11 Ready-to-Digest Tidbits About TV Dinners

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Happy National TV Dinner Day! September 10th holds a special spot on the calendar for the iconic, slightly controversial, and constantly changing American meal of convenience.

1. THE FIRST TV DINNER WAS MODELED AFTER A THANKSGIVING FEAST.

The first official “TV Dinner”-branded TV dinner was created by Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons and hit the market in 1954. The meal consisted of turkey, gravy, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas, and sold for 98 cents. The food itself was packaged in a foil-covered, segmented aluminum tray to be heated in the oven. And the cardboard box it all came in was designed to look like a television set, complete with “dials” and a “volume control knob.” Approximately 10 million of the meals were sold that first year.

2. EXACTLY WHO INVENTED THE TV DINNER HAS BEEN HOTLY DEBATED.

A TV dinner
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In a widely cited 1999 Associated Press article, a former Swanson employee named Gerry Thomas somewhat humbly asked reporter Walter Berry not to call him “the father of the TV dinner.” “It bothers me,” Thomas said, “I really didn’t invent the dinner. I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name and developed some unique packaging.”

The article then goes on to detail an amazing story that’s since been repeated countless times: In the winter of 1952, the Swansons were in a panic about what to do about 520,000 pounds of excess Thanksgiving turkeys that they were having to store on refrigerated rail cars, so they asked their employees to help them find a way to use the turkey.

On a sales trip, Thomas was meeting with a distributor at a warehouse when he glimpsed a metal tray. He learned that Pan Am was experimenting with the trays in hopes of serving warm food on long flights. “I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat,” Thomas says. He then goes on to describe how he drew a sketch dividing the tray into segments, and was soon struck with the idea to capitalize on the brand-new television craze that was just beginning to take over American homes. His final spark of inspiration: “Thanksgiving” in front of the tube.

But in 2003, the Los Angeles Times conducted a lengthy investigation into the invention, and found that several of the Swanson scions, a few journalists who had written books on the subject, and some former Swanson employees contested Thomas’s claims, giving credit for the various elements of the TV Dinner Plan to other people in the company. Still, Thomas defended his story, admitting to possibly embellishing or hazily remembering minor details, but insisting that the core facts were “basically correct and accurate.” When Thomas died in 2005, most of the obituaries written about him, like this one in The Washington Post, credited him as the inventor of the TV Dinner.

The Library of Congress attributes the TV dinner to three different sources: Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc., which in 1945 manufactured “Strato-Plates,” or complete frozen meals that were heated for use on airplanes but never made it to the retail market.

3. CALLING IT THE "TV DINNER" WAS MOST LIKELY THE SECRET TO THE MEAL’S RUNAWAY SUCCESS.

In her 1994 Associated Press article “The Year the TV Dinner Knocked America Cold,” Kay Bartlett observes that, in 1954, television was “a new and fascinating phenomenon, particularly for children, and there were only three to four hours of new programming each day, generally in the late afternoon and evening, during the dinner hour. Families were virtually living their lives, after school and after work, around television. Preparation for mealtime was restricted.”

So, basically, gathering around the dining room table was replaced with circling around the TV.

What’s more, the “futuristic” aesthetic of the aluminum tray might have played a role in the TV dinner’s popularity. Nutritional anthropologist Deborah Duchon told the Christian Science Monitor in 2004 that “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.”

4. THE TV DINNER MIGHT HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO FEMINISM.


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The National Women’s History Museum points out: “TV dinners did more than just feed families, their convenience and quick cook time gave women (who usually did all or most of the cooking) more time of their own to pursue jobs and other interests, while still providing a hot meal for their families. One of the first advertisements for Swanson featured a woman pulling a Swanson dinner out of her grocery bag and promising her husband, ‘I’m late—but dinner won’t be.’” (The Banquet brand used a similar marketing approach in the 1962 advertisement for their TV dinners, above.)

