At 50, TV dinner is still cookin'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

It began as a solution to that All-American holiday problem - what to do with the leftover turkey. But executives at C.A. Swanson & Sons weren't talking about just the remainders of the family meal. They were talking 520,000 pounds of poultry.

The Omaha, Neb., frozen food company had overestimated the demand for and undersold its 1953 Thanksgiving supply. Having insufficient warehouse facilities to store the overage, brothers Gilbert and Clark Swanson loaded the turkeys into 10 refrigerated railroad cars, which had to keep moving to stay cold.

As the turkeys traveled from Nebraska to the East Coast and back again, the Swanson brothers handed their staff a challenge - make good of this "fowl" situation.

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Enter Gerry Thomas, a company salesman. Visiting the food kitchens of Pan American Airways in Pittsburgh, he caught sight of the single-compartment aluminum trays the cooks used to keep food hot. Thomas requested a sample, then spent his flight home designing a three-compartment tray that was a step up from the serviceman's mess kit. He decided his design might be just what Swanson needed to sell off that turkey.

Back in Omaha, Thomas presented a turkey dinner-filled tray to the Swanson brothers. Then he suggested tying the dinners to the nation's latest craze, television. Packages were designed to resemble a TV screen, complete with volume control knobs - and the TV dinner was born.

Swanson didn't actually invent the frozen dinner. That can be credited to (or blamed on) Clarence Birdseye, who in 1923 invested $7, purchased an electric fan, buckets of brine, and some ice, and invented a system of packing and flash-freezing waxed cardboard boxes of fresh foods.

But it was that packaging - the compartments for individual servings - that put Swanson on the frozen food map.

"The segmented plate was enormously powerful, and remains so," says Betty Fussell, food historian and author of "My Kitchen Wars."

"The childlike packaging makes it appealing," she adds. "The food is segmented, just the way we separate food on our plates when we're children and don't want things mixed. It's a form of comfort to us. Everything is in its place."

It was 50 years ago that Swanson contributed to an American food revolution by selling its first TV dinner - packaged in Thomas's segmented tray - for 98 cents. It let customers feast on turkey with corn bread stuffing, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes - right in front of their television screens.

The Swansons, a bit skeptical about the new-fangled idea, ordered a first run of only 5,000 meals. But they quickly learned that they had greatly underestimated the demand. In 1954, more than 25 million TV dinners were served in front of 33 million television sets in living rooms across America. [Editor's note: The year of the introduction of the TV dinner is disputed.]

It came, it thawed, it conquered. Americans loved those prepackaged turkey meals almost as much as they loved Lucy. As families gathered around their 8-inch black and white Philcos to watch "You Bet Your Life" and "The Bob Hope Show," they ate from those familiar trays.

The demand soared, and the Swansons - finally recognizing a good thing when they saw it - added fried chicken, Salisbury steak, and meatloaf to their TV dinner menu.

Still, not everyone was thrilled about the new dinnertime innovation. Despite the popularity of the convenient meals, Swanson did receive "hate mail" - mostly from disgruntled husbands who were suddenly coming home to find precooked, reheated dinners instead of their favorite home cooking.

"You can't blame the TV dinner for taking the family away from the table," Ms. Fussell points out. "The TV did that. And, actually, it was another form of togetherness - eating tray next to tray in front of the TV."

"Society had changed a lot since World War II," says Deborah Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist who appears on the Food Network program "Good Eats."

"People were working and living urban lives," Ms. Duchon explains. "Cars made us mobile, and teenagers had their own lives. Convenience became a priority for us. In the '50s, society became very futuristic. We wondered what our lives would be like in the year 2000, and were very interested in technology and machinery. People embraced TV trays and TV dinners not because the food was good - it was awful - but because it was futuristic and convenient."

In that way, "food was an expression of the values of society," she says.

Still, futuristc and convenient weren't all Americans wanted. They didn't want to skip dessert for the sake of the future. In 1960, as TV viewers enjoyed the homegrown stories of Mayberry, Swanson sweetened their meals by adding desserts - and a fourth compartment - to the dinner trays.

Then another idea occurred to the marketing department: If frozen prepackaged meatloaf was good for dinner, wouldn't it work just as well at lunch? In 1962 Swanson dropped the "TV Dinners" name to suggest that the meals were good any time of day. To reinforce this point, Swanson Breakfasts were introduced in 1969, and children around the country met Big Bird, Ernie, and the "Sesame Street" crew while eating reheated eggs that year.

Imitators galore

Just like real television programming, TV dinners had sequels and copycats. Many companies tuned into convenience foods.

Today, 50 years after that first segmented tray appeared in the frozen food sections of US grocery stores, shoppers can find just about any type of cuisine in frozen form.

There's 24-hour programming in the form of frozen food for any meal or occasion, from breakfast to snacks. And cooking times became faster than a game show lightning round, since the aluminum tray was canceled and replaced with plastic-crystallized polyethylene, which is ideal for the microwave.

Today's highest ratings go to family-size or individual meals that offer large portions of meat. For the most part, dessert has disappeared (Swanson cut them from the lineup in 2001) in favor of diet foods, which now make up a third of the market.

Even without the brownie, Americans keep eating frozen meals. Dollar sales grew an average 7.5 percent per year from 1998 to 2003, according to research by the Mintel International Group.

Trays as cultural icons

Although technology moved on, the original aluminum tray was not forgotten. In 1986, it took its place in the Smithsonian Institution, immortalized right next to Fonzie's jacket, the two most appropriate symbols of television's happy days. [Editor's note: The tray is currently on loan to the Copia museum in Napa, Calif. ]

Hollywood followed suit in 1997 when an aluminum tray - along with handprints of Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas - was placed in the cement outside Mann's Chinese Theatre alongside the marks of Lassie, Uncle Miltie, and other TV legends. In 1999, Hollywood produced a commemorative sequel, giving the tray its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As Americans mark the 50th anniversary of the sale of the first TV dinner, the concept of a convenient frozen meal has become ingrained in the culture. For 66 percent of families, the act of eating in front of the TV screen, which Swanson was the first to capitalize on, has been syndicated and is rerun nightly.

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