Not so long ago, Britain's national meal was probably roast dinner. Roast beef, most likely, sliced thinly and served up with plump roast potatoes and various spoonfuls of veg, all covered in thick brown gravy with a dollop of horseradish on the side. The perfect roast beef dinner would be served up by Lynda Bellingham, or an OXO-crumbling Mum very much like her, and ladled out every Sunday to a smiling family sat round a bountiful dining table. Not so long ago. Apologies to my vegetarian readers, because sliced cow has never been your meal of choice, but this is Britain we're talking about, and our carnivorous nation isn't averse to flesh-eating.
Or maybe Britain's national meal was fish and chips. Plump white cod fried to within an inch of its life in thick crispy batter, packed together with a mountain of greasy thick chips, unwrapped from a semi-transparent fat-stained sheet of newspaper. The perfect fish and chip supper would be served up on a Friday night fresh from the chippie, saving Dad the washing up, and sprinkled liberally with brown malty vingar and a splodge of artificially red ketchup. Apologies to my vegan readers, because murdered fish has never been your meal of choice, but this is Britain we're talking about, and island nations don't mind a few bones between their teeth.
More recently, I suspect Britain's national meal evolved into Chicken tikka masala. A meal so convincingly Indian that legend tells it was probably invented in Glasgow. De-feathered meat from battery farm hell, already pre-chunked to save effort should you choose to hurl it all up later. The perfect Chicken tikka masala would arrive in a thick liquid gloop that'd stain your carpet orange should you spill a drop, and stain your intestine orange if you didn't. With added rice and naan for good measure, this modern multicultural classic used to be very popular indeed. Apologies to my non-spicy readers, because I can't see what the attraction is either, but this is Britain we're talking about, and there's no accounting for national taste.
But now there's a new favourite meal out there. It's taking hold first in the younger generation - generally those with only a few quid in their pocket, an empty life and plenty of independence. It's quick to cook, easy to get hold of, and extremely portable. It slips off the fingers with ease, and it slips down the throat in seconds. You can see the evidence on the streets - generally littered all across them. It's Chicken-In-A-Box. And it's everywhere. Apologies to my under-25 readers, because some of you would rather stick pins in your eyes than eat this stuff, but this is Britain we're talking about, and lowest common denominator food rules.
As cheap and nasty fast food goes, there's little to compete with Chicken-In-A-Box. Take the very dodgiest scrapings of scrawny poultry, recombine the bits in over-salted water, squash everything together in a greasy overcoat of soggy batter, and heat the lot in a reservoir of cardiovascular poison. Serve with a liberal portion of thinly chopped potato sticks, similarly fat-soaked, and dump into a cardboard box topped off with artificial squirtings of slimy red sauce. Throw in a can of sugared fizzy water for good measure and there you have the lunchtime option of choice for many a school dinner refusenik. No wonder the nation is in the grip of an obesity crisis. Apologies to my larger-framed readers, because your bulky belly is obviously hereditary and not in any way a reaction to excess diet, but this is Britain we're talking about, and our national waistline is rapidly heading States-size.
Britain's national meal has never been healthy. Roast dinners are oversized platefuls of lardy stodge (though usually accompanied by dollops of tasty veg). Fish and chip suppers are two healthy ingredients irrevocably tarnished (though sometimes with added Omega 3). Chicken tikka masala is little more than arterial glue (though probably with real tomatoes, if you're lucky). But, unlike previous comfort food classics, Chicken-In-A-Box has no redeeming features whatsoever. It's a cheap and nasty gut-filler for the can't cook won't cook generation. It's a cop-out meal, served up by grease-vendors, to palates that know no better. And it's being eaten daily to excess in a High Street near you. Beware the ubiquitous orange box, and be finger-licking afraid. Apologies to all my readers, because some of you probably have a really nice healthy lunch planned, but this is Britain we're talking about, and the future is reconstituted meat and heart disease.