Still, though the TV dinner might have made a lot of women happy, some men weren’t so thrilled. In that famous 1999 AP interview, Gerry Thomas recalls receiving complaints. “I remember getting hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did,” he says. “Women got used to the idea of freedom that men always had.”

5. THERE’S A SOMEWHAT OFFICIAL “MOTHER OF THE TV DINNER”

In 1953, Betty Cronin, fresh out of Duchesne College, was working as a bacteriologist at Swanson when she was tasked with the development of the TV Dinner. She had mostly male underlings.

“I had medical students working under me,” Cronin told the Chicago Tribune, who dubbed her the “mother of the TV dinner” in 1989. “They just couldn’t handle it. I was looked at kind of cockeyed, like ‘Why aren’t you in Library Science?’”

She was soon promoted to director of product development, and was the person who figured out how the meat, the vegetables, and the potatoes could all be heated at once using the same cooking time. She also solved other pressing problems: “What kind of [fried chicken] breading will stay on through freezing, not be too greasy and still taste good?” Cronin recalled. “That was our biggest challenge.”

Cronin found herself taste-testing all of her experiments. There were a lot of duds, and she quickly grew tired of it so she recruited some other unfortunate souls. “I had friends I’d use as a panel, Cronin said. “I’d call and say, ‘Don’t make dinner, I’m sending something out.’ Sometimes they’d tell me, ‘Don’t bring any more of these out here unless you bring us a lot of beer, too.’”

6. IN THE ‘60S, TWO MAJOR CHANGES WERE MADE TO THE TV DINNER


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In 1960, dessert was added, and that little compartment of cobbler that would come to scorch the roofs of countless mouths made its debut. (But then again, so did the brownie – yum!)

In 1962, Swanson executives worried that the name “TV Dinner” would discourage customers from eating the meals at various times of the day, so it disappeared from the packaging. The company introduced Swanson Breakfasts to the market in 1969.

7. IN THE ‘70S, TV DINNER PORTIONS BECAME SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER.

In 1973, Swanson introduced Hungry Man meals that targeted the hungry man (or, let’s face it, hungry woman – ain’t no shame!) who wanted a second helping. Banquet rolled out its own version, the “Man Pleaser” dinner, around the same time.

8. IN THE ‘80S, MARKETING DOWNPLAYED THE “BUSY LIFESTYLE” ASPECT OF TV DINNERS.

The harried-housewife TV dinner ads that seemed almost like a badge of pride for women in the ’50s and ‘60s fell out of vogue in the ‘80s. In a 1982 New York Times article about ad research, Eric Pace wrote that, while crafting an ad campaign for Swanson frozen dinners, Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett found that, though people who eat TV dinners are “harassed and hard-working,” “harassed customers did not like to be reminded of how hectic their lives were.” Perhaps that’s why the above ‘80s ad shows relaxed people, seeming to imply that there’s no noticeable difference between home cooking and Swanson’s chicken dinner.

Marketing trends for the TV dinner would continue toward a 180 degree turn from what worked in the meal’s early days. A 2011 Adweek article compares a ‘60s-era Swanson TV dinner ad, which played up “futuristic” aspects like the aluminum tray, with a modern-day Stouffer’s ad that shows the food “heaped on an earthenware plate – handily decamped from the plastic tray it came in,” and farm scenery in the background.

9. SINCE 1987, THE TV DINNER TRAY HAS OCCUPIED A PLACE OF HONOR IN THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY.

It’s one of the original trays designed for the first ’50s TV Dinner, and it’s part of a collection of pop-culture artifacts that includes Archie Bunker’s chair and Fonzie’s leather jacket.

“The TV dinner represented a change in the way Americans were thinking about food,” the museum’s website says.

10. IN 2008, IT WAS POSSIBLE TO BUY A $30 TV DINNER

It was the middle of the Great Recession, yet a $30 TV dinner could be had at Loews Regency Hotel in New York. “This is a city where there seems to be no end of the humble foods that can be transformed into a luxury,” Jennifer Lee observed in a New York Times blog post dedicated to the subject.

