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.”

15 Tasty Bits of Pizza Slang

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iStock.com/Radionphoto

Unless you’ve worked in a pizzeria, your pizza vocabulary is probably limited. But the crust-loving pros who are cooking up your favorite slices seem to have insider slang for everything, including whimsical terms for toppings and one-of-a-kind ways of describing regional pie styles. So if you’re looking up your pizza-talk game with words that go beyond ‘za, here’s a quick list of 15 terms you should know.

1. Tip sag

The dreaded tip sag is what you get when the pointy end of your pizza starts to droop. This most often occurs with top-heavy (and topping-heavy) pies, like Neapolitan-style pizzas with generous helpings of fresh mozzarella piled on top.

2. Avalanche

An avalanche is what occurs when all the toppings slide off your pizza as soon as you pick it up. This tends to happen when a pizza is still piping hot from the oven, so be smart and give it a minute to cool down.

3. Apizza

If you ever travel to New Haven, Connecticut, you might hear the locals order apizza (pronounced uh-BEETS). This refers to the local style of thin-crust pizza, which originated at the famous Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and has since become the area's pizza standard.

4. Grandma pie

This style of pizza is thick like a Sicilian pie, but with a thinner, denser crust. Although it likely originated in Long Island, you can now find it in pizzerias throughout New York City (and beyond).

5. Party-cut

Man delivers several pizzas to a customer
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Also known as a tavern-cut, a party-cut describes any circular pizza that’s cut into a grid. The portions are smaller and typically square, which helps ensure that everyone at your Super Bowl party will get a piece of the pie.

6. All-dressed pizza

Order an all-dressed pizza in Montreal and you’ll get a deluxe pie with mushrooms, green peppers, and pepperoni on it. In Québec, it's known as a pizza tout garnie.

7. Flyers

Slices of pepperoni pizza are called flyers, reportedly because of the way they’re often tossed around like Frisbees.

8. Guppies

Depending on your perspective, guppies is either a really cute or really gross way to describe anchovies. Other slang words for the fishy topping include chovies, carp, penguin food, and smellies.

9. Alpo

It’s not very appetizing, but crumbled sausage does kind of resemble dog food—hence the Alpo moniker. Other nicknames for the topping include Kibbles ‘n Bits and Puppy Chow, neither of which make the topping sound any more appetizing.

10. Screamers

Woman preparing a mushroom pizza at home
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Mushrooms are sometimes called screamers because of the high-pitched squeal the canned variety lets out when they’re tossed onto a hot surface.

11. Edgar Allan

What does a pizza with pepperoni and onions spell out? A PO pie—which is close enough in spelling to Edgar Allan Poe's last name that it gets tossed around in pizza kitchens on occasion. Sure, P-O or Po would be easier (and quicker) to say, but it’s not nearly as fun.

12. Blood pie

Also known as a hemorrhage, this gruesome term refers to a pizza with extra tomato sauce on it. Now please forget that we ever told you that.

13. Coastline

The coastline is that little bit of exposed sauce you can see between the sauce and the crust.

14. Mutz

A margherita pizza fresh from the oven
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Mutz is simply a quicker way of saying mozzarella. Likewise, wet mutz is fresh mozzarella.

15. Roadie

When you get a slice of pizza to-go, that’s a roadie. Enjoy it while it's still hot (but not so hot as to cause an avalanche)! 

15 Delicious Facts About Pizza Hut

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iStock.com/RiverNorthPhotography

For more than 60 years, Pizza Hut has been slinging hot, cheesy pies to hungry consumers all over the world. (There are more than 16,000 locations worldwide.) Whether you're a meat lover or vegetarian, here are 15 things you should know about the popular pizza chain.

1. It was founded by two brothers who were still in college.

Dan and Frank Carney borrowed $600 from their mother in 1958 to open a pizza place while attending Wichita State University. The name was inspired by the former bar that they rented to open their first location.

2. Pizza Hut franchising was almost instant.

A year after the first location opened in Wichita, Kansas, the Carney brothers had already incorporated the business and asked their friend Dick Hassur to open the first franchise location in Topeka, Kansas. Hassur, who had previously gone to school and worked at Boeing with Dan Carney, was looking for a way out of his insurance agent job. He soon became a multi-franchise owner, and worked to find other managers who could open Pizza Huts across the country.

Once, when a successful manager of a Wichita location put in his notice, Hassur was sent in to convince the man to stay. That manager happened to be Bill Parcells, who had resigned his Pizza Hut job in order to take his first coaching job at a small Nebraska college. Of course, he later went on to coach numerous NFL teams, including leading the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories. "I might have been wrong there," Hassur said of trying to convince Parcells his salary would be better as a manager than as a coach, "but I'm sure he'd have been successful with Pizza Hut, too."

3. There was a mascot in the early days.

image of vintage Pizza Hut restaurants featuring mascot Pizza Pete
Roadsidepictures, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Before the iconic red roof logo was adopted in 1969, Pizza Hut had a mascot named Pizza Pete who also served as its logo. The mustachioed cartoon man wore a chef’s hat, neckerchief, and an apron while serving up hot meals to hungry customers. Pizza Pete was still used throughout the 1970s on bags, cups, and advertisements, but was eventually phased out.

