a different rectangular object, sketched in lightly in the foreground, its function hinted at by telescoping antenna and a large dial.

That the contents of this dinner (meat and two veg) are, from a Western perspective, so generic and timeless, while the context in which it is eaten is so specific (America, mid-1950s, by an upwardly-mobile working-class family) reveals something fundamental about the ready meal: it can be characterised far better by the socioeconomic preconceptions around it than by what it contains or how it has been made. The ready meal clearly has something to do with shifting the time and labour required for food preparation to an agent several steps removed from the person who eats it, as well as with standardising food in order to achieve economies of scale. Although the ingredients, packaging, advertising, pre-preparation and reheating techniques fluctuate with the available technology in any time and place, the ready meal consumer is consistently the worker, whose life is governed by a scarcity of time and money.

Considering this definition, the origins of the ready meal cannot easily be attributed to any particular invention. It certainly predates the microwave oven, and its manufacture still varies between quick-freezing (common in countries with large refrigerators, supermarkets and cars, such as the United States) and chilling (common in countries with small flats and public transport, such as Great Britain). Instead, the development of the ready meal can be viewed as part of a longer history of thinking about food in class terms, its watershed moment when Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, established the House of Industry in Munich in the 1790s. Rumford, a Jamie Oliver-James Dyson hybrid of his time, was preoccupied with the moral and efficient use of energy (thermal and caloric) to feed poor urban workers, a new swath of the population generated by the Industrial Revolution. While the poor had long been a pet subject of philanthropists, Rumford was unique in basing his ideal arrangement of society's resources upon the quantitative precision and thermodynamic potentials of industrialism. As he put it: “All the Comforts, Conveniences, and Luxuries of Life are procured by the Assistance of FIRE and of HEAT.”

Rumford’s works established a social binary for the industrial era that remains to this day, in which convenience and reproducible luxury (or their semblances) are used to discipline working populations and ensure the stability of society’s productive apparatus; in which the industrialist, the scientist and the aristocrat decide how much information, choice and pleasure are necessary to optimise the working class’s motivation and performance. This occurs at one extreme when, as an advisor, he instructs the Bavarian army to arrest the beggars of Munich and bring them into the House of Industry, where they would be transformed into a reliable proletarians through the regular provision of food and wages. But it also takes place on a molecular level when he proposes to increase the pleasure of eating by adding toasted bread to soup in order to occupy more of the worker’s time, at little extra cost, through “long mastication”. This soup (boiled pearl barley, peas and potatoes) is arguably the progenitor of the ready meal—a product mass-produced to feed a working class that, in the eyes of Rumford and the social reformers he influenced, no longer knew how to feed itself. More importantly, it was a scalable and financially quantifiable alternative to the other common portable meal, the roasted potato.

Since the experiment at the House of Industry, the task of providing convenient, nutritious and affordable food remains inextricable from the ethos of the contemporaneous culture of work. Thus, it is little surprise that by the height of early-twentieth-century Fordism, the upper class’s concern with the feeding of workers had abandoned any social reform agenda for a pure focus on the commodity of time; how much of it was spent eating could now be measured in the number of units not produced. This ideology is encapsulated in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, where the Billows Feeding Machine is used to automatically feed assembly line workers to chaotic results (hot soup is dashed through the air and corn-on-the-cob spins at hyperspeed). But the machine also anticipated the incompatibility between the factory owner’s roles as benevolent progressive and as ruthless capitalist. Treating lunch as a right earned through labour was not only a missed opportunity to sell more products; it also veered dangerously close to collectivism. The industrial apparatus, in other words, would be better served by a labour force that saw the fruits of mass production as a source of individual pleasure. Accordingly, the food industry began to market packaged food as an attainable luxury that would reduce the labour of housewives while offering exotic ingredients from distant farms, slaughterhouses and seas.

But food, that most primitive of human needs and most immediate of sensory delights, has repeatedly resisted attempts to rationalise and expedite its consumption (even more, arguably, than furniture, automobiles or other mass-produced products). In a process that would recur ad infinitum over the next century, the desire for pleasure encountered both chemical and technological obstacles that could only be overcome through additional chemical and technological interventions. In 1930, the General Foods Corporation piloted a project selling frozen food products including “meat, peas, spinach, cherries, loganberries, red raspberries, filet of haddock, sole and Bluepoint oysters” in the grocery stores of Springfield, Massachusetts. But the traditional process of freezing destroyed the texture of foods, such as meat and fruit, due to the asynchronous shrinking of water and other molecules while cooling. Two years later, this problem was solved through quick-freezing at sub-zero temperatures, a process invented by Clarence Birdseye, the director of research for the corporation’s Frosted Foods subsidiary. For Birdseye’s innovation to succeed, however, the entire distribution and storage system, from the field to the truck to the home freezer, needed to be improved to ensure a seamless cold chain, a financially daunting challenge in the depression years.

Luckily for the food industry, the onset of war and the deployment of hungry troops to stations all over the world provided the ideal pretext for the expansion of the cold chain, using federally-subsidised land and utilities. enabling it to become commercially viable. The war not only made frozen food commercially viable, but also allowed manufacturers to sidestep objections from butchers to the automation of meat preparation and the resulting reduction in employees. Together with other products and technologies born out of World War Two, from the army mess tray and cling film to microwaves first used in radar, the ready meal evolved from a military necessity into a peacetime amenity, marketed to women newly liberated from the kitchen but bereft of live-in maids. Indeed, the Monsanto Chemical Company’s 1957 House of Tomorrow in Disneyland and the American pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels displayed frozen food among glamorous smooth plastic furnishings, appliances that disappeared with the touch of a button and “pretty girls” in the latest “sack” dresses. The display created the impression of an endless stream of cocktail parties and family get-togethers—with no need to cook or wash up.

