By Paul Weingarten, The Chicago Tribune – November 25, 1976
TV dinners serve up traditional turkey, too
The final Thanksgiving before the coming of TV dinners was Nov. 22, 1951 — a brisk, gray day. Chicagoans expected rain, perhaps snow, by morning.
Families gathered for the traditional repast of turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and hot pumpkin pie. Those without families had the choice of a dole at a local mission, or yesterday’s reheated meatloaf.
Meanwhile, the first great assault on American cooking and eating habits was waiting in the wings. Within months, thawing would come to mean more than just warming yourself after a wintry stroll. It would become an essential preliminary to cooking dinner in many homes.
TURKEY DINNER, THEN considered a special “holiday only” treat, would be knocked from its perch to become routine weekly fare in middle-class homes nationwide.
It began in January, 1952, when the first 25 cases of frozen turkey dinners were shipped to stores in Omaha. It had turkey with cornbread stuffing, gravy, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes in butter and orange sauce. The dinner weighed 12 ounces and sold for $1.09. On the package, the dinner was pictured on the screen of a miniature television, complete with tuning dials.
The nation’s first frozen dinner was dubbed “TV dinner” by Gilbert Swanson, chairman of the board of the family’s poultry business, C. A. Swanson & Sons.
One night at a party, Swanson and a few guests watched Ted Mack’s “Family Hour,” sponsored by the company, while other guests made merry. One guest commented that it looked odd for Swanson and the others to be balancing trays on their laps so they could eat dinner while watching television.
IT REMINDED SWANSON of the frozen prepared dinner his company soon would market. Why not, he wondered aloud, call it a “TV dinner?” He was politely ignored. His guests continued watching television.
But the TV dinner was to become synonymous with frozen prepared dinners, as Kleenex has come to mean tissue, and Jello, gelatin.
The initial $1.09 price was too high for the middle class. But soon it settled to 59 cents, and the frozen dinner was welcomed by middle-class homemakers as the first blow for their emancipation from the kitchen.
Thanksgiving TV dinners
While television has become a Thanksgiving staple, especially for football fans, the dinner it inspired has developed a curious image.
For some, the frozen dinner signaled a family quarrel, or Mom’s late return home. They remember choking down strangely metallic-tasting peas, grayish, crusty mashed potatoes, and limp slivers of soggy turkey.
They gag at the memory of a gimmicky and tasteless substitute for home cooking, and they wince at the thought of thousands of lonely Americans who will pull a TV dinner, preferably turkey, from the freezer on Thanksgiving afternoon, heat it, and give thanks in solitude.
The joy of frozen meals
FOR OTHERS, the frozen dinner was a mysterious and different treat, perhaps saved for a time when otherwise strict parents would allow children to eat dinner while watching television.
They recall the dinners as a culinary delight — something Mom could never match. The sizzling foil, neat compartments of food, and bold new tastes stick in their minds.
The recession, combined with changing attitudes about cooking and convenience foods, has taken a bite out of the $600 million a year industry. Last year, Americans ate 557 million pounds of frozen dinners, compared with 590 million pounds in 1974.
Few are indifferent about frozen dinners.
Some call the dinner the precursor of the fast food revolution, the progenitor of the “junk food” habit. Even for many convenience food junkies, the dinners carry the stigma of being “artificial.” Moreover, many now see cooking as a leisure pastime rather than a chore.
In addition, there has been a dramatic shift in the statistical profile of frozen-dinner eaters. An industry study shows frozen dinners now are eaten most frequently by those 65 or over and 18 to 25 years old, blacks or nonwhites, those with an annual income of less than $5,000, and families where the homemaker is employed part-time or full-time.
Looking back on a quarter century of vintage TV dinners
ON THE EVE OF ITS 25th anniversary, the original TV dinner no longer has that name, or the miniature television screen on the package. It weighs a half-ounce less, and inflation has pushed the price to 79 cents.
The dinner has lost ground over the last few years, partly because the portions aren’t large enough for most adult appetites.
Although the new larger-portion dinners have picked up some of the slack, it is questionable that the dinner will ever regain its former stature.
