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Today, frozen dinners are yupscale and pretentious, and there are those who say that TV dinners of the past were the best: the trays were aluminum, the choices were scanty (turkey, beef, chicken, Salisbury steak), and they weren’t too proud to call it a “TV dinner.”

Frozen food in your local grocery is a relatively recent thing. True, seventeenth-century scientist Sir Francis Bacon had some ideas about freezing as a preservative and even did some experiments that looked promising. (Unfortunately, he died of hypothermia after spending a cold afternoon stuffing snow into a dead chicken.) But the modern-day frozen food industry owes its existence to Clarence Birdseye, who like to be called Bob and pronounced his name BIRD-zee.

Birdseye, a naturalist and writer of books on wildflowers, birds and mammals, had gone to Labrador in 1917 to conduct a survey of fish and wildlife for the US government. While there, he noticed that the Native Canadians’ mean and poultry didn’t get mushy when frozen and thawed. It felt and tasted nearly fresh, unlike food he had tried freezing back in the States.

He figured that it was because of the extreme cold that the food froze quicker. When he got back, he tested the theory. He bought $7 worth of ice, salt water and an electric fan. Sure enough, he found that slow freezing allowed large ice crystals to form, bursting the food’s cell walls. Fast freezing prevented that, saving the cellular integrity, texture and flavor for months on end. As a side benefit, he also found that he could entertain dinner guests by bouncing frozen steaks off the kitchen floor before cooking them for dinner.

In 1923, Birdseye gambled everything he owned designing a practical large-scale fast freezer and setting up Birdseye Foods Inc. He nearly went broke. When the Postum Company (which changed its name to General Foods that same year) offered to buy his patented process for $22 million, Birdseye jumped at the chance.

The corporation already had a distribution system set up, which had been Birdseye’s undoing. It also could afford to buy advertising to convince America that it needed frozen food. By 1934, 80 percent of the frozen food market belonged to General Food’s Birds Eye Division. (They added the space in Birdseye’s name and began pronouncing it like it was spelled.)

For his part, Birdseye went on tinkering, amassing over 250 patents on a range of things from recoilless harpoons to a way to turn sugar cane waste into paper. Like Bacon, he died with his inventor’s boots on – in 1956, while in Peru trying to figure out how to make paper out of the agave plant, he had a fatal heart attack from the high altitude. But he lived long enough to see the preeminent use for his fast-freezing process: the TV Dinner, invented by the Swanson brothers.

Gilbert and Clarke Swanson had a problem: they were surrounded by turkeys. Real turkeys. They owned the largest turkey processing plant in the country, C.A. Swanson & Sons, and it drove them crazy that most Americans ate turkey on only one day a year: Thanksgiving. The Swansons made it their goal to insinuate more turkey meat into America’s diet. First they started making frozen turkey pot pies. These became so popular that people started clamoring for more varieties. This was good news for business, but not good news for the turkey problem.

In 1951, the Swanson kitchens began experimenting with individual portion meals that could be popped into the oven and eaten without much preparation. Inspired by the segmented plates used in diners for “Blue Plat Specials,” they made similar trays out of aluminum and put dinner courses in them.

Television was the hot new fad sweeping the country. The Swanson Company arranged to sponsor its own show, Ted Mack’s Family Hour. Gilbert Swanson invited some friends over to have dinner and watch the premiere show.

While eating in front of Swanson’s console TV, one of the quests remarked about how odd it was to see everybody balancing food trays on their laps in front of the TV. Swanson suddenly thought the individual portion meals his company was working on. They’d be perfect for eating while watching TV, and tying them in to the TV craze couldn’t hurt. In fact, if you rounded the corners of the aluminum trays, they’d sort of look like a TV screen . . . . Why not call them TV Dinners?

The next morning Gilbert told his brother about the idea. Clarke liked it, and suggested putting a picture of a TV on the box with the dinner coming off the screen.

In January 1952, the first Swanson’s TV Dinners rolled off the line in Omaha. They contained turkey, cornbread stuffing, gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes in orange and butter sauce – and cost 98 cents. The dinners did well. Soon the company introduced fried chicken TV Dinners, which sold quickly until consumers started noticing that the chicken tasted like bananas.

It turned out that the yellow ink on the box used a solvent that smelled like bananas, and that the smell was seeping into the food. Swanson recalled the chicken dinners and changed the ink, but one food chain in Florida complained because it said that its customers actually preferred the banana-flavored variety. Swanson pragmatically shipped its entire recalled inventory to Florida.

In the 1960s, after TV became a guilty pleasure instead of a harmless fad, Swanson’s redesigned its package to downplay the TV Dinner brand name, allowing it more or less become a generic term. In 1984, the Swanson Company replaced the aluminum tray with a microwaveable plastic one. As a sop to the health-conscious times, the company replaced the brownie with a fruit dessert in 1986, but soon reversed the decision after a deluge of customer complaints.

We can hope that with a consumer crusade they might bring back the classic aluminum tray as well. The dinner’s don’t quite taste the same without that faint metallic tinge to the vegetables. And if that works, maybe next we can work toward the return of that banana-flavored chicken.

 

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