TV Dinners Exist Because They Killed Way Too Many Turkeys One Thanksgiving
As ZZ Top once said, "TV dinners, there's nothing else to eat. TV dinners, they really can’t be beat." It's a succinct argument for the quick meal of the everyman. TV dinners may look simple---a bit of frozen meat and veg with a snack on the side that anyone can pop in the oven and enjoy---but the creation of these one-and-done meals isn't as straightforward as their simplicity suggests. The TV dinner has a backstory worthy of a feature film or a six-part investigative series on the ID network, full of claims about turkey genocide, a possible corporate con man, and a marketing campaign that helped Swanson take the early lead in the race to become the number-one name in the TV dinner market.
Too many turkeys, not enough mouths
Today, the proliferation of frozen foods in the supermarket is an accepted way of life, something that a person can pick up for a quick and easy meal after a long day at work. That wasn't the case in the 1953. According to Gerry Thomas, a former Swanson executive, the great gobbler crisis of that year inspired him to dream up tide-turning frozen project. After Thanksgiving 1953, the Omaha-based Swanson were up to their necks in beaks; they were on the hook for 520,000 pounds of frozen turkey and no way to unload Ben Franklin's favorite bird.
Having severely overestimated the American thirst for bird blood, Thomas hatched the idea of a frozen dinner in a tray with multiple compartments for the various accoutrements which a hungry man (or woman) could mix and match as they so choose. Strokes of brilliance like this aren't uncommon---without them, we wouldn't have works of art like Picasso's Guernica or Kerouac's On The Road---but some Swanson insiders say that Thomas's version of events belong in the fiction section.
In the lap of luxury
The story that Gerry Thomas told about the invention of TV dinners is a lot of fun as long as you ignore that whole thing about a half-million lbs. of turkey going to waste, but he's not the only person who chanced upon this game-changing frozen dinner idea. The Swanson brothers, they of the Swanson frozen foods lineage, claim that two years before Thomas allegedly dreamt up a world full of tiny frozen TVs, they hosted a party where guests were forced to eat like peasants with their food on their laps while they watched The Ted Mack Family Hour.
After that disaster of a get-together, the brothers supposedly posited a world where food came in its own tray. Conveniently, they soon ran into a truckload of excess poultry. By packaging easy-to-make meals with nothing but frozen turkey, the Swanson brothers changed the diets of millions of Americans while getting rid of literal tons of immovable product.
This narrative is hard to verify, but even if the Swanson brothers weren't rubbing their mitts together like Bond villains as they created the concept for the TV dinner, it's likely that multiple people came up with the idea at the same time. Humankind has been trying to come up with different ways to take the work out of feeding ourselves since hunter-gatherer days. "Convenience food" was hardly a novel concept.
Swanson didn't invent the TV dinner, but they did popularize it
Steve Jobs and Apple didn't invent the MP3 player; they simply took what had been around since the mid-'90s and gave it a sleek look with the correct branding. In another world, everyone is walking around with Listen Up Players and Listen Up Phones, but that world is not ours.
The same is true of TV dinners. The reality is that, regardless of which story about the origin of Swanson TV dinners is true, the basic concept had been around long before then. In 1944, the W.L. Maxson Co. of New York created the first frozen dinner, but rather than market it to the masses, the product was sold to the Navy and various airlines. The meals featured an entree with two vegetables, similar to what you can get in the frozen food aisle today.
The Maxson meals were followed up by Quaker States Foods with something called "FrigiDinner," but none of them were as successful as Swanson's product. They were all essentially the same, but it was the look and price of Swanson's product that made them the leaders in the race to market frozen food to the booming generation of postwar Americans.
The packaging is the only thing that's straightforward about these meals
The first TV dinner boxes came complete with dials and a volume control knob to remind diners what they were supposed to be doing while eating. Like much of the information in this story, it's not clear who actually decided to make Swanson's frozen dinners look like a TV set, but Thomas says that the three-compartment tray was dreamt up on a flight he took through Pittsburgh. He said:
I was told it was something Pan American Airlines was experimenting with. They thought maybe they could serve warm food on their overseas flights. Up until then, it was cold sandwiches. It was just a single compartment tray with foil. I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat. On the flight home, I took out an envelope and did some noodling. That’s when I came up with the three-compartment tray. I spent five years in the service so I knew what a mess kit was. You could never tell what you were eating because it was all mixed together.
Above all, price was the main selling point for these meals
People can argue about the invention of TV dinners until they're blue in the face. Everyone behind the meals has gone on to that supermarket in the sky, and no number of TV-shaped cufflinks can bring them back. The thing that really drew families towards TV dinners wasn't the cool design or the groundbreaking packaging: It was the low price of a meal that enabled families to eat together in front of the TV. In 1953, TV dinners sold for 98 cents a pop. That's not bad for a good slab of turkey and some tasty vegetables that require barely any preparation. No matter who created TV dinners, it was Swanson that turned them into a $30-billion industry.
Tags: 1940s | 1950s | 20th century | american food | food | Thanksgiving | Turkey
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