And just what did this luxury TV dinner entail? “The partitioned trays, instead of aluminum or plastic, are made of porcelain,” Lee writes. “The fried chicken is ‘free range.’ The cheese in the mac ‘n’ cheese is cheddar asiago with a Parmesan crust. And the pot roast is braised in Burgundian pinot noir.”

Last year, British chef Charlie Bigham created an even more expensive “ready meal.” Thrillist describes it as having “all the billionaire essentials: You've got your salmon, scallops, turbot, oysters, and lobster tails poached in Dom Perignon. You've got your white Alba truffles. You've got your Beluga caviar. And you've obviously got your 24-carat gold leaf crumb to garnish, because parsley is for peasants.” The whole thing cost £314, or $514.

11. THE FUTURE OF THE FREEZER-AISLE TV DINNER IS MURKY

In the past few years, several articles have been written on the impending doom the TV dinner might be facing. “Has the Frozen Dinner Become Frozen in Place?” asked Advertising Age in 2012.

“Big trouble in the frozen food aisle” declared MSN Money in 2013. “Can Frozen-Food Companies Make TV Dinners Cool Again?” worried TIME. And then just this past March in The Atlantic: “America Is Falling Out of Love With TV Dinners.”

According to the Atlantic article (and echoed in all the others), after almost 60 years of continued growth, frozen meal sales have been falling since 2008. In the TIME article, Martha C. White writes (again, echoing the other stories), “Our dining habits today are supposed to lean toward fresher, less processed food.” However, she continues, “What we’re eating might not necessarily be better for us – Panera’s Chipotle Chicken on Artisan French Bread sandwich sounds innocuous, but it’s really an 830-calorie fat-and-salt bomb. But many consumers think they’re eating healthier, and that’s what counts when we go to the grocery store, sandwich shop, or drive-through.”

Bob Goldin, executive vice president at the food-industry consulting firm Technomic, agrees. “There’s a perception among consumers that probably the quality [of frozen food] doesn’t meet the standards of fresh prepared or restaurants,” he tells TIME.

However, another series of articles, like this one in The New York Times, have emerged this past week centering around a study conducted by three sociologists at North Carolina State University, who argue that the stress that cooking places on people – particularly women – might not be worth all the effort.

According to an article in Slate titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” researchers “found that ‘time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others made it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.’”

Responding to the same study, in her article titled “Are Family Dinners Anti-Feminist?” Ester Bloom at The Billfold suggests families “choose a variety of ingredients, frozen foods, and prepared foods, so that everyone’s expectations remain reasonable. Meals don’t have to be cooked 100 percent from scratch to be good and still cheaper/better for you than take out.”

9 Vintage Thanksgiving Side Dishes We Shouldn’t Bring Back

We all have that aunt—the one who’s been bringing her Miracle-Whip-bound pimiento-pea salad to Thanksgiving dinner since time immemorial. Although you may swear she got her recipe straight from the devil, it turns out that cheese-and-lime-Jell-O salads and their ilk were all the rage in her day. So it’s not (totally) her fault! To cut her a little slack, here are some examples of vintage Thanksgiving-themed recipes that will make her salad look like a perfectly golden-brown turkey.

1. CRANBERRY CANDLE SALAD

Best Foods Mayonnaise Ad 1960s with Jello Molds

Nothing complements the tart, refreshing flavor of cranberry sauce like some gelatin and salty, eggy mayonnaise. If that weren’t weird enough, this recipe also tells you to shove a real candle in there and then light it. Ostensibly, you’re supposed to eat around the melted wax, but we can’t be sure—maybe it’s considered a condiment.

2. CANDIED SWEET POTATOES WITH ANGOSTURA BITTERS

This recipe for candied sweet potatoes, which involves baking them in a mixture of butter, sugar, and angostura bitters, is probably either really good or really bad. It sort of makes sense, adding bitters to cut down on the sugar factor. Alternatively, you could just not make a candied version of something that already has the word sweet in its name.

