We Are What We Eat: It Started as a Simple Way to Measure Inflation - but the "ONS Basket" Has Become a Way of Charting Our Changing Tastes, from 1947's Wild Rabbit and Corned Beef to Today's Fried Chicken and Foam Sweets
Elmhirst, Sophie, New Statesman (1996)
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, perkylooking 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 196os and 197os 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 198os, 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 pate 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 caffe latte are all added to the basket - items you imagine scattered across a rrietropolitan, 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. …