Most stores report negligible increases in turkey TV dinner sales near Thanksgiving, but Dominick’s Finer Foods stores maintain a larger stock of the dinners, and a wider shelf display.
The prospect of eating a TV dinner on Thanksgiving is again split. For those who detest TV dinners, the prospect of having one on Thanksgiving is only slightly better than fasting.
For loyalists, a Thanksgiving TV dinner could mean no noisy relatives and children, no arguments about whether to watch football games, and no frazzled nerves or piles of dirty dishes afterward.
Vintage TV dinners: Fried chicken (1961)
Trust Swanson… they know the special secret of tender-crisp fried chicken.
You get back to real fried chicken in Swanson TV Brand Dinners… juicy, tender chicken, fried golden brown, and frozen by experts. Three preferred pieces, potatoes whipped with milk and butter, and tender mixed vegetables.
Now Swanson sweetens up this famous fried chicken dinner with apple and peach slices (1968)
Only the best parts of the chicken, tender and crispy brown. Creamy whipped potatoes. Mixed vegetables in butter sauce for extra flavor. And for an extra homey touch, sweet apple and peach slices. No wonder there’s always a full house on Swanson Night.
Who else gives you all beef sirloin in a frozen dinner?
There’s no comparison! Only a Swanson TV Brand Dinner boasts a tender, juicy all-beef sirloin like this! Tender peas, too, and French fries that set a new high in crispy good flavor.
Swanson night… everybody wins (1966)
Each one can pick his favorite meal (like this golden shrimp) and join in the after-dinner fun.
Swanson Shrimp – fried crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside.
Young green peas in seasoned butter sauce.
“Crinkle-cut” potatoes for more crispness. Carefully fried to keep them light and tender.
The perfect complement for fried shrimp – a tart, tangy, tomato cocktail sauce.
Morton TV Dinner: Chicken & dumplings (1969)
What a great, cool way to start the meal! A frosty fruit salad with bite-size marshmallows. So easy to thaw and serve. Ready to eat by the time you take the rest of the meal out of the oven! The complete meal includes: tender chunks of chicken, light, airy dumplings in rich gravy, garden peas, buttery whipped potatoes, and dessert… a luscious walnut brownie. Prepared with great time and care.
International TV dinners (1967)
A world away from the everyday… Italian, Chinese, Mexican & German-style dinners
Classic Swanson TV dinners from 1968
Now Swanson brightens up this chopped sirloin dinner with a fluffy blueberry muffin. (Almost makes a party out of “Swanson Night”)
Now Swanson cheers up this tender Turkey Dinner with cranberry sauce. (Let’s hear it for “Swanson Night”)
Tender, moist white and dark meat, gravy and Pepperidge Farm dressing. Creamy whipped potatoes. Peas in butter sauce for extra flavor. A little something extra to cheer about — tangy cranberry sauce. Hooray! It’s almost dinnertime.
Vintage TV dinner from 1965 with turkey – peas – mashed potatoes (1965)
You get going fast with a good hot meal (like this tender turkey with all the trimmings) and spend the free time as you please.
Beef pot roast (1955)
A frozen beef pot roast dinner complete, with little brown potatoes. No cooking for you! No dishes to do! The whole delicious dinner, gravy and all, comes deep-frozen in individual foil-covered trays.
Vintage old-fashioned fried chicken TV dinner (1955)
Remember how Mom used to get up early every Sunday to fix a scrumptious chicken dinner? We do… so we’ve patterned our newest TV dinner after that good, old-fashioned feast.
Vintage Swanson brand TV dinners / pie (1957)
Try the oven-quick beef dinner that tastes home-cooked. Tender, lean slices of beef… savory beef gravy…3, not 2 vegetables: buttered peas, corn sauteed in butter, and little new potatoes… never was there so much good eating in a frozen dinner!
LIFE Swanson TV dinner (1962)
Only a Swanson TV Brand Beef Dinner could taste this good! Why? Because one of the cooking secrets Swanson knows is how to prepare beef so that it’s really juicy and tender.