11 Ready-to-Digest Tidbits About TV Dinners

iStock
iStock

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
iStock

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.


iStock

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


iStock

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.”

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

Harry & David Just Released a Cats-Inspired Gourmet Gift Collection

Harry & David
Harry & David

Year after year, Harry & David proves itself to be the undefeated champion of helping people gain the favor of tough-to-please recipients on their holiday gift lists. From baskets of cheese to buckets of popcorn, there’s a gourmet food—or collection of foods—for pretty much everyone.

This Christmas, the company has partnered with Universal Pictures to release a line of deluxe gifts that all evoke the enchanting, sophisticated style of the upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic musical Cats.

The products don’t come with cat ears, furry bodysuits, or pint-sized action figures of Taylor Swift, Jason Derulo, and the rest of the star-studded cast. Instead, in true Harry & David fashion, the gifts are decorated with tasteful Cats ribbons and subtle touches of black and gold.

The simplest option for anyone with a sweet tooth is the $30 Classic Sweets Box, which includes dark chocolate-covered pretzels, raspberry galettes, dark chocolate truffles, and Harry & David’s signature Moose Munch popcorn. For healthy eaters or fans of fruit in general, there’s a box of Royal Riviera pears, hand-wrapped in gold foil, which you can purchase with (for $70) or without (for $50) a bottle of Pinot Gris. There are also a few larger dessert baskets with a broad assortment of truffles, caramels, popcorn, chocolate-covered cherries, and more mouthwatering confectioneries.

Though you’d be ill-advised to share most of those desserts with your actual cat, they might be able to enjoy the savory meats from the other boxes and baskets—after all, cats can have a little salami. Items include sausage, salami, smoked salmon, pepper jack cheese, sharp white cheddar cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, water crackers, and roasted almonds, among other things.

In summary, the Cats collection is ideal for these demographics: people who like Cats the musical, people who like Cats the movie, people who like gift baskets, people who like gifts, and people who eat food.

You can shop all the options here, and find out everything you need to know about Cats the movie here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER