Frozen tv dinner was launched 65 years ago today to fix a big problem for swanson & sons

Thanksgiving’s most unexpected legacy is heating up again

A new size of entertainment & a wandering trainload of frozen turkey triggered a convenience food boom. (Evan Angelastro)

In 1925, the Brooklyn-born entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye invented a machine for freezing packaged fish that would revolutionize the storage và preparation of food. Maxson Food Systems of Long Islvà used Birdseye’s giải pháp công nghệ, the double-belt freezer, to lớn sell the first complete frozen dinners to airlines in 1945, but plans khổng lồ 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 (và lunch)—and it all came about, the story goes, because of Thanksgiving turkey.

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According to lớn the most widely accepted tài khoản, 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 bachồng và forth between its Nebraska headquarters và the East Coast “until panicked executives could figure out what khổng lồ vày,” according to lớn Adweek.) Thomas had the idea to lớn add other holiday staples such as cornbread stuffing và sweet potatoes, và khổng lồ serve them alongside the bird in frozen, partitioned aluminum trays designed khổng lồ be heated in the oven. Betty Cronin, Swanson’s bacteriologist, helped the meals succeed with her research inlớn how lớn heat the meat và vegetables at the same time while killing food-borne germs.

“Eating off a tray in the dusk before a TV phối is an abomination,” the columnist Frederick C. Othman wrote in 1957. (Advertising Archive / Everett Collection)

The Swanson company has offered different accounts of this history. Cronin has said that Gilbert & Clarke Swanson, sons of company founder Carl Swanson, came up with the idea for the frozen-meal-on-a-tray, and Clarke Swanson’s heirs, in turn, have sầu disputed Thomas’ clalặng that he invented it. Whoever provided the spark, this new American convenience was a commercial triumph. In 1954, the first full year of production, Swanson sold ten million trays. Banquet Foods và Morton Frozen Foods soon brought out their own offerings, winning over more & more middle-class households across the country.

Whereas Maxson had called its frozen airline meals “Strato-Plates,” Swanson introduced America to lớn its “TV dinner” (Thomas claims khổng lồ have invented the name) at a time when the concept was guaranteed lớn be lucrative: As millions of Trắng women entered the workforce in the early 1950s, Mom was no longer always at trang chủ khổng lồ 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, & 25 minutes later, you could have a full supper while enjoying the new national pastime: television.

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In 1950, only 9 percent of U.S. households had television sets—but by 1955, the number had risen khổng lồ more than 64 percent, & by 1960, to more than 87 percent. Swanson took full advantage of this trkết thúc, with TV advertisements that depicted elegant, modern women serving these novel meals to lớn 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.

By the 1970s, competition ahy vọng the frozen food giants spurred some thực đơn innovation, including such questionable options as Swanson’s take on a “Polynesian Style Dinner,” which doesn’t resemble any meal you will see in Polynesia. Tastemakers, of course, sniffed, lượt thích the Thành Phố New York Times food critic who observed in 1977 that TV dinner consumers had no taste. But perhaps that was never the main draw. “In what other way can I get...a single serving of turkey, a portion of dressing...và the potatoes, vegetable and dessert... something like 69 cents?” a Shrewsbury, New Jersey, newspaper quoted one reader as saying. TV dinners had found another nibịt audience in dieters, who were glad for the built-in portion control.

The next big breakthrough came in 1986, with the Campbell Soup Company’s invention of microwave-safe trays, which cut meal preparation khổng lồ mere minutes. Yet the ultimate convenience food was now too convenient for some diners, as one columnist lamented: “Progress is wonderful, but I will still miss those steaming, crinkly aluminum TV trays.”

With restaurants closed during Covid-19, Americans are again snapping up frozen meals, spending nearly 50 percent more on them in April 2020 over April 2019, says the American Frozen Food Institute. Specialty stores lượt thích Williams Sonoma now stoông chồng gourmet TV dinners. Ipsa Provisions, a high-kết thúc frozen-food company launched this past February in New York, specializes in “artisanal frozen dishes for a civilized meal any night of the week”—a khẩu hiệu right out of the 1950s. Restaurants from Detroit to lớn Colorado Springs to lớn Los Angeles are offering frozen versions of their dishes for carryout, a practice that some experts predict will continue beyond the pandemic. To many Americans, the TV dinner tastes like nostalgia; to lớn others, it still tastes like the future.

Vintage Takeout

Grab-and-go meals might be all the rage, but the ancients also craved convenience —Courtney Sexton

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