Tray chic

Fifty years ago Swanson introduced the TV dinner. Folks have been eating and watching ever since.

February 05, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

A visionary knows how it is to be misunderstood - just ask the guys who created the original TV dinner.

They put the peas on the left, mashed potatoes on the right, meat front and center where it belongs. It could hardly have been simpler, yet it appears the TV dinner was misconstrued.

"The idea wasn't that you sit and watch TV and eat this thing," says Gerry Thomas, who says he hatched the TV dinner while working in sales for C.A. Swanson & Sons in Omaha, Neb., a food wholesaler that put the product into national distribution in 1953.

All right, cancel that visit to the ESPN Zone or local tavern, college student union or airport bar or any one of a million places suiting celebration of the TV dinner's 50th anniversary, and the good American tradition of watching and eating. That was not the idea at all.

"The idea" of the name, says Thomas, was to sell the ready-to-heat frozen dinner: "to make it interesting enough for people to want it."

At the dawn of the Eisenhower years, folks might have wanted turkey with corn-bread stuffing and gravy, peas and mashed potatoes, but what really fired their collective imagination was something else. This new thing on the scene: television.

Thomas, who traveled a lot for work in those days, couldn't help but notice how an appliance-store owner in any given city, on any Main Street, could lure a crowd by putting an 8-inch television set in the window and switching it on. And that was for test patterns.

There folks would stand, transfixed, staring into the future of American life - politics, sports, journalism, language and, not least, eating. The TV dinner would never be strictly food in the way that, say, peas, potatoes and turkey were by themselves strictly food. The whole was more than the sum of its parts.

It was a potent idea, casting a long shadow over the supermarket frozen-food case. Never mind that the "TV Dinner" label had vanished from the Swanson's frozen meal box by around 1970. Chances are a frozen meal by any name is going to be known to this day in casual conversation as a TV dinner, with the understanding that a meal so called is made for eating and watching.

The old aluminum four-compartment TV dinner tray was considered significant enough to find a place in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. Swanson had recently switched to a nonmetallic, microwave-friendly tray, after having switched from a three- to a four-compartment tray in 1960.

Says Paula Johnson, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: "It's one of these things that represents a couple of important things: technology and American culture coming together in a fascinating way."

In an article published in a 2001 book called Kitchen Culture in America, Christopher Holmes Smith wrote that the TV dinner and television "gave material expression to the nation's desire to celebrate the end of scarcity through a postwar lifestyle of leisure."

"End of scarcity," indeed. As Thomas tells it, the TV dinner was born of inconvenient abundance.

"The reason for the dinner is `Necessity is the mother of invention,' " says Thomas, who turns 81 in February and lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz. "We had too damn much turkey."

Not just a little too much, as in a weekend of turkey sandwiches immediately after Thanksgiving Day. For some reason - perhaps partly a spell of warm weather in the autumn and early winter of 1951-1952 - Swanson & Sons fell far short of anticipated turkey sales. The company wound up with a monstrous load, up to a half-million pounds by some estimations.

As Thomas recalls, Swanson had the meat stored frozen in refrigerated railroad cars that were rolling in several trains between Omaha and the East Coast. That was fine for a few weeks, but, really. Something had to give under the weight of all that turkey.

Gilbert Swanson and his younger brother, Clark, put the word out for ideas about how to move this turkey mountain.

Someone suggested opening a string of shops at railroad stations selling hot turkey sandwiches.

Not bad.

Someone suggested that Swanson get into the turkey-loaf business in a big way.

Well, uh ...

Someone said: Let's can the stuff and sell it to the military for rations.

This was "commodities thinking," says Thomas, befitting a commodities company. His idea "was considered one of the goofiest."

After spotting aluminum and cardboard in-flight meal containers on a Pan American flight from Omaha to Pittsburgh, Thomas says he returned to the Swanson brothers with a notion: Package the turkey in frozen meals ready to heat and eat.

It had been tried before.

While most of the frozen-food world in those days consisted of vegetables, orange juice and ice cream, there had been some experiments with frozen steaks, pizzas, Mexican food and meat pies in the 1940s. A Philadelphia company called FrigiDinner produced a frozen meal that was sold in groceries in the late 1940s, says David Wellman, editor of Frozen Food Age.

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