I have never eaten a TV dinner. Oh I remember them well - the little silver plate with the molded compartments, the meat loaf with gravy and the mashed potatoes that never mixed with the peas. I was a child of the '50s that "didn't want to be left out" and "coveted the latest convenience." Oh how I hungered for this contemporary craze!
But my parents said "No."
"No" to a little bit of food with a lot of paper. "No" to a little bit of nutrition costing a lot of money.
The modern frozen food industry began in the 1920s when a man named Clarence Birdseye developed the process of "quick freezing." Using this method, Birdseye was able to better preserve foods and maximize flavor. A great idea, but frozen foods didn't really catch on until the Swanson Company - what's with these frozen fowl names? - came up with the concept of the "TV dinner" in 1953.
This novel marvel was instantly popular. The simple convenience of the product attracted customers. The contemporary woman sought convenience. In the '50s, cooking from scratch was out and television was definitely in. Families gathered regularly in front of their sets to watch shows such as "I Love Lucy" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." The innovative Swanson brothers developed a marketing campaign that associated their product with the television. The box was even designed to look like a television - right down to the channel and volume knobs. If you loved TV, you loved Swanson TV dinners. Well, I loved TV and I wanted to love Swanson TV dinners.
I wanted to sit, eat and watch "The Mickey Mouse Club." It was on from 5 to 6 p.m., a hungry time. I wanted to eat my green beans out of the little triangular space and watch Cubby, capped with the magical ears, sing his M-O-U-S-E tunes. I wanted to open the hot square box and gaze at my dinner while Annette gazed out at me from the flickering square box. I wanted to sit on the couch and place my foil plate on the folding television table. Oh yes, we had folding TV tables. Everyone had folding TV tables.
My friend Susie Smith had a TV dinner at least once a week. Her mom and dad worked and she was hungry when she got home from school. A 10 year old that was able to turn on the oven all by herself and cook her own dinner. She was my hero.
I questioned my husband, "Did you ever eat Swanson TV dinners?"
"Of course, I ate TV dinners," he replied.
Say what? Joan, my mother-in-law, served TV dinners? I don't believe it. Joan, the ultimate comfort-food cook, served TV dinners! My husband?- Mr. don't touch it if it isn't good for you - grew up on TV dinners! Well, now I am feeling really deprived.
I know these dinners were not too fancy. There was no pasta primavera. There was only recognizable little foods - chicken, meatloaf, peas and carrots, mashed potatoes. I never even tasted a little bit of even one.
Well, so what. Swanson brothers, maybe your dinners weren't as great as I thought. Back then, someone should have complained that you were starting generations of couch potatoes. Someone should have sued you because their children were getting fat, sitting still and eating. You weren't even in the statistics that showed you were causing one fourth of American children to be obese! The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta did not announce the dangers of the high salt content in your dinners. No, Swanson boys, you started it all and you merrily walked away with no criticism.
No one picketed you for using non-recyclable cardboard. I wonder how many little foil trays there are in the landfill. The churches didn't complain about the marketing that took away dinner time together, thus wrecking family values. Whatever were you thinking?
Well, I'm still thinking I still want to try one. I still have this image in my mind. It's a "Birdseye" (pun intended) view of myself sitting at the portable table in front of the television. I can see the back of my head, my hair pulled back in a pony tail, silver barrettes on either side. As I look past that little girl, I see Howdy and Clarabelle on the glowing set. My fork is in hand. The foil cover is pulled over to one side, crushed in a pile. I am eating one compartment at a time.
After I finish, I bring the empty tray to the kitchen. My mom will take it. I don't expect her to throw it away. She will wash it up and put it in the cupboard next to the other scraps of previously used "tin" foil. She is not recycling, she is frugal.
I know you are saying, "Oh Anita, you didn't really miss a thing." But I did. I missed the start of a revolution. I missed the "happening." TV dinners were not about the food?- its taste, its quality or its nutrition. Even value was not the point. The point was it was new and innovative. They were groovy, hip and cool. They were "modern" when modern meant something.
And so, I'm on my way to the grocery store frozen food isle. Next week, I'll serve you what I find.
Restaurant Watch: Watch how frozen food effects today's offerings.