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At 50, TV dinner is still cookin'

By Mary Dixon LebeauContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 2004



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.

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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.

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.

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