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Sunday, June 26, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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19 - The Year The TV Dinner Knocked America Cold

AP

CAMDEN, N.J. - It was 1954: The New York Giants beat Cleveland in the World Series. Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in literature. "On the Waterfront" swept the Academy Awards, and "Mister Sandman" and "Hernando's Hideaway" topped the hit parade.

But something you might not have noticed happened that year, too.

The TV dinner quietly became part of the American way of life. It's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Television was a new and fascinating phenomenon, particularly for children, and there were only three to four hours of new programming each day, generally in the late afternoon and evening, during the dinner hour. Families were virtually living their lives, after school and after work, around television. Preparation for mealtime was restricted.

It was also the middle of the baby boom, when women were either working or car-pooling their children to school, Little League or ballet lessons. It was the start of an era in which women's place was outside the home as much as inside, and cooking meals became an afterthought rather than a way of life.

It was 22-year-old Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist who has been called the "mother of the TV dinner," who is widely credited with beginning what has become a $1.3 billion-a-year industry when she was assigned by C.A. Swanson & Sons of Omaha to test a fried chicken dinner on her friends.

The first ones sold for 98 cents in a package bearing a picture of a TV set. They were divided into compartments because marketers determined that children didn't like the foods running together.

Swanson sold 5,000 in 1954, began mass marketing and a year later sold 10 million of the quickie meals in aluminum containers with a picture of a "housewife" dubbed Sue Swanson.

By 1993, with dozens of other products on the market, 85 million compartmentalized meals were sold by that one company alone - mostly turkey, Salisbury steak and fried chicken, the three items first marketed 40 years ago.

"When we introduced the dinners in 1954, overcoming women's feelings of guilt for serving frozen foods to the family rather than making them from scratch was one of the biggest hurdles we faced," Cronin said.

"Children loved TV dinners. Being able to choose their own kind was a big deal, and eating in front of the television made mealtime more fun and made their moms feel better."

Swanson got immediate competition.

Banquet launched a beef dinner in 1954, and specialty items were quickly developed: Quaker Oats with its Aunt Jemima brand of frozen pancakes, a New Jersey company named Buitoni that turned out Italian specialties and Morton, which specialized in pot pies.

Later came more specialty items from labels such as Stouffer, Le Menu, Lean Cuisine (a Swanson spinoff) that have made frozen-food cabinets one of the busiest spots in any supermarket.

Give some of the credit to Cronin, now 65, playing a lot of golf and serving as a consultant to Campbell Soups, which bought Swanson in 1955.

In the early 1950s, she was given the assignment of perfecting its piece de resistance - fried chicken - by making the batter adhere to the bird when it was frozen inside a cardboard container.

"Beef and turkey were relatively easy," she said recently. "Chicken was the problem because everyone compared fried chicken to their mother's, and we couldn't seem to make it that good."

So Cronin carried on with all the enthusiasm a 22-year-old can muster, working 12-hour days for eight months on the sticky problem that would make the frozen product as finger-lickin' good as Mom's.

She ate so much at work that she rarely ate at home, instead taking the dinners to the homes of young friends. Older women, she discovered, enjoyed cooking everything from scratch.

"Some of the early tries were real duds, and I got very strong feelings on them," Cronin said. "But I was very determined. I knew that I would get the batter to stick somehow."

In the 40th-anniversary issue of Frozen Food Age, an industry magazine, charts and graphs show the impact of the TV dinner and usage by nursing homes, hospitals, schools and other institutions.

Brands have come and gone, reflecting the times.

An example is nouvelle cuisine TV dinners, fashionable through the late 1980s and early '90s. They are being phased out as people look to more old-fashioned cooking.

What was to become a way of life was begun around the turn of the 20th century, when Western berry growers found that they could freeze their product and ship it east.

They could never have imagined what it would lead to.

Clarke Swanson was a friend of Clarence Birdseye, who perfected frozen vegetables in the late 1930s. He had been on a fishing trip and froze some of his catch and wondered whether he could do the same with vegetables. He found he could, and Birds Eye frozen vegetables were born.

The TV dinner today has become a part of life that most people rarely think about in an era when takeout and fast-food establishments are a major competitor.

It's sometimes easier to just run to the nearest hamburger stand, call the local pizza parlor or head for a Chinese restaurant.

"It's a bizarre time. As people live longer and longer, it's a hell of a lot easier to just use a TV dinner," says Dr. Marshall Fishwick, professor of communications at Virginia Tech University.

"We can't lament it as a terrible tragedy. Technology often destroys tradition. We're going to have different eating habits. We just have to make the best of it. We can't rejoice in it. It fills a need."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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