11 Ready-to-Digest Tidbits About TV Dinners

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Happy National TV Dinner Day! September 10th holds a special spot on the calendar for the iconic, slightly controversial, and constantly changing American meal of convenience.

1. THE FIRST TV DINNER WAS MODELED AFTER A THANKSGIVING FEAST.

The first official “TV Dinner”-branded TV dinner was created by Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons and hit the market in 1954. The meal consisted of turkey, gravy, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas, and sold for 98 cents. The food itself was packaged in a foil-covered, segmented aluminum tray to be heated in the oven. And the cardboard box it all came in was designed to look like a television set, complete with “dials” and a “volume control knob.” Approximately 10 million of the meals were sold that first year.

2. EXACTLY WHO INVENTED THE TV DINNER HAS BEEN HOTLY DEBATED.

A TV dinner
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In a widely cited 1999 Associated Press article, a former Swanson employee named Gerry Thomas somewhat humbly asked reporter Walter Berry not to call him “the father of the TV dinner.” “It bothers me,” Thomas said, “I really didn’t invent the dinner. I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name and developed some unique packaging.”

The article then goes on to detail an amazing story that’s since been repeated countless times: In the winter of 1952, the Swansons were in a panic about what to do about 520,000 pounds of excess Thanksgiving turkeys that they were having to store on refrigerated rail cars, so they asked their employees to help them find a way to use the turkey.

On a sales trip, Thomas was meeting with a distributor at a warehouse when he glimpsed a metal tray. He learned that Pan Am was experimenting with the trays in hopes of serving warm food on long flights. “I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat,” Thomas says. He then goes on to describe how he drew a sketch dividing the tray into segments, and was soon struck with the idea to capitalize on the brand-new television craze that was just beginning to take over American homes. His final spark of inspiration: “Thanksgiving” in front of the tube.

But in 2003, the Los Angeles Times conducted a lengthy investigation into the invention, and found that several of the Swanson scions, a few journalists who had written books on the subject, and some former Swanson employees contested Thomas’s claims, giving credit for the various elements of the TV Dinner Plan to other people in the company. Still, Thomas defended his story, admitting to possibly embellishing or hazily remembering minor details, but insisting that the core facts were “basically correct and accurate.” When Thomas died in 2005, most of the obituaries written about him, like this one in The Washington Post, credited him as the inventor of the TV Dinner.

The Library of Congress attributes the TV dinner to three different sources: Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc., which in 1945 manufactured “Strato-Plates,” or complete frozen meals that were heated for use on airplanes but never made it to the retail market.

3. CALLING IT THE "TV DINNER" WAS MOST LIKELY THE SECRET TO THE MEAL’S RUNAWAY SUCCESS.

In her 1994 Associated Press article “The Year the TV Dinner Knocked America Cold,” Kay Bartlett observes that, in 1954, television was “a new and fascinating phenomenon, particularly for children, and there were only three to four hours of new programming each day, generally in the late afternoon and evening, during the dinner hour. Families were virtually living their lives, after school and after work, around television. Preparation for mealtime was restricted.”

So, basically, gathering around the dining room table was replaced with circling around the TV.

What’s more, the “futuristic” aesthetic of the aluminum tray might have played a role in the TV dinner’s popularity. Nutritional anthropologist Deborah Duchon told the Christian Science Monitor in 2004 that “in the ‘50s, society became very futuristic. We wondered what our lives would be like in the year 2000, and were very interested in technology and machinery. People embraced TV trays and TV dinners not because the food was good – it was awful – but because it was futuristic and convenient.”

4. THE TV DINNER MIGHT HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO FEMINISM.


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The National Women’s History Museum points out: “TV dinners did more than just feed families, their convenience and quick cook time gave women (who usually did all or most of the cooking) more time of their own to pursue jobs and other interests, while still providing a hot meal for their families. One of the first advertisements for Swanson featured a woman pulling a Swanson dinner out of her grocery bag and promising her husband, ‘I’m late—but dinner won’t be.’” (The Banquet brand used a similar marketing approach in the 1962 advertisement for their TV dinners, above.)

Still, though the TV dinner might have made a lot of women happy, some men weren’t so thrilled. In that famous 1999 AP interview, Gerry Thomas recalls receiving complaints. “I remember getting hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did,” he says. “Women got used to the idea of freedom that men always had.”

