A visionary knows how it is to be misunderstood - just ask the guys who created the original TV dinner.
They put the peas on the left, mashed potatoes on the right, meat front and center where it belongs. It could hardly have been simpler, yet it appears the TV dinner was misconstrued.
"The idea wasn't that you sit and watch TV and eat this thing," says Gerry Thomas, who says he hatched the TV dinner while working in sales for C.A. Swanson & Sons in Omaha, Neb., a food wholesaler that put the product into national distribution in 1953.
All right, cancel that visit to the ESPN Zone or local tavern, college student union or airport bar or any one of a million places suiting celebration of the TV dinner's 50th anniversary, and the good American tradition of watching and eating. That was not the idea at all.
"The idea" of the name, says Thomas, was to sell the ready-to-heat frozen dinner: "to make it interesting enough for people to want it."
At the dawn of the Eisenhower years, folks might have wanted turkey with corn-bread stuffing and gravy, peas and mashed potatoes, but what really fired their collective imagination was something else. This new thing on the scene: television.
Thomas, who traveled a lot for work in those days, couldn't help but notice how an appliance-store owner in any given city, on any Main Street, could lure a crowd by putting an 8-inch television set in the window and switching it on. And that was for test patterns.
There folks would stand, transfixed, staring into the future of American life - politics, sports, journalism, language and, not least, eating. The TV dinner would never be strictly food in the way that, say, peas, potatoes and turkey were by themselves strictly food. The whole was more than the sum of its parts.
It was a potent idea, casting a long shadow over the supermarket frozen-food case. Never mind that the "TV Dinner" label had vanished from the Swanson's frozen meal box by around 1970. Chances are a frozen meal by any name is going to be known to this day in casual conversation as a TV dinner, with the understanding that a meal so called is made for eating and watching.
The old aluminum four-compartment TV dinner tray was considered significant enough to find a place in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. Swanson had recently switched to a nonmetallic, microwave-friendly tray, after having switched from a three- to a four-compartment tray in 1960.
Says Paula Johnson, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: "It's one of these things that represents a couple of important things: technology and American culture coming together in a fascinating way."
In an article published in a 2001 book called Kitchen Culture in America, Christopher Holmes Smith wrote that the TV dinner and television "gave material expression to the nation's desire to celebrate the end of scarcity through a postwar lifestyle of leisure."
"End of scarcity," indeed. As Thomas tells it, the TV dinner was born of inconvenient abundance.
"The reason for the dinner is 'Necessity is the mother of invention,' " says Thomas, who turns 81 in February and lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz. "We had too damn much turkey."
Not just a little too much, as in a weekend of turkey sandwiches immediately after Thanksgiving Day. For some reason - perhaps partly a spell of warm weather in the autumn and early winter of 1951-1952 - Swanson & Sons fell far short of anticipated turkey sales. The company wound up with a monstrous load, up to a half-million pounds by some estimations.
As Thomas recalls, Swanson had the meat stored frozen in refrigerated railroad cars that were rolling in several trains between Omaha and the East Coast. That was fine for a few weeks, but, really. Something had to give under the weight of all that turkey.
Gilbert Swanson and his younger brother, Clark, put the word out for ideas about how to move this turkey mountain.
Someone suggested opening a string of shops at railroad stations selling hot turkey sandwiches.
Someone suggested that Swanson get into the turkey-loaf business in a big way.
Well, uh ...
Someone said: Let's can the stuff and sell it to the military for rations.
This was "commodities thinking," says Thomas, befitting a commodities company. His idea "was considered one of the goofiest."
After spotting aluminum and cardboard in-flight meal containers on a Pan American flight from Omaha to Pittsburgh, Thomas says he returned to the Swanson brothers with a notion: Package the turkey in frozen meals ready to heat and eat.
It had been tried before.
While most of the frozen-food world in those days consisted of vegetables, orange juice and ice cream, there had been some experiments with frozen steaks, pizzas, Mexican food and meat pies in the 1940s. A Philadelphia company called FrigiDinner produced a frozen meal that was sold in groceries in the late 1940s, says David Wellman, editor of Frozen Food Age.
