Wednesday 30 October 2019

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev (1979)

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev, 2019
Introduced October 1979

Today we are looking at the technological marvel of the Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev. This may seem weirdly specific, but we’re not just talking about any Chicken Kiev… we are talking about a product that helped to change the way we eat.

Originally a French-inspired piece of Russian cuisine from the early 19th century the definitive recipe for the Chicken Kiev is thought to originate from the Continental Hotel in (unsurprisingly) the city of Kiev. This breadcrumb-coated chicken breast filled with garlic butter became popular throughout the former Russian empire and it eventually escaped to the west via the Yar restaurant in Chicago in the 1930s. From there it spread to other English-speaking countries and became a popular restaurant dish.

After the Second World War (which incidentally destroyed much of the Continental Hotel) the growing ownership of freezers in the US led to the growth of what would eventually be called the “TV Dinner”. Like many other things the idea of a pre-cooked frozen dinner crossed the Atlantic to the UK. But what these foods gained in convenience they tended to sacrifice in taste – and they certainly weren’t something that you would serve to guests.

By the late 1970s food technology was developing quickly. The decade had already given us the Pot Noodle a couple of years earlier, but British retailer Marks and Spencer was working on something altogether classier.

Young product developer Cathy Chapman was working with restaurateur John Docker to create a range of chilled (rather than frozen) meal based on popular restaurant choices. First out of the gate was the Chicken Kiev, modelled closely after the restaurant version including having a little bone sticking out of it.

Despite misgivings from M&S management, the Chicken Kiev was a huge success. Priced at £1.99 per portion in 1979 (nearly £10 today) it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it did have the advantage of being a very tasty and somewhat technically complicated dish that you could prepare in your own home with virtually no culinary skills whatsoever. For extra sophistication, you could wash it down with a bottle of Hirondelle.

The humble M&S Chicken Kiev marked a change in the way food was packaged and sold, and the concept soon spread to other western supermarkets. Today it’s possible to create a quite sophisticated meal even if you can’t reliably boil an egg. This change in food technology certainly broadened our horizons, but tended to come at a cost – these prepackaged foods are often designed for taste rather than healthy eating, and in their wake they tend to leave a lot of packaging which needs to be dealt with too.

You are unlikely to come across any 40-year-old vintage Chicken Kievs – and if you do, give them a wide berth – but food packaging itself it a niche collectable. Marks and Spencer sell a few different versions of Chicken Kiev today at different price points. The ones pictured were £3 for two, which is a lot cheaper than they were in 1979. I ate them for my tea. Very nice they were too.

Image credit: Shritwod via Wikimedia Commons

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