On the Trail of the TV Dinner

There’s a restaurant in my hometown of London, Ontario that will sell you a Swanson’s TV dinner for fifteen bucks. They even celebrate the fact that they have to send someone over to the nearby variety store to buy one before they can heat it up for you. This not only illustrates a “wallet bigger than brain” moment, it serves as a testament to the enduring popularity of these quick-cooking medleys of limp, sodium-rich meats, mulched newsprint potatoes, and whatever a “cobbler” is supposed to be.

The TV dinner makes sense within the context of its decade of development: the 1950’s was a time of novelty, new appliances, a “gee whiz – that’s great!” view of the future, and, of course, the introduction of a massive, rabbit-eared box of snow into the living rooms of North America. Women were beginning to oppose spending the bulk of the afternoon preparing the perfect pot roast. Quick and convenient were the catch-words of the day. The time was ripe for Swanson’s employee Gerry Thomas and his ten train-cars full of surplus turkey.

Apparently Old Tom the Gobbler didn’t enjoy his usual levels of popularity during the Thanksgiving of 1954, as Swanson’s had lots left over and no place to store it. Gerry Thomas had been in the military for four years so he was familiar with the concept of K-rations. He wondered if a complete pre-packaged frozen meal might work for the unconscripted too. Borrowing the aluminum tray from Pan American Airlines’ in-flight food service, Thomas proceeded to parcel out portions of sweet potatoes, buttered peas, corn bread stuffing, and, of course, the “must dump” turkey. Swanson’s started off with only 5000 dinners priced at ninety-eight cents each. By the end of their first year of production, they had sold over ten million meals. The original box was, appropriately enough, shaped like a little TV, complete with volume and channel change knobs. The product’s early success prompted the introduction of new entree selections: fried chicken, meatloaf, and the savoury but undefinable salisbury steak.

TV dinners have come a long way since their original conception. The aluminum trays have long since been retired in favour of microwavable polyethylene – this creates that skillful bit of pre-radiation surgery you have to do on the plastic wrapping: fork punctures, peel back over the potatoes, etc. Swanson’s has some serious competition now with Stouffer’s, Michelina, and Banquet all chomping at their ass. There are also Hungry Man XXL dinners which use big, beefy tubbos as models and glorify in the fact that they provide a full 231% of your recommended daily cholesterol intake. Special “Kid Cuisine” meals help ensure that your sedentary son or daughter won’t be getting off the couch to turn a cartwheel any time soon.

Apparently, TV dinners provide us with psychological comfort since our food is kept in tiny little compartments, a rigid segmentation that we could normally achieve only through mastery of the knife and fork. You especially don’t want a corn and brownie blend because that ends up looking like something you should never have to eat.

Probably the worst thing that can be held against TV dinners is their contribution to a situation where 66% of families spend the dinner hour plunked down in front of the tube. Opportunities to share the day’s events and expand emotional intimacy are lost in the glaze-eyed glow of the latest homage to consumerism and ADD. Time-honoured family recipes are left to yellow in the cupboard, and even the most tenuous claim to sound nutrition is sacrificed on the altar of beer-battered chicken and cheese fries. Of course, there’s “Healthy Choice” dinners, but remember, they’re only healthy compared to regular TV dinners, which means they still aren’t healthy. Eating one thumbtack is probably better than eating five.

TV dinners recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, one year before the death of their creator, Gerry Thomas, who died in 2005 at the age of 83. Their signature aluminum tray is immortalized in the Smithsonian Institute ( next to Fonzie’s jacket ) and on the Hollywood Walk of Fame ( where the tray is pressed into wet concrete just like the hands and feet of Tinseltown celebrities ). It is indeed an American icon: cheap, easy, and unencumbered by quality.

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