TV dinners there's nothin' else to eat
TV dinners they really can't be beat
I like 'em frozen but you understand
I throw 'em in and wave 'em and I'm a brand new man oh yeah!
-- ZZ Top, "TV Dinners"
There used to be a restaurant in New York City, Ike, that served all sorts of bistro food, from pastas to chicken to seared tuna. However, the NYC hipsterati latched onto Ike's not for its chef-prepared cuisine but rather for its Swanson's TV Dinners.
Yes, you read that correctly. Folks came for the famous fried chicken, mashed potatoes and sweet corn -- or the Angus beef Salisbury steak and whipped potatoes, or the classic turkey and dressing -- and they were more than happy to pay $6 and more for the privilege. (Mind you, these are the same people who'll pay $4 for a PBR, when they can get a sixer for $3.50.)
The owners of Ike (incidentally, or perhaps not, Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower was an early proponent of the TV dinner) must have known that the reason the Hungry Man dinners sold like hotcakes most likely had to do with the fact that at any given time, the Big Apple contains millions of youngish people hungry for something different, something gimmicky. And why not the ultimate comfort food?
My own experience with TV dinners, specifically the 1970s and '80s versions in those crumble-friendly little tin containers, is considerable. My mother began working again after I started middle school, and my father worked until 5:30pm or 6:00pm without fail, doing his part to put food on the table.
And the food my brother and I put on the table when we got home from school was The TV dinner -- specifically the Salisbury steak dinner. Man, did we eat some Salisbury steak. We ate so many Swanson's that we began to feed our dog, Zipper, in the little tins. Zipper was a finicky eater, preferring to drag her supper underneath our back porch, Sounder-like, where thanks to the human-proof foot or less of clearance, she could eat in peace. As a result, the area underneath our porch was soon filled with enough tin trays to build a Yugo out of.
The TV dinner's roots go back to 1953, when Swanson introduced its first packaged meal -- turkey, corn bread dressing and gravy, and sweet potatoes. It stands to reason that when the burgeoning kitchen and home entertainment technologies mated, Swanson exec Gerry Thomas had a brainstorm that became one of the largest food fads of the decade, right? Not exactly. According to the man himself, the TV dinner was born because the company was stuck with some 270 tons of leftover Thanksgiving turkeys (you think you get tired of post-Turkey Day sandwiches!) and needed a quick, cost-effective way to get some return on the initial investment.
Within a year or two, Swanson was moving millions of dinners a year, at a little under a dollar a pop. Little did Thomas know that his invention would one day have its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (!), and have one of its airline-inspired metallic trays as part of an exhibit in the Smithsonian.
A few years after the nationwide spread of the microwave oven, TV Dinners became Frozen Meals. Now we have pesto penne, soufflés, even grilled -- thanks to an ingenious little tray cooked up by the folks at Lean Cuisine -- panini sandwiches. We have winter vegetable pizzas. We have -- gasp! -- vegetarian options. We have full servings of meatloaf and all the individually packaged sizes you could possibly want, outside of maybe a deviled egg or two.
We have diet-specific frozen dinners -- South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, LowCarb Gourmet -- all manner of ethnic cuisines, from Indian to Moroccan, as well as foods, like Lean Cuisine's panini, that have built-in mechanisms to achieve a crispness that the oven-variety packaged meal once could boast over its newfangled micro-rival.
The result? Almost a billion frozen meals were purchased last year. And what's the biggest seller? Still turkey and dressing, at least as far as the Swanson company goes. TVs may have gone hi-def and plasma on us, and the tin tray has long since been retired to another invention that didn't even exist in 1953 -- the recycling bin -- but the simple, comfort-driven turkey/dressing/mashed potato combo continues to keep us coming back for more.
Two hundred and seventy tons of leftover turkey!? We're probably still eating that stuff.
Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor and Travel + Life, among other publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.