The story of our stomachs

In 1947, kippers and condensed milk were among Brits’ top food buys. Today, we stock up on flavoured

New Statesman
Still life by Stephen Lenthall

A London high street. From one end of the Holloway Road to another, you pass Perfect Fried Chicken, Local Fried Chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Speedy Chicken, Dixy Fried Chicken, Mississippi Fried Chicken, New York Chicken & Ribs. Variations on the red American-style, perky-looking chicken sign alternate with the pound shops and supermarkets (fact: about 90 per cent of the fried chicken shop signs in London are designed by one man, Morris Cassanova, nicknamed Mr Chicken). Here in north London, you could eat at, or more accurately take away from, a different fried chicken joint every night of the week.

Cottoning on a little late to the fried chicken phenomenon, the Office for National Statistics has added “takeaway chicken and chips” to its annual basket of goods for the first time this year. In its report Consumer Prices Index and Retail Prices Index: the 2012 Basket of Goods and Services, the ONS explains that it introduced the item “to improve coverage of catering which has been identified as an under-represented area of the basket”.
Ah, the basket. It is, of course, an imaginary basket, used to monitor and measure the fluctuation in prices of consumer goods, but in the intangible world of statistics, there is something deeply comforting about picturing ONS statisticians carefully gathering garlic cloves and baguettes into their hemp carrier bags, their trolleys, their holdalls.

The basket has been compiled annually by the ONS since 1947, a postwar innovation designed to assess inflation. In that first year, 200 “representative items” were chosen to build up a picture of how people spent their money. Now, there are nearly 700 items, partly due to the broadening of the research (the coverage expanded to include all wage-earning households, and not just the “working classes”, in 1956) and also because of the rapid diversification of our retail experience in the past 60 years. Now you can walk out of your door and expect, at any time of day or night, to be able to buy baklava, French beans, burritos – unimaginable delicacies in 1950s Britain.

The beauty of the basket is in the story it tells: the story of our stomachs, and our tastes, through time. In 1947, the statisticians included mutton and wild rabbit, turnips and dried milk, kippers, corned beef and “compound cooking fat”. In the 1952/56 basket, the first one post-rationing, there are some startling entries: chocolate-covered biscuits, luncheon meat and rice, fish fingers and cheese spread, crisps, beetroot, frozen peas and ice cream. You can almost hear the cheers around the kitchen table.

The 1960s and 1970s then usher in innovations – sliced white bread and the cream cracker, dried mashed potato, instant coffee, frozen sliced beans and, enticingly, “beer in party containers”. It was the first evidence of pre-prepared, convenience food in the basket after all the graft of cooking kippers and turnips. Paul Levy, the food writer and chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, explains the trend to me as “the replacement
of people by machines to do the household work”. Time had become more precious – there was no more help around the house, more women were working and the hours spent in the kitchen diminished. (There was also the arrival of the microwave, Levy says, “which has a lot to answer for”).

Then, in the 1980s, the basket embraces the freezer; alongside exciting Continental interlopers such as spaghetti and garlic sausage are frozen chips, frozen sponge, frozen curry and frozen pizza. Suddenly, it seems, we discovered ice. And the basket from 1995 reveals a divergence. We are beginning to discover our foodie instincts and expensive tastes – there is liver pâté and fromage frais, avocado and kiwi fruit – but we are also getting even busier, or lazier: in come ready-cooked meals, stir-in sauces and the takeaway.

In 2005, the split seems to widen. Pitta bread and prawns, mineral water and caffè latte are all added to the basket – items you imagine scattered across a metropolitan, distressed-wood dining table – but so, too, are flavoured milk, energy drinks and “potted snacks”, food that doesn’t quite look like food, with no distinguishable ingredients, often a colour that you have never previously associated with something edible, usually wrapped in plastic and ready to eat, so that all you have to do is rip it open and chomp. You can see how, as we became more impatient, clamouring for nourishment that could be shoved down the gullet without having to be boiled or beaten or baked or whisked, we also got fat.

Nice price

Philip Gooding is the author of this year’s ONS report. He is based in Newport, Wales, at the ONS’s central office and has worked there in the prices area since 2007. It is, he says, probably one of the most interesting parts of ONS research because the figures matter to people, from the old-aged pensioner to the City economist. “You get old ladies ringing up asking what’s happened to inflation,” he says. “I can’t think of anything worse than working on something and nobody’s interested in it.” At this moment, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the team working on the Maastricht Supplementary Data Tables.

Gooding is right. Everyone loves the basket of goods. Every year, the media pounce on it, picking through the contents, searching for a story to tell about ourselves. So, how does the ONS decide what stays and what goes, the moment that it’s right to wheel in tablet computers and teenage fiction (hello, Twilight) and to dump camera film and stepladders, as happened this year?

It’s not all based on fashion, or consumer desire. One of the reasons why items are changed is to reflect price volatility. Recently the fresh fruit and vegetables category has expanded (welcome the pineapple; cue snide remarks from the Guardian that the ONS has only just discovered exotic fruit) because it’s an area where prices can be particularly changeable, so the researchers increase the items to ensure a more accurate measure.

It is also important to have a good balance in the basket, and so fried chicken was introduced to boost coverage of the takeaway market while stepladders were chucked out, not because people stopped using them (the Daily Mail railed at the collapse of can-do Britain), but because, as Gooding explains, the ONS’s coverage of that area was sufficient; it simply didn’t need them.