4. Pizza Hut perfume was a thing that existed.

It was announced late in 2012 that Pizza Hut had plans to release a limited edition perfume that smelled like "fresh dough with a bit of spice." One hundred fans of the Pizza Hut Canada Facebook page won bottles of the scent, and another promotion around Valentine's Day gave American pizza lovers a chance to own the fragrance via a Twitter contest. The packaging for the perfume resembled mini pizza boxes, and a few later surfaced on eBay for as much as $495.

5. They struck gold with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

image of people dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When a group of crime fighting turtles that love pizza become huge pop culture icons, it's a no-brainer that a pizza company should do business with them. Domino's was featured in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in 1990, but ads for Pizza Hut were included on VHS when the film hit home video. Pizza Hut also reportedly spent around $20 million on marketing campaigns for the Turtles during the 1990 "Coming Out of Their Shells" concert tour and album release. The partnership continued all the way up to the 2014 release of Michael Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

6. Pizza Hut Easy-Bake ovens were also real.

Children of the '70s were lucky enough to own small toy ovens shaped like the restaurant in which they could bake tiny little Pizza Hut pizzas under a 60-watt light bulb.

7. Their vintage commercials are star-studded.

An 11-year-old Elijah Wood got his start flinging potato salad at his co-star; Ringo Starr and the Monkees marveled at the stuffed-crust pizza; and former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev had a very odd, political pizza pitch, appearing along with his young granddaughter in a Russian Pizza Hut (though the ad was not set to run in Russia).

8. The Book It! program is 35 years old.

In 1984, Pizza Hut kicked off the BOOK IT! program, an initiative to encourage children to read by rewarding them with "praise, recognition and pizza." It was such a success that First Lady Barbara Bush threw a reading-themed pizza party at the White House in 1989. The program is now the "longest-running corporate-supported reading program in the country" and has reached over 60 million children.

9. They were early to the pan pizza create.

image of someone removing a slice from a personal pan pizza
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Pizza Hut introduced pan pizza in 1980, nine years before their competition, Domino's, added the style to their menu. In 1983, they introduced personal pan pizzas, which are still the coveted prize of the BOOK IT! program and the only pizza option at smaller Pizza Hut cafes (like those inside Target stores).

10. They were also early to online ordering.

In 1994, Pizza Hut and The Santa Cruz Operation created PizzaNet, an ahead-of-its-time program that allowed computer users to place orders via the internet. The Los Angeles Times called the idea "clever but only half-baked" and "the Geek Chic way to nosh." And, the site is still up and running! Seriously, go ahead and try to order.

11. Pizza Hut pizza has been to space ...

image of the International Space Station hovering above Earth
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In 2001, Pizza Hut became the first company to deliver pies into space. Before being sealed and sent to the International Space Station, the pizza recipe had to undergo "rigorous stabilized thermal conditions" to make sure that it would be still be edible when it got there. Pizza Hut also paid a large, unspecified sum (but definitely more than $1 million) to have a 30-foot-wide ad on a rocket in 1999.

12. … but not to the Moon.

In 1999, Pizza Hut's then-CEO Mike Rawlings (and current Mayor of Dallas) told The New York Times that an earlier idea for space marketing was for the logo to be shown on the moon with lasers. But once they started looking into it, astronomers and physicists advised them that the projected image would have to be as large as Texas to be seen from Earth—and the project would also have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Better to stick with Super Bowl ads.

13. They once offered pizza engagement packages.

image of someone proposing marriage
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What's the perfect way to pop the big question? In 2012, Pizza Hut suggested that grooms- (or brides-) to-be order the engagement party package that included a $10 dinner box, a limo, a ruby ring, fireworks, flowers, and a photographer, all for $10,010. In keeping with the theme, only 10 of the packages were offered. But, to be clear—if you bought a Pizza Hut engagement package, you would have spent $10 on food and approximately the cost of a wedding on the proposal.

14. Pizza Hut accounts for three percent of U.S. cheese production.

With all those locations and cheese-stuffed crusts, Pizza Hut needs a lot of dairy. The company uses over 300 million pounds of cheese annually and is one of the largest cheese buyers in the world. To make that much cheese, 170,000 cows are used to produce an estimated 300 billion gallons of milk. Something to think about the next time you order an Ultimate Cheese Lover's pizza with extra cheese.

15. There are a lot of repurposed Pizza Hut locations.

An empty, former Pizza Hut building
Mike Kalasnik, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Franchise locations of companies are not always successful, and when they close, the buildings are often left untouched by their new owners rather than being demolished and replaced. Because the hut-shaped stores have become synonymous with the company, their former locations are easy to spot. The blog "Used to Be a Pizza Hut" has an interactive map of more than 500 ex-huts submitted by people all over the world. There is also a successful Kickstarter-funded photo book—called Pizza Hunt—documenting the "second lives" of the restaurants.

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