(Roughly) Daily

“A Genuine ‘TV’ Brand Dinner”*…

In 1925, the Brooklyn-born entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye invented a machine for freezing packaged fish that would revolutionize the storage and preparation of food. [see here.] Maxson Food Systems of Long Island used Birdseye’s technology, the double-belt freezer, to sell the first complete frozen dinners to airlines in 1945, but plans to offer those meals in supermarkets were canceled after the death of the company’s founder, William L. Maxson. Ultimately, it was the Swanson company that transformed how Americans ate dinner (and lunch)—and it all came about, the story goes, because of Thanksgiving turkey.

According to the most widely accepted account, a Swanson salesman named Gerry Thomas conceived the company’s frozen dinners in late 1953 when he saw that the company had 260 tons of frozen turkey left over after Thanksgiving, sitting in ten refrigerated railroad cars. (The train’s refrigeration worked only when the cars were moving, so Swanson had the trains travel back and forth between its Nebraska headquarters and the East Coast “until panicked executives could figure out what to do,” according to Adweek.) Thomas had the idea to add other holiday staples such as cornbread stuffing and sweet potatoes, and to serve them alongside the bird in frozen, partitioned aluminum trays designed to be heated in the oven. Betty Cronin, Swanson’s bacteriologist, helped the meals succeed with her research into how to heat the meat and vegetables at the same time while killing food-borne germs.

Whereas Maxson had called its frozen airline meals “Strato-Plates,” Swanson introduced America to its “TV dinner” (Thomas claims to have invented the name) at a time when the concept was guaranteed to be lucrative: As millions of white women entered the workforce in the early 1950s, Mom was no longer always at home to cook elaborate meals—but now the question of what to eat for dinner had a prepared answer. Some men wrote angry letters to the Swanson company complaining about the loss of home-cooked meals. For many families, though, TV dinners were just the ticket. Pop them in the oven, and 25 minutes later, you could have a full supper while enjoying the new national pastime: television.

In 1950, only 9 percent of U.S. households had television sets—but by 1955, the number had risen to more than 64 percent, and by 1960, to more than 87 percent. Swanson took full advantage of this trend, with TV advertisements that depicted elegant, modern women serving these novel meals to their families, or enjoying one themselves. “The best fried chicken I know comes with a TV dinner,” Barbra Streisand told the New Yorker in 1962…

Thanks to the pandemic, Thanksgiving’s most unexpected legacy is heating up again: “A Brief History of the TV Dinner.”

* The Swanson “promise” on every package

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As we peel back the foil, we might send clearly-outlined birthday greetings to Irma S. Rombauer; she was born on this date in 1877. An author of cookbooks, she is best remembered for The Joy of Cooking, one of the most widely-published and used cookbooks in the U.S. Originally unable to find a publisher, she privately printed an edition in 1931. But in 1935 a commercial edition (the first of nine) was released by Bobbs-Merrill.

Written in a plain but witty style, including basic techniques and simple dishes, not just the complext recipes that were the staples of most cookbooks of the time, it found a broad and loyal audience among the American middle class. Indeed, Julia Child credits The Joy of Cooking with teaching her the basic techniques of the kitchen, and (along with Gourmet Magazine) teaching her to cook.

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