The process is time-consuming and constant. ONS auditors around the country continually monitor prices and keep an eye on the range of produce in shops. They write reviews on particular retail areas, and will recommend changes to the basket reflecting what they have observed out in the wilds of Supermarket Britain. The head office team then gathers the reviews and discusses them.

I imagined hot debates around the boardroom table, with one fitness-obsessed statistician pitching for Lucozade while another, partial to elevenses, battled for Pot Noodle, but, sadly, it’s not quite like that. “We try to decide based on the objective information. It doesn’t usually become that awkward,” Gooding says.

The decisions are often guided by numbers; if more than £400m has been spent on an item during the course of the year and it’s not in the basket, he says, “You’d have to have a good reason not to put it in.” At the other end, if the spend dips below £100m, it’s at risk of being removed. Does the ONS ever get calls from irate food companies demanding to know why their product has been turfed out? No. But it always receives a strong reaction from the press. This year, Gooding says, there was amazement at the inclusion of dating agency fees.

Sometimes there are little basket mysteries, items that come in and go out and come back in again over the years. I spotted cheese spread, which first made an appearance in 1952/56, was taken out in 1987 and was reinstated in 2005, and imagined an ONS lifer who had been campaigning for the return of cheese spread for 20 years, finally, finally, getting his way. But Gooding is unconvinced: “I can’t speak specifically about cheese spread; I wasn’t around at the time. It could be a number of things . . .” he says uncertainly.

The one thing the researchers do get accused of, he says, is not bringing new products into the basket quickly enough. But again, there are solid statistical reasons for this – they have to account for the immediate price spike when a product is introduced on to the market and they have to make sure it is going to stick around, unlike some of those novelty food products that every child demands for a month after seeing the advert and then never wants to touch again. Remember Pop-Tarts and the delectable Peperami in a Roll? Exactly.

This year, buried deep in the basket data, was a small, easily missed change. In the Sugar, Jam, Syrups, Chocolate and Confectionery category, the “bag of sweets not chocolate” was introduced to replace the “bag of boiled/jellied sweets, to allow representation of foam sweets which have taken an increasing share of the market”. This might be an instance of Gooding and his team taking their time: the foam sweet – Haribo and co – has been around for a while, a favourite of the after-school crowd, the cinema-goer, the snacker. But those few words, about the new sweet’s increasing share of the market, represent a mini-saga played out on our high streets, a tale of our changing way of life.

Sweet teeth

Ask anyone over the age of 50 and they will tell you about the sweet shop of their youth. (My mother stole from hers, pilfering liquorice on her way home from primary school. She was so racked with guilt that she admitted her crime on walking through the front door and was frogmarched back to the shop to confess.) They were fantasy places, walls of glass jars packed with multicoloured confections and liquorice laces – look at Quentin Blake’s illustrations in Roald Dahl’s The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me for the ultimate version. Now such places exist as nostalgia haunts. In Covent Garden, you can visit Hope and Greenwood, one of  a chain of stores launched in 2004 by Miss Hope and Mr Greenwood, as they are devotedly called by their staff. Their string of concessions in department stores are the fruit of a successful, expanding enterprise, if one based entirely on an image of the past. The shop is a tourist-populated facsimile of that childhood store, with pretty vintage accessories and Union Jack sweet boxes, Royal Mint lollipops and gift vouchers designed to look like wartime ration cards. You are being sold an artfully gilded memory.

But, if you look, you will find old-fashioned sweet shops that are old-fashioned out of habit rather than affectation. The Oldest Sweet Shop in England (its real name) is on the high street in the Yorkshire Dales town of Pateley Bridge, and has existed as a general store since 1827. The proprietor is Keith Tordoff, who inherited the shop from his father and is passing it on to his son. He has watched children who came into his shop clutching prized pennies in clammy hands (the cheapest sweet is tuppence) grow up and, 30 years later, bring their own children to buy sherbet lemons and toffee pennies. Not long ago, he tells me on the phone, a 97-year-old woman returned to the shop for the first time since she was five. “She looked round and said, ‘It’s just not changed!’” Tordoff is one of life’s connoisseurs, a man so passionate about sweets that he cannot resist eating one every single time he pours new stock into the jars. “I’m a bit of a menace,” he says.

His sweets are made by local sweet-makers, of which there are many, historically, in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Their method is traditional, pulling the sugar into shapes in copper pans that are often over a hundred years old. So what does he think of the modern foam confection, the new entrant into the basket? “You can taste it straight away – it’s a little bit sharp, an artificial, cheap product.” It is in the ONS basket because it’s mass-produced, sold in packets and available in supermarkets scoured by auditors who are less likely to monitor the price of a pear drop in a tiny shop in Pateley Bridge.

Tordoff doesn’t mind. His shop is on a still-thriving local high street. He gets passing trade and has lifelong customers, and his son, pulling the business into the 21st century, has set up an online version of the business. Tordoff is aware of the nostalgic interest in the old boiled sweets, something that is felt more keenly in recession, he hints, as people are drawn back to the products of their youth. In the past couple of years, he has had a resurgence of visitors asking him for advice about starting their own shop, but he’s not sure how many will work. He has the weight of history behind him – a shop that he says is essentially pickled in sugar. “Think about the amount of sugar in all that time that’s been coming through the building. It’s in the beams!” He must have a favourite sweet, I suggest. “I go through phases. I’ve got a thing for the new chocolate cinder toffee. It’s taken my taste, and I’m not resisting that.”

Tags:Food