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Culinary Curiosities: The Frozen TV Dinner Still a Hot Option for Some



Food of all kinds brings comfort. Of course there’s grandma’s homemade matzo ball soup and mom’s hamburger hot dish, warming us physically and emotionally. Then there are foods like greasy French fries or the pink cumulus of cotton candy that delight us with unhealthy fats and sugars. And there are items that defy category, so wrapped up in nostalgia that they satisfy and dismay in nearly equal measure. I am talking about the frozen TV dinner.

What forward-thinking mind imagined the tidy, compartmentalized tray, neatly separating the Salisbury steak from the potatoes and corn, ready in a jiffy, hot from the oven and so convenient to eat while watching TV? Many minds, as it turns out. The origins of the frozen TV dinner draw from several different individuals and companies, taking years to finally reach a market hungry for a quick, hot meal.

Before the fried chicken and apple cobbler could find their place on the tray, we needed effective methods to freeze food. Thank Clarence Birdseye for that. As he worked in the Eastern Canadian province of Labrador, he noticed that the fish caught by the Inuit, which froze minutes after coming out of the water, tasted much better than the usual thawed mush that resulted from defrosting. In 1923 he came up with a method of “flash freezing” that quickly lowered the temperature of food (a minutes-long process rather than hours or days), limiting the size of ice crystals that formed. This helped retain texture and flavor when food was reheated.

Then William L. Maxson, inventor and founder of Maxson Food Systems Inc., developed a meal that was easy to heat and serve on airplanes, the better to feed military personnel in transit. His Strato-Plates featured meat, potato and vegetables, served on a treated paperboard tray with compartments for each item. In 1945, as military demand decreased, he sold them to Pan-Am Airlines and soon civilians could enjoy Strato-Plates in the air.

Soon after, other food companies experimented with frozen meals. Jack Fisher sold FridgiDinners to bars as a quick heat-and-serve option when kitchen staff and space were limited. In the late 1940s, brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein sold frozen dinners in a segmented aluminum tray in the Pittsburgh area. Sales were good, but it wasn’t until C.A. Swanson & Sons got into the business that the frozen meal really took off.

Some argue that Gerry Thomas, a salesman at Swanson, was responsible for coming up with the idea of the TV dinner. Thomas claimed that Swanson overbought turkeys for Thanksgiving in 1953 and asked employees to come up with ideas to sell the surplus poultry. Inspired by his meal on his Pan-Am flight, Thomas maintained he designed a similar tray that would be filled with turkey, cornbread stuffing, peas and potatoes and sold frozen. Members of the Swanson family disagree with Thomas’ story, insisting that the Swanson brothers, Gilbert and Clarke, along with their marketing team, came up with the plan, and, most importantly, the moniker “TV Dinner.”

Whoever was responsible, it’s clear that a focused advertising campaign from Swanson gave the frozen meal the boost it needed. And television, that gleaming beacon of entertainment, aired programs right during the dinner hour. Families—including moms—didn’t want to miss their favorite shows so the TV dinner was a natural fit. In the first year alone, Swanson sold nearly 10 million boxes.

Today, the traditional aluminum foil tray is harder to find and the brand name “TV Dinner” was dropped back in the 1960s (the better to market for breakfast and lunch as well). But one look in the supermarket freezer section shows a dizzying array of frozen entrées and snacks, in nearly every cuisine imaginable. Most see the frozen dinner as quotidian at best and tasteless at worst.  But for some of us a frozen meal still retains a bit of the promise of the future, of modern, convenient cuisine that lets us have it all: hot food and time to chill. 

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