The history in our supermarket trolleys – 50 years of food fashion

I have just been given a book called ‘Battenberg Britain’ by Nigel Cassidy and Philippa Lamb. It is fascinating, but not a little frightening. Reading through it one wonders how anyone over the age of twenty has survived the onslaught of hydrogenated this and additive filled that offered to us by supermarkets in the early years of their move to world domination. However, much of what they describe is still available and is, put simply, the history of British eating habits in the 20th century. I have to agree with the authors when they conclude ‘ ..tuck into a nostalgic British feast.. It’s your family history on a plate.’ I was filled with nostalgia and felt inspired to share a meal or two with you. Aren’t you lucky?!

Breakfast then. How about a nice bowl of ‘Ready Brek’? The authors of the book describe how, in the mid-1950s a factory manager at J Lyons & Co made ‘instant porridge’ from a dried out liquid derivative of oat flakes (yum..), but it failed to take off. That was until market researchers discovered that children adored the gloopy consistency and thus it was rebranded and marketed specifically at them. Apparently, we could all trundle off to school glowing weirdly, as if we had stepped too close to Hinkley Point or Sellafield whilst our mothers smiled at the thought that we were warmed by ‘central heating for kids’. Business boomed until Lyons, a firm started at the end of the 19th century, hit financial difficulties and was sold off to Allied Breweries. Ready Brek is now owned by Weetabix, a product which closely resembles kiddy porridge after just a few seconds of pouring on the milk.

Elevenses anyone? How about a cup of ‘Camp’ and a ‘Tunnock’s Teacake’?

A quite disgusting (sorry but it is) blend of coffee, chicory, sugar and water Camp Coffee has a fascinating history. It was invented by a Glaswegian ketchup manufacturer, Campbell Paterson, in the 1870’s to meet the coffee needs of the Gordon Highlanders serving in India and it became particularly popular during the Second World War when it was favoured for its overt sweetness and the consequent savings on sugar rations.  However, it is the story of the label that is most interesting. The officer depicted is believed to be one General Hector Macdonald, a brave Gordon Highlander who distinguished himself in Afghanistan in 1879 and at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan. However, he eventually shot himself in a Paris hotel in 1903 on reading that a ‘grave charge’ was to be brought against him – possibly homosexuality.  Race equality campaigners later objected to the depiction on the label of a Sikh servant bringing in the tray of coffee to the General and the picture was eventually altered. Not many labels are more interesting than the product in the bottle…

Marshmallow has been known to man for centuries but it is the French who are credited with making the first marshmallow confectionary in the mid 1850’s. A century later, in the 1950s the Tunnocks factory in Uddington, Lannarkshire launched their teacake (something it clearly isn’t) alongside their delicious Caramel Wafers, and Snowballs. It is still a family firm, exporting worldwide (demand is particularly high in the middle east apparently – oil workers use them to ward off homesickness) and retains an air of eccentricity despite being the chocolate of choice for A listers across the world. (Well the band Supergrass anyway).

To lunch then. I thought some Nimble sandwiches, filled with either John West’s tinned salmon, Shippams Fish Paste or Heinz Sandwich Spread. Who could resist?

Many of the foods described in Battenberg Britain were launched in the 1950’s and Nimble is no exception. It became increasingly popular in the first two decades of production and I clearly remember as a child in the 1970s seeing my Mum struggling with a tiny slice of Nimble, or arch rival Slimcea, which were really only low in calories because they were small, thin and full of air – just as the hot air balloon used to advertise the product was. ‘She flies like a bird…’ Oh dear. Along with other diet wonders like Limits, Nimble went out of fashion in the 1980s as new ways to lose weight and steal our money were devised and although it is still available it now comes full of fibre. I expect it still makes terrible toast.

Living in Sussex for fifteen years as I did, it was difficult not to experience the delightful aroma of fish paste that regularly wafted over Chichester, where the factory, founded in the late 18th century by Charles Shippam churned out mushed up fish mixed with fillers and preserved it in tiny jars. Truly shocking in its ability to disguise any number of poisons and thus a favourite of crime writers – including Agatha Christie – who regularly used it as a murder weapon, it still makes many quake in their boots at the thought of high tea with granny or lunch with a stuffy maiden aunt. The last Shippam retired from the firm as late as 1998 and it is now owned by Japanese giant Mitsubishi. Presumably they feel they can rebrand it as sushimi, but for me it is a lost cause.

