Thanksgiving and leftovers go together. For many, it’s their favorite part of Thanksgiving. Days of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce combined together in all sorts of configurations keep the warm holiday feeling going.
In fact it was one Thanksgiving leftover that created an American Icon.
And for that we are thankful.
The first TV dinners were an answer to a problem with Thanksgiving leftovers. Swanson’s iconic product had its genesis as a brilliant solution of what to do with an excess of Thanksgiving turkeys.
In 1953 C.A. Swanson and Sons a Nebraska-based poultry processor who sold frozen turkeys and chickens miscalculated the number of turkeys Americans would eat for Thanksgiving. Farmers had overproduced turkeys that year and it left the company with an oversupply of 260 tons of frozen birds sitting in 10 refrigerator Rail Road cars. Swanson didn’t have enough cold storage warehouses to keep the turkeys. This was a major problem
Their executives were frantic, trying to figure out what to do with this excess supply of frozen turkeys. Gerry Thomas a savvy Swanson salesman came up with a million-dollar idea.
After a recent visit to Pan American Airways in Pittsburg, he had taken note of the airplane-friendly pre-prepared food in compartmentalized aluminum trays used by Pan Am. Developed by Maxon Food Systems in 1945 for military transport and civilian airline passengers, the frozen meals were reheated on the plane in a special oven which took 15 minutes. The complete dinners in 3 separate compartments had equal portions of meat, vegetable, and potato. Called “Strato Plates,” they regionally marketed a consumer version called “Strato Meals” in 1946 which didn’t take off.
Thomas was inspired by these meals and a lightbulb went off.
Why not produce frozen turkey dinners in the same system. He excitedly introduced the idea back at Swansons and with smart marketing tying it in with the young technology of television, a TV Dinner was born. The TV dinner was as easy as turning a dial. Mrs. Americ could even throw away the dirty dishes after her family had dined alongside Bonanza
They ordered 5,000 aluminum trays and created a Thanksgiving-like meal composed of turkey with cornbread stuffing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes ( both topped with a pat o butter another Swanson product. ) Recruiting an assembly line of hair-netted women with ice cream scoops in hand they launched the TV dinner. The price was 98 cents.
Swanson’s introduced the TV dinner in October 1953 at a national convention of food editors meeting in Chicago. It was a gamble.
“Just what housewives want -no work no thawing needed. Out of the box and into the oven- 25 minutes later a hearty turkey dinner ready to eat on its own aluminum tray. It’s the hottest item ever handled in the frozen food dept.”
Despite their jitter that they had miscalculated again, they were a success In the first full year of production in 1954 10 million turkey dinners sold.
The idea of a complete meal in one package was novel and exciting. It was revolutionary!
Swanson has long advocated that being alone should not prevent you from experiencing a festive spirit. Their very first TV dinner was meant to be associated with warm holidays and good times without all the labor-intensive work involved. Imagine, even by yourself you can still savor a full-fledged Thanksgiving feast with all the fixins’ without any of the fuss or muss.
Saturday Night Was Swanson Night
I confess to loving TV dinners as a child. Thanks to wartime research I was the happy recipient of a world of no waiting, no wondering, no defrosting, no fuss no muss. Though my suburban mother’s cooking repertoire relied heavily on the new and improved with frozen food considered an asset to the mid-century housewife, she never once served us a TV dinner as a family meal. This despite Swanson’s tagline “Only Swanson comes so close to your own home cooking.” In a world of modern conveniences that was not a stretch.
However, TV Dinners did figure prominently on my Saturday nights as a child.
Like clockwork, my sociable parents spent nearly every Saturday night going out to dinner with friends. Just as predictable nearly every Saturday night I dined on a Swanson’s TV Dinner. It was a true night off for Mom with no meals to cook, no dishes to wash, no kid’s squabbles to referee. While she busied herself “putting her face on,” readying herself for her night out, she’d simply pop the trays into the GE wall oven, and relax confident that in under 30 minutes a complete nutritious dinner would be ready for her children.
It was a tradition I relished.
While my mother delighted in dining out on duck a l’ orange elegantly served under a metal serving dome, I was tickled with my aluminum tray filled with just the right portions of thick slices of juicy turkey, gravy, cornbread stuffing whipped sweet potatoes and tender garden peas with a pat o’ country butter . Why it was like Thanksgiving in June!
Jet Set Eating
It was new, it was modern, and pre-dated the Jetsons.
Until I was 10, I had never flown in an airplane so eating a meal out of an aluminum tray transported me to the glamourous world of Pan Am. I could be a jet setter without ever leaving suburbia or my house for that matter. I could imagine myself flying off to some exotic local as I dined on compartmentalized whipped dehydrated potatoes. Little did I know there was a deep connection between the 2.
Eventually, Swanson included a dessert with their meals, and expanded their menu to include a line of international TV dinners, making the choices as varied as going out to eat at a fine restaurant but in the comfort of your own home.
Shopping with Mom at the supermarket to select my weekly Saturday night TV Dinner was a treat. I loved the frozen food section of our local Food Fair. The overflowing open top freezer cabinets were like a frozen tundra filled with cardboard boxes of better-buy-Birdseye peas lost in a mass of tangled pot pies, and frozen fish sticks.
But I could always spot the distinctive Swanson’s Box.
The TV Dinners stood apart, gleaming in their 6 color Fidel-I-Tone color cellophane laminated boxes. With the familiar wood-grained TV set complete with 2 turning knobs ( one on the left for USDA inspection the other knob for displaying the retail price) the center screen would be filled with a full color, picture-perfect meal, maybe an appetite-whetting golden fried chicken, or a Salisbury steak sizzling, real enough to melt the ice. Though other companies jumped on the frozen dinner bandwagon, there was no substitute to the gen-u-ine, original TV dinner.
It is one of many traditions now long gone. TV dinners have since slid down the culinary food chain and there is even a sad patina attached to them. But at their height, it was a revolutionary dining experience.
“It’s good dining and good timing with Swanson,” was their motto. This Thanksgiving the timing might be perfect for a comeback.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022