Televised dinners – those frozen, pre-cooked, pre-portioned meals that can be reheated and ready to eat in minutes – became an American culinary staple in the mid-20th century. But the true origin of this quarter-trillion-dollar industry may never be fully disclosed.
Television dinners may not have emerged from factory ovens until the 1950s, but the industry’s preheating stage began as early as 1925. It was then that naturalist and entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye has developed and marketed a method for rapidly freezing fish. His epiphany came after living among the Indigenous Inuit of Canada and learning their food preservation skills.
Americans had been eating frozen meat commercially for almost half a century, but the food was unpopular with consumers. The predominant methods of slow freezing meats, poultry and fish generally caused them to lose their flavor and texture when thawed. However, thanks to Birdseye’s double-belt quick-freeze technology, meaty foods have retained their original freshness, texture and flavor.
By the late 1930s, Birdseye had also applied its patented technology to vegetables, creating the foundation for the modern American frozen food industry. But the market was not ready. Few American consumers had coolers in their homes. And advancements in refrigeration still lag behind on the commercial side, with insulated vehicles and sufficiently refrigerated supermarkets still scarce.
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The precursors of the televised dinner
World War II accelerated the use of frozen meals. In 1944, Maxson Food Systems Inc. used Birdseye’s rapid freezing technology to create pre-packaged frozen dinners for sale exclusively to military and civilian air carriers. The meals, called “Strato-Plates” or “Sky Plates”, consisted of a partitioned portion of meat, a vegetable and a potato, reheated on board planes in the “Whirlwind Electric Ovens” Maxson, precursor of the convection oven. . Founder WL Maxson was planning to expand his company’s Strato-Plates to a larger consumer market, but he died before the plan took off.
In 1947, entrepreneur Jack Fisher placed pre-frozen meals in aluminum trays and called them “Fridgi-Dinners”. Fisher marketed the meals exclusively to bars and taverns in search of a way to feed hungry customers without hiring cooks. Although moving closer to the American consumer, the dinners have remained outside the home.
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Frozen meals go to the mass market
Frozen dinners finally entered the direct-to-consumer market in 1949 when brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein founded Frozen Dinners Inc. under the One-Eyed Eskimo label and began selling the product exclusively in the Pittsburgh area. By 1950, the company had produced more than 400,000 dinners. By 1954, after forming the Quaker State Food Corporation and expanding its distribution in the eastern United States, it had sold more than 2 million pre-packaged frozen meals.
It was around this time that Nebraska-based CA Swanson and Sons, a widely recognized food brand already known for its frozen chicken and poultry pies, brought the concept of frozen dinner to a national level. The catalyst? A catastrophically fruitless Thanksgiving holiday.
In early 1953, after poor Thanksgiving bird sales, Swanson was left with some 520,000 pounds – or 260 tons – of turkeys remaining. To prevent them from thawing and spoiling, Swanson placed the frozen poultry in 10 refrigerated wagons. And because car refrigeration only worked when vehicles were in motion, the company shuttled between its Nebraska headquarters and the East Coast as executives desperately mulled over solutions.
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Contested origins of the televised dinner
What happened after that is not in question. But who provided the inspiration is.
In one version of the story, Gerry Thomas, then a $ 200-a-month Swanson seller just a few years after starting his job, says he recalled seeing aluminum trays intended for frozen food while he was visiting a distributor’s warehouse in Pittsburgh.
Inspired by the tray, says Thomas, he sketched out the idea of a three-compartment version that could serve as both a baking tray and a serving tray – and presented it to his bosses in Swanson. According to Thomas, the executives went ahead with the idea, filling the platters with leftover turkey and gravy over cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes.
Swanson has embarked on a massive, nation-wide marketing campaign linking dinners to the must-have prestige device of the moment: the television, with packaging cleverly designed to resemble mini-televisions, control knobs and all. Targeting worried women who were working outside the home – or just wanted a break from the daily grind of preparing family dinners – the meals were priced at 98 cents and bolstered by a ‘dinner in 25’ guarantee. minutes”.
Swanson’s “televised dinner”, which hit grocery stores on September 10, 1953, was an immediate success. In 1954 Swanson sold over 10 million units and the following year 25 million. Sales grew exponentially from there, as Americans quickly warmed to the idea of snacking on a pre-made Salisbury steak or roast in front of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke”. Other companies like Stouffer’s and Banquet quickly stacked up and the frozen food industry became a mainstay of the American food-industrial complex, ultimately gaining billions of dollars in annual sales. It has also forever changed the way Americans eat their meals, with many more people eating informally in front of the TV instead of gathering every night at the dining room table.
For his role in bringing the TV dinner concept to life, Thomas says he received $ 1,000 and a promotion.
But other origin stories exist. Several sources within the company and the Swanson family credit the brothers themselves, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, with the idea of the tripartite plate and the name of the television. Gilbert Swanson, for his part, was said to have been inspired by the airline food platter while flying to meet his banker. And Jack Mingo, author of How the Cadillac got its fins and other true stories from the annals of business and marketingGilbert said came up with the idea for the name “TV dinner” after hosting a party where guests balanced food on their knees while watching TV.
READ MORE: Who Invented the Potato?
This woman refined food science
There is one key player whose contributions to the televised dinner are not disputed. Shortly after Betty Cronin, 21, started working for the company as a bacteriologist, Swanson executives asked her to discover the science of making frozen meals. His main job: figuring out how to design dinners so that all the components can be heated to their optimal taste, texture and consistency in the same amount of time, while still looking fresh and appetizing.
The fried chicken option posed special problems, recalled Cronin in a 1989 Chicago Tribune interview: “ What kind of breadcrumbs will stay in place during freezing, will not be too oily and still taste good? It was our biggest challenge. ”
Cronin said she and her friends became the guinea pigs, testing the taste of any failed experiments in late-night work sessions until she was right.
As a result, she told the Tribune, “I’ve never had a TV dinner at my house.”