Falling fowl of the food snobs
Bernard Matthews became a culinary Antichrist for the chattering classes who never shop anywhere but Waitrose.
‘Shame about Bernard Matthews he was a great inspiration to people to show what can be achieved in life by hard work. RIP.’ So tweeted his Apprenticeshipness, Lord Alan Sugar, on the death of Britain’s most successful turkey farmer on Thursday. Yet while Matthews provided convenience to the hard-pressed housewife, and his products always sold well, in recent years he also felt the full force of middle-class food snobbery.
Born in 1930 near Norwich in eastern England, the son of a mechanic, Matthews epitomised the story of the multi-millionaire who started with next-to-nothing. In 1950, he bought an incubator and 20 turkey eggs, which he processed at home. But this was all pretty small scale next to his big step forward: buying the dilapidated stately home Great Witchingham Hall for a knockdown price of £3,000.
The house was in a dreadful state of repair, but at five pence per square foot it was cheaper for Matthews than building turkey sheds of his own. Matthews turned 35 of the hall’s rooms into lodgings for his turkeys: they were hatched in the living room, reared in the bedrooms and slaughtered in the kitchen. It’s still the headquarters of his company, though the turkeys have long since moved out. Matthews’ other smart, postwar move was to buy up redundant airfields: large areas of secure land with solid concrete runways, perfect for the construction of turkey sheds.
Before Matthews came along, turkeys were too expensive for most working people and too large to be practical for anything other than Christmas and Easter. So Matthews started growing much smaller five- and seven-pound birds that could be eaten more regularly. He took the oven-ready poultry market by storm. After meeting Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 1964, he went on to advise Soviet-bloc countries on how to set up their own turkey-production facilities.
‘When I started the price of turkey was extremely expensive for the ordinary person’, Matthews once told the BBC. ‘To put it in perspective there were less than one million turkeys being produced in England in 1950 when I began, and in those days a man had to work for a week, the whole of a week’s wages to pay for a turkey for Christmas. Today, it only takes two hours of his working time to be able to buy one.’
But he only really reached Britain’s national consciousness in 1980 when he fronted a TV advert for his company. Not by any means a self-publicist, his Norfolk-accented description of the turkeys he was producing - ‘bootiful, really bootiful’ - became an instant catchphrase and sales soared. Eventually, the company employed 2,500 people and owned 500 miles of turkey sheds.
Matthews epitomised the new culture of convenience food. The scale of his operations made turkey meat the cheapest that money could buy, ideal for transformation into all sorts of wonderful shapes and sizes. Matthews gave us turkey slices, turkey drummers, turkey steaks, turkey roasts, turkey escalopes, turkey bacon, turkey ham, turkey dinosaurs, turkey nuggets, turkey footballers and turkey mini kievs.
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But it was Turkey Twizzlers that really epitomised his approach to frozen food, and the reaction against it. Twizzlers became the bête noire of pesto aficionados when featured on Jamie Oliver’s school-meals crusading TV show, Jamie’s School Dinners. These curls of turkey mince and pork fat with a tasty coating (admittedly they looked worryingly like spiral turds) were standard fare in school meals, in the days when schools had just 37 pence to pay for the ingredients for each pupil they fed.
So when Scolarest, one of the big catering companies supplying schools, stopped serving Twizzlers, the mockney food saint was delighted: ‘If Scolarest are definitely going to ban Turkey Twizzlers then I think they’ve acted really responsibly and I’m impressed. Getting all the cheap, processed junk food out of schools and getting the dinner ladies cooking real food is going to help the kids across Britain and will save money in the long run as we won’t be creating so many problems down the line for the NHS.’
As it goes, there was little difference between a Twizzler and a bog-standard sausage: minced meat, pork fat, rusk, water, salt and a variety of ingredients including such health-endangering poisons as, err, mustard and yeast extract (in other words, Marmite). The production of cheap food is the art of taking all the less attractive stuff and turning it into something palatable. Jamie Oliver may have been sniffy about them, but kids apparently loved them. The Turkey Twizzler may not have been to everyone’s taste, but it was perfectly nutritious.
The Twizzler rather sums up the debate we have about food today. In the media, the noisy chattering classes blow a gasket at the appalling state of the nation’s diet while turning their collective noses up at processed food. Meanwhile, the masses - who have never had access to such a variety of food before, at such affordable prices - carry on happily buying it and dishing it up for their families. It’s convenient, tasty and relatively cheap. Even the fussiest eaters - the little ones who become mealtime refuseniks when anything ‘healthy’ is put on their plates - will enjoy it. From the point of view of those who shop in Asda and Tesco - rather than those who wouldn’t be seen dead shopping anywhere but Waitrose - those frozen bags of strangely shaped turkey bits may not be haute cuisine, but it’s good enough.
For many members of the middle classes, Bernard Matthews’ products represent the absolute horror of mass consumption, threatening their specialist shops and their small farmers. For the rest of society, Bernard Matthews represented something quick, reliable and enjoyable that you could bung in the oven. It was slow food versus fast food, small-scale versus mass production, those-in-the-know versus the ignorant unwashed. But it’s not the masses who are stupid – after all, it’s the foodies who think that extruded turkey shapes kill schoolkids.
One of the little affectations that foodies like to bang on about is knowing where your meat comes from. You should know the name of the farmer, apparently. Well, when it comes to convenient turkey meals, everyone knows the name of the farmer: Bernard Matthews. RIP.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.