5. THERE’S A SOMEWHAT OFFICIAL “MOTHER OF THE TV DINNER”

In 1953, Betty Cronin, fresh out of Duchesne College, was working as a bacteriologist at Swanson when she was tasked with the development of the TV Dinner. She had mostly male underlings.

“I had medical students working under me,” Cronin told the Chicago Tribune, who dubbed her the “mother of the TV dinner” in 1989. “They just couldn’t handle it. I was looked at kind of cockeyed, like ‘Why aren’t you in Library Science?’”

She was soon promoted to director of product development, and was the person who figured out how the meat, the vegetables, and the potatoes could all be heated at once using the same cooking time. She also solved other pressing problems: “What kind of [fried chicken] breading will stay on through freezing, not be too greasy and still taste good?” Cronin recalled. “That was our biggest challenge.”

Cronin found herself taste-testing all of her experiments. There were a lot of duds, and she quickly grew tired of it so she recruited some other unfortunate souls. “I had friends I’d use as a panel, Cronin said. “I’d call and say, ‘Don’t make dinner, I’m sending something out.’ Sometimes they’d tell me, ‘Don’t bring any more of these out here unless you bring us a lot of beer, too.’”

6. IN THE ‘60S, TWO MAJOR CHANGES WERE MADE TO THE TV DINNER


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In 1960, dessert was added, and that little compartment of cobbler that would come to scorch the roofs of countless mouths made its debut. (But then again, so did the brownie – yum!)

In 1962, Swanson executives worried that the name “TV Dinner” would discourage customers from eating the meals at various times of the day, so it disappeared from the packaging. The company introduced Swanson Breakfasts to the market in 1969.

7. IN THE ‘70S, TV DINNER PORTIONS BECAME SIGNIFICANTLY LARGER.

In 1973, Swanson introduced Hungry Man meals that targeted the hungry man (or, let’s face it, hungry woman – ain’t no shame!) who wanted a second helping. Banquet rolled out its own version, the “Man Pleaser” dinner, around the same time.

8. IN THE ‘80S, MARKETING DOWNPLAYED THE “BUSY LIFESTYLE” ASPECT OF TV DINNERS.

The harried-housewife TV dinner ads that seemed almost like a badge of pride for women in the ’50s and ‘60s fell out of vogue in the ‘80s. In a 1982 New York Times article about ad research, Eric Pace wrote that, while crafting an ad campaign for Swanson frozen dinners, Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett found that, though people who eat TV dinners are “harassed and hard-working,” “harassed customers did not like to be reminded of how hectic their lives were.” Perhaps that’s why the above ‘80s ad shows relaxed people, seeming to imply that there’s no noticeable difference between home cooking and Swanson’s chicken dinner.

Marketing trends for the TV dinner would continue toward a 180 degree turn from what worked in the meal’s early days. A 2011 Adweek article compares a ‘60s-era Swanson TV dinner ad, which played up “futuristic” aspects like the aluminum tray, with a modern-day Stouffer’s ad that shows the food “heaped on an earthenware plate – handily decamped from the plastic tray it came in,” and farm scenery in the background.

9. SINCE 1987, THE TV DINNER TRAY HAS OCCUPIED A PLACE OF HONOR IN THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY.

It’s one of the original trays designed for the first ’50s TV Dinner, and it’s part of a collection of pop-culture artifacts that includes Archie Bunker’s chair and Fonzie’s leather jacket.

“The TV dinner represented a change in the way Americans were thinking about food,” the museum’s website says.

10. IN 2008, IT WAS POSSIBLE TO BUY A $30 TV DINNER

It was the middle of the Great Recession, yet a $30 TV dinner could be had at Loews Regency Hotel in New York. “This is a city where there seems to be no end of the humble foods that can be transformed into a luxury,” Jennifer Lee observed in a New York Times blog post dedicated to the subject.

And just what did this luxury TV dinner entail? “The partitioned trays, instead of aluminum or plastic, are made of porcelain,” Lee writes. “The fried chicken is ‘free range.’ The cheese in the mac ‘n’ cheese is cheddar asiago with a Parmesan crust. And the pot roast is braised in Burgundian pinot noir.”

Last year, British chef Charlie Bigham created an even more expensive “ready meal.” Thrillist describes it as having “all the billionaire essentials: You've got your salmon, scallops, turbot, oysters, and lobster tails poached in Dom Perignon. You've got your white Alba truffles. You've got your Beluga caviar. And you've obviously got your 24-carat gold leaf crumb to garnish, because parsley is for peasants.” The whole thing cost £314, or $514.

