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Peggy Keener: High tech meets the dinner table

It is 1953, one week after Thanksgiving. Panic has set in at the Swanson Food Company. This is no small matter as two hundred and sixty tons of leftover, unsold holiday turkeys are packed solid into ten refrigerated railroad cars. All festival cheer is gone as the groaning engine struggles to pull the massive load of stiff frigid foul.

And if that is not consternation enough, more misery unfolds when Swanson learns that the refrigeration in the railroad cars only works if the train is moving. What to do? Little choice remains but to run the train back and forth non-stop world without end between Swanson’s headquarters in Nebraska all the way to the distant East Coast.

Tearing out what little hair they have left are the panicked executives who see their gigantic investment drip-drip-drip into a puddle of melted turkey juice.

But, let us pause in our story to segue back eleven years to the time when clever Clarence Birdseye invented a machine for freezing fish. It revolutionized the storage of food. His first customers were the airlines when in 1945 they began serving his frozen meals to their passengers. With crazy creativity, the airlines cleverly named their aerospace dinners with appropriate aerospace lingo: “Strato-Plates.”

Soon plans were underway to sell those same meals to retail supermarkets. This exciting idea was quashed, however, when the company’s founder suddenly died. Overnight the idea went as cold as he was. The idea languished for eight more years. Then the travail of the tediously troubled trapped trainload of tantalizing turkey treats transpired.

Without blinking an eye, up to bat stepped a Swanson salesman, Gerry Thomas, with his brilliant idea of creating a meal of turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes and assorted holiday staples. He explained that It would be packaged in aluminum bake-proof trays that could be popped into the oven. The trays would also serve as dinner plates that would be tossed when finished. The idea was monumental. Housewives would soon be rejoicing as America was about to enjoy a work-free Thanksgiving dinner every day of the year!

The new convenience was a commercial triumph. In 1954, the first year of production, Swanson sold ten million meals to Americans. Throwing caution to the wind, they boldly called them “TV Dinners”.

Sharp-witted as all get out, Swanson realized that millions of American women had entered the workforce. Those same women were no longer home in time to cook elaborate dinners for their families. Like a heavenly blessing, Swanson stepped in with the solution. It is no surprise to learn there was an angry outcry from husbands who complained about the loss of their home-cooked meals, as well as (and I’m only guessing here), a major plummet in the sale of aprons.

For multitudes of freed-up housewives, dinner suddenly became a breeze. All they had to do was pop the frozen meals into the oven and 25 minutes later their families dined on tasty full-course dinners. And it didn’t stop there; a dazzling more-bang-for-your-buck bonus was that they not only consumed a Thanksgiving-like meal, but they could do so while indulging in—as the wording on the packaging suggested—the new national pastime: television!

In 1950, only 9 percent of American homes had a TV. By 1955, that number ballooned to 64 percent. Five years later it was a staggering 87 percent! Not skipping a beat, Swanson took full advantage of the TV trend with advertisements depicting elegant, modern day women serving the freshly baked meals to their wide-smiling families. It didn’t matter that the food was not exactly gourmet, it was the novelty, don’t you see?

Besides, where else could a person get a slice of turkey, a plop of mashed potatoes ala gravy, a vegetable and a dessert for only 69 cents?

Then, much to Swanson’s delight, dieters got on board; folks who were relieved to have their food portions all measured out for them. Dinner, reinvented, was simply too simple to be true.

Still something was missing. You see most folks were accustomed to eating dinner in their kitchens. From there it was awkward to see the TV in the living room because a solid wall was obstructing their view. Thus, the families began carrying their aluminum trays into the living room. Before they knew it, the dinner table had become obsolete.

There was a problem though. The flexible metal “plates” were scorching hot having just come out of the oven and way too painful to perch upon their knees. Furthermore there was the tribulation of balancing the bendable tins on those same knees while cutting their turkey slices. Splotches of gravy stains were appearing on living room rugs throughout America. There had to be a better way.

Enter the ignoble TV tray. Who doesn’t remember the crush of consumers who rushed to the stores to get their own sets? In the blink of an eye, no home was without the little metal, foldable, teetering, wobbly-legged tables.

Who cared how precariously they had to thread their long legs under the mini tables and remain that way without moving a muscle to avoid catapulting the entire meal across the room? Who cared if they had to sit with their knees glued together, something men had never done? Who cared that those same cramped legs had to be repeatedly ever so carefully unwound so they could walk across the room to switch the TV channels and adjust the volume between the three network choices? And finally, and most egregiously, who cared that the designs on the trays were resolutely tacky as interior-decorator-minded women across the U.S. suddenly ignored the clash in their living room décor?

All that was dismissed as modern families now prepared dinner in a heartbeat, and ate it (with great care) on their own wee individual tables in front of their snowy-screened living room TV’s. It was spacey, don’t you see? Cool cat Americans had arrived at the cutting edge of hip dining.

Fast forward to now. Due to Covid-19 and the closing of many restaurants, frozen meals have once again become popular. Efficiency minded Americans are snapping them up by the stackful. In one year alone, we spent nearly 50 percent more on frozen prepared dinners. Admittedly, we’ve gone way beyond the TV dinner origins as many of the latest meals are now high-end, gourmet entrees. It is predicted that the rising levels of consumption will continue well beyond the pandemic.

Personally I don’t see myself following this trend. No matter how fancy are the current frozen dinners, for me they still wreak of sliced questionable turkey nostalgia served on waggling tin TV trays.