TV Dinners Exist Because They Killed Way Too Many Turkeys One Thanksgiving
By | November 27, 2019
Too many turkeys, not enough mouths
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.
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.