What distinguished the Swanson project most significantly was image. As it happened, the surplus turkey was uncoupled from the railroad cars and hitched to a rising cultural star.
"If you could marry a product to this entertainment thing," television, says Thomas, "you'd have a leg up on being successful."
While food packaging was commonly a two-color affair, Swanson went with a four-color production in this case. The first TV-dinner box was designed to ape the look of a television console, complete with screen, two dials and the imitation of plastic fake wood veneer common on sets of the day.
The Midwestern test marketing went well enough in the fall of 1952 that Swanson advanced to national distribution early in 1953. At first the three-section aluminum tray - a Nebraska wheelbarrow maker punched these out - offered a side of vegetables, a side of potatoes and four entree selections: fried chicken, Salisbury steak and fried haddock. And, oh yes, turkey, although Thomas says there's no telling how much of the turkey that went into the meals came from the frozen surplus.
It was a fortuitous entry. With women working outside the home in greater numbers, frozen foods fulfilled a demand for household time-savers.
Of course, this might not be apparent from looking at the television programs and advertising of the day, where the Ozzie & Harriet image of family life prevailed.
Many frozen-food ads sought to allay women's guilt about not fulfilling the traditional role of homemaker by cooking from scratch. If the enormous growth of the frozen-food business registered tremors in the traditional roles of women, much frozen-food advertising was calculated to "mitigate an ideological backlash from traditionally minded men," wrote Smith in that same article, "Frozen Foods and the Postwar Family."
Philip Wylie, for instance. The writer who became notorious in the 1940s for his book-length diatribe on the toxic influence of the American mother image - "Momism," he called it - saw in frozen food an example of how technology had wrecked the joy of eating and shaken the good traditions of American home life.
In a 1954 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Wylie wrote that "A good meal has been replaced by something-to-eat-in-a-hurry. By something not very good to eat, prepared by a mother without very much to do, for a family that doesn't feel it amounts to much anyhow."
Wylie was about 20 years ahead of the curve in his craving for authentic and full-flavored ingredients, but rowing against the tide with respect to frozen foods. The industry grew.
C.A. Swanson & Sons was sold in 1954 to Campbell's, which in 1997 broke off the brand into a separate company, Vlasic Foods International, which soon went bankrupt. In 2001, Pinnacle Foods Corp. took control of the Swanson brand, which now accounts for roughly 9 percent of the $4.96 billion supermarket trade in frozen dinners and entrees.
The TV dinner, meanwhile, assumed layers of connotations.
In the movie Avalon, director Barry Levinson conveyed a Baltimore family's disintegration partly by showing the arc from shared meals at the table to individual TV dinners taken on snack trays in front of the tube.
In Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen found in the TV dinner a handy emblem for the despair of a man whose wife just walked out. When a friend notes all the empty aluminum trays scattered about his apartment, she asks if a TV dinner is the only thing he can cook.
"Who bothers to cook 'em?" Allen replies. "I suck 'em frozen."
That's one way of looking at it.
Mike Sicher, a Baltimore County telemarketing manager, has other ideas. The TV dinner brings to his mind a "wonderful memory. ... It was a special treat" when he was a boy in the 1950s. "There was something about the dinner tray, before the concept of high-tech. It seemed so exotic. I remember my mom putting out these little folding TV tables and allowing us to eat and watch TV."
His colleague, Lettie Walter, remembers that when her father was working late, her mother often served TV dinners. She says she and her siblings never took it as a slight.
"To us that was haute cuisine," says Walter.
Funny she should mention that. While the TV dinner hardly aspired to such heights in the old days, Swanson has lately taken the brand uptown, adding such selections as mesquite grilled chicken and turkey tenderloins.
In a television spot last year, a woman is shown striding down a palatial arched corridor in a full-length magenta gown. In the background, a female voice sings in French while a deep male voice-over intones in a British accent. Into her lovely face, the woman on screen delicately forks a bit of defrosted chicken in penne pasta with basil cream sauce.
Unlike Swanson ads of the past, here the woman is alone. Free of husband, children, boyfriend, expectations, guilt, she moves as one who has unloaded a terrible burden. Yeah, once Swanson dumped that surplus turkey, she was on her way.