3. CREAMED ONIONS

This once-popular Thanksgiving mainstay has been neglected over the last century, for perhaps obvious reasons. In some households, the idea was to pour creamed onions over the turkey, like gravy, to add a little moisture. Or possibly because eating a chunky mouthful of pearl onions and cream sauce by itself is gross.

4. TURKEY AND STUFFING ON JELL-O

Thanksgiving Jello Ad

There’s not much to this one, is there? It’s a pile of turkey and stuffing dumped on top of a cranberry orange Jell-O ring—sounds delicious!

5. WINTER CORN

This mixture of corn, sour cream, and bacon is sometimes found on Midwestern Thanksgiving tables. It’s mostly off-putting because its main ingredient is creamed corn. That said, creamed corn really needs all the help it can get, so adding bacon can only improve it.

6. SWEET AND SOUR TANG POPCORN (A.K.A. ASTRONAUT POPCORN)

Reportedly, this was a popular Thanksgiving dessert in the ’70s. The idea seems to be an offshoot of caramel corn, but … with Tang powder.

7. HOT DR. PEPPER

You gotta give the good folks at Dr. Pepper a few points for at least trying here. They noticed that soda was not often considered a cozy, comforting holiday drink, and they stepped up to the bat undaunted. Bold move.

8. FROZEN JELLIED TURKEY-VEGETABLE SALAD

There’s only one way to improve a dish as alluring as Jellied Turkey-Vegetable Salad, and that’s to stick it in the freezer. From the sound of the recipe—which combines cream of celery soup, salad dressing, diced turkey, vegetables, and gelatin—this is basically the inside of a turkey pot pie if it was served frozen. And also if it was square.

9. JELL-O FRUIT CORNUCOPIA

Sure, cornucopias were for holding food in olden times, but don’t you wish you could eat one? Well, guess what—your years of longing are finally over, because someone has made a Jell-O version of one with fruit trapped in it. You don’t even have to take the fruit out of the cornucopia this time—you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth. Dreams do come true.

Up Your Turkey Game With This Simple Buttermilk Brine

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Whoever chose turkey to be the starring dish of Thanksgiving dinner has a sick sense of humor. Not only does the bird take hours to thaw and cook before it's safe to eat, but its size makes it very difficult to cook evenly—meaning there are many opportunities for the millions of amateur cooks who prepare it each year to screw it up. But there's no reason to settle for dry, flavorless turkey this Thanksgiving. With this buttermilk brine recipe from Skillet, the breast will come out just as juicy as the thighs with little effort on your part.

A brine is a salty solution you soak your uncooked meat in to help it retain its moisture and flavor when it goes into the oven. A brine can be as simple as salt and water, but in this recipe, the turkey marinates in a mixture of buttermilk, water, sugar, salt, garlic, citrus, bay leaf, and peppercorns for 24 hours before it's ready to roast.

Rather than a whole bird, this recipe calls for a bone-in turkey breast. White meat contains less fat than dark meat, which is why turkey breast often turns out dryer and less flavorful than legs and thighs when all the parts are left to cook for the same amount of time. The buttermilk brine imparts a tangy creaminess to the turkey breast that it otherwise lacks, and by cooking the breast separately, you can pull it out of the oven at peak juiciness rather than waiting for the meatier parts to cook through fully.

After the turkey breast has had sufficient time to soak, remove it from the refrigerator and drain it on paper towels. Blot any excess buttermilk and pop the meat into a roasting pan and into a 375°F oven. In addition to lending flavor, buttermilk promotes browning, which is essential to a tasty Thanksgiving turkey.

When the internal temperature reads 150°F (which should take 90 minutes to 2 hours), pull out the bird, let it rest for 15 minutes, and commence carving the most succulent turkey breast ever to hit your Thanksgiving table.

[h/t Skillet]

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