Similarly, Heinz Sandwich Spread is still hanging on in there. Like the authors of Battenberg Britain I remember, as a child, thinking it looked rather as if someone had sicked it up on the pavement outside the late night chip shop. Millions of prepared sandwiches are sold every day now and I have yet to see Sandwich Spread on the menu at Pret a Manger.

I’m a little too full for tea, but if you are still hungry I could recommend a French Fancy, or the cake which inspired the book title. Apparently there is a rumour on the Internet that Battenberg was invented by Hitler’s grandmother. It does have German origins  – each one of the coloured sponge quarters honours one of four Battenberg princes – and was probably ‘invented’ in 1884 when one of the Princes, Louis, married Queen Victoria’s grandaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt. It has since become something that feels resolutely British, popularised as it was by J Lyons & Co who produced it in the 1930s. Mr Kipling still claims to make nearly 40 million exceedingly sweet Mini Battenbergs every year, even though I only know one person who can tolerate the taste of it.

So what is for dinner? As an hors d’oeuvre , Salt n Shake crisps and Jacobs Cheese Footballs. Then a starter of Campbell’s Condensed Soup. Condensed soup was invented at the beginning of the 20th century by a chemist named John Torrance. His Uncle was a partner in the American food company Campbell’s and the new innovation reduced the costs of packaging by two-thirds. However, the wonderful red and white label and the Campbell’s name has been lost to our shelves following the sale of the recipes to Premier Foods. The chicken variety made a great base for a casserole though. One of my mother’s staples.

For main course, I thought a Fray Bentos Tinned Pie with Smash and Mushy peas. Apparently, Sean Bean has the pies shipped to film locations where he eats them with Henderson’s relish but I find that hard to believe, even of Sharpe. The flabby content of the tin takes thirty minutes to cook and you end up with soggy pastry and metallic meat and gravy. However, they are still incredibly popular, with sales at over £20 million per year. Originally the pies were made in Uraguay where Fray Bentos ran a huge enterprise  responsible for ensuring that vast numbers of allied troops in WW2 were kept fed. They started manufacturing in Britain in 1958 and along with Vesta Curries came to be the very symbol of elegant 1970’s cuisine.

Oh what a delight we have for ‘sweet’. Angel Delight. Along with the rival Instant Whip, which always developed a scary film of bubbles on the top, Angel Delight was first marketed in 1967 and was the first in a new wave of additive-rich quick desserts for time-poor parents who thought it a good way to get half a pint of milk into their children. What was your favourite flavour? I always hated Butterscotch, but it is apparently a firm favourite still – presumably with those who are now only able to eat it by sucking it up through a straw or having it fed to them by a nurse. It still has a few additives that sound a little repulsive so I am therefore offering an alternative pud – how about a slice of Wall’s Harlequin Neapolitan ice cream? In the cardboard packet that you had to slice of course, not the nasty soft scoop tub. It came to Britain from America (where it was, and is, hugely popular) rather than Naples. Apparently it was brought in as a powdered milk in the kit bags of US airmen seeking to get around the British wartime ban on ice cream manufacture that came into force in 1942. So obsessed with the flavour are they in the US that NASA astronauts took a version into space which was re-hydrated with saliva when poured into the mouth. Ugh.

Battenberg Britain is a great book for a flick through. Even if the products you best remember from your youth (and there are many others in addition to those shown here) aren’t featured there is bound to be something to remind you of those days being dragged around the first Tescos to hit your high street. In any event, it is a great little book for offering a brief history of foods we still love to hate, or shamefully slip into our trolleys under the bags of salad or Ben & Jerry’s….

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6 Responses to The history in our supermarket trolleys – 50 years of food fashion

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention New on my blog: 50 years of food fashion.History of family life in supermarket trolleys. #food #history #familyhistory -- Topsy.com

  2. Rivenrod says:

    Wonderful! I find car boot sales often have the same nostalgic effect.

    Were things better in the old days? Don’t know. What I do know is that there seemed to be more honesty.

  3. What a rush of old memories! I’m proud to admit that all these foods (with the exception of Camps coffee) featured large on my childhood diet. The salmon spread sandwiches were a treat on school trips, instead of the usual cheese. In any event, my health didn’t seem to be adversely affected by eating so much junk!

  4. Iota says:

    I loved butterscotch Angel Delight – my favourite flavour. We used to call Battenburg cake “window cake” in my family.

    This post was great for nostalgia!

  5. dinner dinner, batman says:

    Great fun! Thankyou.
    We have just been trying to distinguish between Angel Delight, Instant Whip ( buttersotch please ) and Dream topping!

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