Letter: Seventy years later, TV dinners are American as ‘apple pie’

Turkey and stuffing TV dinner
Turkey and stuffing TV dinner with canned cranberry
Photo courtesy Getty Images

To the Editor,

July 18, 2022, marked the 70th anniversary of the passing of “TV” dinner inventor Mr. Gerry Thomas. His employer Swanson & Company overestimated the demand for Thanksgiving turkey in 1953. They were stuck with 260 tons of frozen turkeys. The birds were stored for many weeks in 10 refrigerated train cars which traveled back and forth on a train between Nebraska and the East Coast. The train had to be moving so the compressors which supported the refrigerators preserving the turkeys could keep working.

In the early 1950s, Thomas observed how airlines provided passengers with meals in aluminum serving trays. He modified this by adding separate sections for the main course, vegetable and potato. This resulted in the first Swanson TV Dinner. For only $0.89, more than 25 million were sold in 1954, which was the first year of production. Many were consumed by customers watching television, which was also still a relatively new invention in the ’50s. Thomas was the marketing genius for Swanson & Company who came up with the name “TV” dinner.

Growing up in the 1960s as a teenager, my dad was a teacher during the day and a high school librarian several nights per week. On those evenings, I would have to prepare dinner for my younger sister. When we tired of the local options such as McDonalds, Wetsons, pizza or Chinese takeout, TV dinners were a quick solution. Selections were provided by either Swanson’s, Banquet or Morton’s. They were the big three competitors during that era.  The standard choices were either chicken, turkey, roast beef or meatloaf, referred to as mystery meat. Cooking time was 30 minutes in the oven as microwaves hadn’t yet been invented.

A real treat in those days were the TV diners which provided a fourth compartment, containing a brownie for dessert. Sometimes two TV dinners were required to satisfy your appetite as the portions were never that big. Recycling was unheard of in those days as millions of aluminum TV dinner plates went straight into the garbage can. I can only imagine today how much space was taken up at the local community landfill site over the decades.

The selection of TV dinners at your local supermarket today is much different from those of past generations. Besides Swanson’s, Banquet and Morton’s, there are many more competitors such as Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, Stouffers, Boston Market, Marie Callendar, Hungary Man and others. Their various product lines offer far more variety and selections. Far healthier choices are available for today’s generation on the go.

Even during college and post-college bachelor days, TV dinners always found some space in the freezer compartment of my refrigerator.

Lucky for me, my wife Wendy is a great cook and I’ve learned some skills in the kitchen myself since then.

Perhaps the United States Post Office should consider issuing a stamp for Gerry Thomas and the TV dinner,  still American as apple pie 70 years later.

Larry Penner

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