11. THE FUTURE OF THE FREEZER-AISLE TV DINNER IS MURKY

In the past few years, several articles have been written on the impending doom the TV dinner might be facing. “Has the Frozen Dinner Become Frozen in Place?” asked Advertising Age in 2012.

“Big trouble in the frozen food aisle” declared MSN Money in 2013. “Can Frozen-Food Companies Make TV Dinners Cool Again?” worried TIME. And then just this past March in The Atlantic: “America Is Falling Out of Love With TV Dinners.”

According to the Atlantic article (and echoed in all the others), after almost 60 years of continued growth, frozen meal sales have been falling since 2008. In the TIME article, Martha C. White writes (again, echoing the other stories), “Our dining habits today are supposed to lean toward fresher, less processed food.” However, she continues, “What we’re eating might not necessarily be better for us – Panera’s Chipotle Chicken on Artisan French Bread sandwich sounds innocuous, but it’s really an 830-calorie fat-and-salt bomb. But many consumers think they’re eating healthier, and that’s what counts when we go to the grocery store, sandwich shop, or drive-through.”

Bob Goldin, executive vice president at the food-industry consulting firm Technomic, agrees. “There’s a perception among consumers that probably the quality [of frozen food] doesn’t meet the standards of fresh prepared or restaurants,” he tells TIME.

However, another series of articles, like this one in The New York Times, have emerged this past week centering around a study conducted by three sociologists at North Carolina State University, who argue that the stress that cooking places on people – particularly women – might not be worth all the effort.

According to an article in Slate titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” researchers “found that ‘time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others made it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.’”

Responding to the same study, in her article titled “Are Family Dinners Anti-Feminist?” Ester Bloom at The Billfold suggests families “choose a variety of ingredients, frozen foods, and prepared foods, so that everyone’s expectations remain reasonable. Meals don’t have to be cooked 100 percent from scratch to be good and still cheaper/better for you than take out.”

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
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If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

Necco Wafers and Sweethearts Are Making a Comeback—Whether You Like It or Not

Via Tsuji via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Via Tsuji via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This past Valentine’s Day was a little less sweet without Sweethearts conversation hearts gracing store shelves, but there’s some good news on the horizon. According to CandyStore.com, Necco-brand candies are coming back—well, some of them, at least.

The future of classic candies like Sweethearts conversation hearts, Necco Wafers, Clark Bars, Mary Janes, and Sky Bars has been uncertain ever since the New England Confectionery Company went out of business last year. People sent online retailer CandyStore.com thousands of emails asking what would become of their favorite confections, so the website’s staff painstakingly “tracked down the fate of all the Necco candy brands,” according to a blog post.

Spangler Candy Company, which acquired a couple of the Necco brands, appears to be keeping its promise of bringing back Necco Wafers, Sweethearts, and Canada Mints. However, the new owner is still testing recipes, and the time frame for their return remains undetermined.

“We are committed to making sure these brands meet consumer expectations when they reenter the market," Spangler CEO Kirk Vashaw told the candy website. "Doing it right takes time."

Only one of the original Necco brands, Candy Buttons, is currently available for purchase under new ownership. There is also a good chance that several other candies—including Clark Bars, Sky Bars, Mighty Malts, Haviland Thin Mints, Slap Stix, and various flavored chews—will be returning in the future. The rights to many of these brands were bought by different companies, some of which are now experimenting with production methods. For instance, the CEO of the Boyer Candy Company, which now owns Clark Bars, said recent attempts to produce the candy have resulted in Clark Bars “coming out in the shape of hot dogs,” which is not ideal. (Though they reportedly “taste fantastic.”)

As for Mary Janes and Squirrel Nut Zippers: those candies remain in greater peril. The Mary Jane brand is still for sale, and there’s some confusion about who owns the Zippers trademark. The latter can still be bought from CandyStore.com, but sadly, Mary Janes have become nearly impossible to find. “Panic buyers of Mary Janes are really glad they did,” the website states. “Their secret stash is the best place to find them.”

For more details about the future of your favorite Necco candies, check out CandyStore.com’s blog post. In the meantime, you can still find some of the discontinued candies on Amazon and other online retailers, albeit for very high prices.

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