Post by Amanda Engineer

In October 1962 the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations issued a consumer study report: ‘Birds Eye fish fingers: A preliminary assessment of housewives’ attitudes to fish fingers’.

Arghh!!!! Mention fish fingers and I am instantly transported back to my childhood, hearing my Mum’s familiar Friday night refrain, “Eeeeat it! It’s good for you!”

I hated fish fingers. I did not look forward to fish-on-Friday dinners, being always the last one to leave the table, loath to swallow that tasteless white flaky matter covered in dry orange crumbs. But my Mum was adamant that I ingest this nutritious substance, for my own well-being and because to waste it was wrong. I couldn’t leave the table until I had eaten them. So there I sat, whilst my Dad and two sisters were free to watch Hawaii Five-0 on the television, the sound of that groovy opening theme music wafting to my ears only increasing my sense of injustice, self-pity and resentment towards the inventor of fish fingers.

When the Tavistock Institute conducted its research the fish finger was seven years old (see: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/50-years-of-the-fish-finger-558853). Yes, 1955, the year of ‘Britain’s Big Freeze’; the year that Kim Philby is revealed as the ‘Third Man’ in the Cambridge spy ring of Burgess and McLean; when Ruth Ellis is the last woman in England to be hanged; when Ealing Studios releases The Lady Killers (segue intended!); the year The Seven Year Itch is released; AND Clarence Birdseye starts selling frozen cod covered in bread crumbs!

But by 1962 all was not well. In response to concerns that the market for frozen fish products was declining, Tavistock Institute researchers, on behalf of Birds Eye Foods, looked into housewives’ attitudes to the weight and number in the packet, size and general appearance, colour pre and post cooking and package design. Their method was to recruit a number of housewives to attend discussion sessions in Putney, Wimbledon and Hammersmith, London. After a conversation on fish products in general and fish fingers in particular each group had to comment on four uncooked brands of fish fingers and then to taste and report on the same brands of cooked fish finger. Lastly packaging of the four brands was displayed and comments invited about the design. At the end each brand was revealed.

Some of the results about weight, numbers in packets, size, shape, colour and coating were potentially useful towards market research. However, what interested me most about this report are the evident concerns and anxieties of these housewives, many of which I feel still resonate with today’s consumer. For example, inefficient storage or turnover, thawing on the way home,the effect of freezing on the nutritional value of the food; and specifically towards fish fingers, a deterioration in taste, meaty content and size. Whilst some considered them value for money convenience foods with body building potentialities, many expressed feelings of guilt about the economies of preparation, possible unsuitability for the ‘man of the house’ and their being a poor, artificial substitute for fresh fish.

In my Mum’s favour I can report that our ‘man of the house’, was sometimes given a piece of (frozen) battered fish instead of fish fingers, which was at least a nod to fresh fish. She was after all balancing the need to provide food with nutrients with the need to run a household of three screaming girls! In our family you ate what was put before you and there was no expectation of, or sense of entitlement to, a meal catering for your individual tastes. Visiting a friend’s house for ‘tea’ one evening I was inwardly amazed to see that my friend’s Mum did exactly that – the height of privilege in my view!

On Friday nights my only consolation in knowing it was fish fingers for dinner was knowing that at least it was not the dreaded fish cakes. I am not talking about today’s scrumptious offerings containing salmon, potato, onions and herbs, but the packaged frozen ones which were little more than patties of encrusted sawdust! These days fish is something I eat a lot of, and enjoy. But it took a long time to tempt me to the scaly ones and I confess I would still rather go hungry than eat fish fingers.

amanda-engineer

Me at my birthday party aged about 8 years old. I think I have a chipstick in my mouth – far tastier than the dreaded fish-fingers.

The ‘Bird Eye Fish Fingers’ report is catalogued as part of the Tavistock Institute Registered Document series recently made available to researchers in the Wellcome Library (item reference: SA/TIH/B/1/2/2).

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Feature Image credit: © Superbass / CC-BY-SA-4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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