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TV Dinners: From Thanksgiving Turkey to Chicken Tikka Masala

Quote for Today:  Now I know what a TV Dinner feels like.  Bruce Willis, Die Hard

Today is National TV Dinner Day. I thought it was National Avocados have a Pit Day, but I was wrong. One website claimed it was “National Take the Wrapper Off the Cheese Day,” dedicated to the genius that perfected the Grilled Cheese Sandwich in America. But for our purposes, we will stick with TV Dinners.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Maxson Food Systems had produced a complete frozen meal by 1945. Their basic meat, potato and vegetable dinners were packed in a plastic container with separate compartments called “Strato-Plates.” The Maxson product targeted air travel both military and commercial. The death of its founder prohibited Maxson from hitting the retail market.

In 1949, the Bernstein Brothers, Albert and Meyer, came up with Frozen Dinners, Inc. They sold the same type of dinner as Maxson on aluminum trays. The Brothers marketed the dinners in and around the Pittsburgh area under the One-Eyed Eskimo label. By 1950 they had sold 400,000 units. As demand grew they expanded to other markets East of the Mississippi River. By 1954 their newly formed company, Quaker State Foods, had sold more than 2.5 million frozen dinners.

The popularity of this original “Mother’s Little Helper” really took off when C. A. Swanson & Sons entered the frozen dinner market in 1953. Swanson had the luxury of being a household name with a large advertising budget. How Swanson got into the frozen dinner game is a story that has quite a few versions, here is one of them.

Swanson TV Dinner Ad

Carl Swanson passed away in 1949. His two sons, Gilbert and Clarke, took over the company and made some changes. Within a year they introduced a frozen Chicken Pot Pie. Using technology acquired from Clarence Birdseye, their pie’s crust turned out very tasty after thirty or so minutes in the oven.

Pan-AmIn 1952, the Swanson’s overestimated their frozen turkey sales for the Holiday season. A miscalculation is being kind, the brothers found themselves with 250 tons of birds with no freezers to keep them in. Challenging their employees to help them come up with a solution to this problem, salesman Gerry Thomas rose to the occasion. As luck would have it, Mr. Thomas just happened to be in Pan American Airlines kitchen as they were testing a new single compartment foil tray housing meals to be re-heated on flights. On his flight home, Gerry came up with a sketch of a three compartment tray to show the Swanson’s. This lead to his idea of serving a frozen Thanksgiving dinner in trays.

Swanson TV Dinner

With 33 million newfangled televisions capturing American’s attention, the Swanson’s advertising group created a TV Dinner campaign. Their first products came packaged in a box designed to look like a television, complete with volume controls. The company originally projected sales of 5,000 units in their first year. By the end of the first year, 10 million dinners had been sold. After six years at the helm, Gilbert and Clarke merged with the Campbell Soup Company. I have a sneaky suspicion they also pocketed a dollar or two. On the same note, does anyone know how much the first Swanson TV Dinner cost? Let us know.

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