Did TV Dinners Destroy the American Supper?

Brooke Newberry
(Photo: )

Post-War Saturdays and Sundays saw big, family-style meals, but for about 30 years (1950-1980) people were content with their weeknight heat-and-eats.  The convenience of plastic covered, compartmentalized Salisbury steak, rice or mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, and peaches nuked back to life in a matter of minutes was proven both appealing and empowering.

The term ‘TV Dinner’ was actually a trademark of the godfather of ready meals, Swanson & Sons, until 1962. Swanson’s, although disputed as the original inventor, was the first to jump on the branding and conceptualizing of the “TV Dinner” name. What inspired these frozen conveniences? The great dilemma of the Thanksgiving turkey surplus of 1953.  According to TV Dinner legend, Swanson overestimated the popularity of turkey that fall and the frozen food suppliers were left with 260 tons to spare, so they had to come up with an alternative use for the birds. Coincidentally, a Swanson employee was flying on Pan Am when the airline happened to be testing their in-flight meals in compartmentalized trays. The employee came back to the Swanson & Sons headquarters with a pitch on how to preserve, store, serve, and side-dish up the leftover Thanksgiving birds.  The first Swanson product was cooked for 25 minutes at 425 °F, fit nicely on a TV tray table, and cost 98 cents. Swanson sold more than 10 million TV dinners in their first year of production.

Swanson’s premature stockpiling of turkey ultimately changed how Americans regarded family mealtime. TV Dinners disturbed the meal experience – formality was removed, the option to choose a cuisine or flavor was presented, and prep time was greatly reduced. This in turn removed supper’s reverence.  The perceived insight to individuality and extra free time replaced the need for any customary rituals to remain. Ethnic foods were brought to the table, or rather, to the TV; but really this “ethnic diversifying” just took a food’s culture out of context and presented it in American form.

In today’s frozen section, post-Swanson TV dinners are modern incarnations of the original. A mix of gourmet, health and diet words jump off the boxes and boast names of dishes that would appear on menus at upscale restaurants (and some actually ARE the names of dishes from restaurant chains, all prepared in under eight minutes), but come with a lower price tag and higher health risk. Sure, the accessibility of frozen dinners definitely eases the efforts assigned by any meal, but really, this labor has merely been rearranged.

Visit the Smithsonian and experience the original aluminum Swanson tray in all its glory.

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