The changes in the home during the 1960s, however, suggest that the real use for convenience food was different from that propagated by futuristic model homes and advertisements depicting the family gathered around the dinner table. On one hand, the dining room collapsed into the kitchen, economising on space at a time of mounting real estate prices and freeing the kitchen from its traditional isolation. On the other, the frozen meal entered into a symbiotic relationship with that other post-war marvel, the television, making audiovisual consumption the nightly activity for millions of households. The “TV Dinner”, presciently trademarked by the Swanson company in 1953 to advertise its range of frozen meals, assembled from a combination of meat (sliced turkey, meatloaf, fried shrimp), vegetables (corn, peas, crinkle-cut french fries, mashed potatoes), and dessert (warm apple slice, brownie, red jelly), would also inspire notable artefacts such as the “TV dinner tray table”. And as microwaves became ubiquitous during the 1970s, the increasing use of commercial breaks for quick cooking prompted the introduction of product placements in television shows.

This triangle of ready meals, casual dining trays and tables, and TV programming constituted an inescapable consumerist trap for the late-twentieth-century worker; a trap all the more remarkable for its ability to resist such tidal shifts as the 1970s recession. As financial writer Scott Burns suggested in his 1975 book Home, Inc: The Hidden Wealth and Power of the American Household, the recession could be an opportunity to reinvent the household as a site of decentralised production, free of industrial capitalism’s reliance on mindless consumption, planned obsolescence, increased automation and uncontrolled energy expenditure. Burns called for industry to produce tools of small-scale manufacture rather than consumer products, echoing Sigfried Giedion’s speculation thirty years earlier, in Mechanization Take Command, that distributed community freezers could be used to preserve food ‘almost on the medieval pattern’. But both alternatives failed to materialise.

Perhaps the ready meal survived the recession because of microwave cooking’s sheer energy efficiency; perhaps it succeeded by building a base of loyal customers, enticed in childhood by products such as Libbyland’s Safari Supper, with its cartoon-embossed tray, powdered milk flavour mix and colourful TV adverts. But another possibility is that the fickle, mouldable concepts of convenience and luxury (especially to the very population that wants for both) appeal to our most primitive desires; over time, we become dependent on instant gratification and on the system that produces it. The present-day scenario of clipping out a recipe by a celebrity chef, going to the local supermarket, finding the ingredients, carting them back home and cooking dinner is certainly not convenient, no more so than buying an organic sandwich from Pret a Manger could be considered luxurious. But a carefully calculated matrix of food quality, economies of scale and advertising may convince customers that despite certain limitations—on their salaries, their free time, and their cooking proficiency—they still have access to the kind of sensory indulgence that is normally reserved for the rich. Moreover, in particularly millennial fashion, this epicurean illusion can even fortify customers’ self-image as tasteful, conscientious members of society.

The “ready” meal’s mutable nature is demonstrated by the rise of two divergent sectors at the high end of the market. One is luxury frozen food, most keenly illustrated by COOK, a Kent-based company founded in 1997, which sells ‘remarkable food for your freezer’ through a chain of eighty stores, online delivery, and branded freezers in 1,000 independent retailers. Its shops, styled in the vein of organic neighbourhood co-ops, sell individual meals out of gingham-wrapped freezers, accessorised with British flags to denote locally-sourced ingredients. Each coq au vin, chilli con carne, and banoffee pie is lovingly described and even signed by the cook who made it. The second sector, dominated by start-ups like San Francisco’s Forage, New York’s Plated or London’s Dinnr, delivers kits of precisely portioned ingredients for a specific recipe—say, seared scallops with bacon and mint pea mash—directly to the customer’s kitchen. That the consumer actually has to assemble the food hardly contradicts the basic premise of the ready meal. In both cases, the companies providing these meals tend to bury the central commodity of convenience (with its plebeian connotations) under a more sophisticated appeal to epicurean tastes, wholesome nutrition and accessible luxury.

In an online confessional, Dinnr’s founder Michal Bohanes admitted an essential quality of such services, made unavoidably obvious by the failure of his business: “We were not solving anyone’s problem”. Beyond a few exceptions (soldier’s MREs or aeroplane food), ready meals never really have. Unlike televisions or wooden tables, dinner still makes sense—financial, logistical, and social—as a product manufactured nightly, on-demand and in small batches, adapting fluidly to the tools, materials, and energy sources at hand. As long as a place to cook is one of the common prerequisites for inhabitability, that basic economic condition will remain a caveat to the more improbable claims of the manufactured food industry. As the most recent mutations of the ready meal demonstrate, rather, convenience food is a symptom of the broader culture of work. COOK and Forage, like many recent start-ups, use the illusion of effortlessness, luxurious shopping experiences, and convenient delivery mechanisms to tempt the contemporary worker. And as such companies automate and rationalise the ready meal to increasing degrees, they disguise the underlying erosion of the worker’s agency within today’s society, while maintaining his or her allegiance to the very consumer mechanism that challenges the security of their position.