Pot pies, Patriot Act, and the myth of TV dinners

See the above pic? It’s from some Raleigh North Carolina exhibit, dated 1952 and it is testament to two things. First, it testifies to the fact that people were already eating TV dinners before they came in foil trays. Second, collapsible TV trays existed before foil-packed TV dinners.

Had the picture been taken a year later then the family would have been eating out of foil tins at the table, For it was in 1953 that the TV dinner was invented, and Skookum sends notice that the inventor of the TV dinner has passed on at the age of 83, of cancer, which we can’t blame on the TV dinners because it turns out he was a gourmet cook and never ate them.

If I gave half a damn I’d go out and buy a TV dinner in memoriam of Gerry Thomas,who figured out what to do with 520,000 pounds of unsold Swanson Thanksgiving turkeys that, as there wasn’t room in the Swanson storehouses for them, were stranded in an American twilight zone of refrigerated railroad cars, going from west to east coast and back again.

Gerry has been saddled with the blame of ruining the dinner hour for everyone.

A Swanson salesman, Thomas thought he had a clever way to get rid of 520,000 pounds of unsold turkeys following the post-Thanksgiving lull of 1952. On one of his sales calls, Thomas noticed that his customer was shipping boxes of foil-wrapped aluminum trays to Pan American Airlines, which was experimenting with ways to serve hot meals to its passengers. On his flight home, Thomas designed his own three-segment version of the tray, and talked the Swanson brothers into setting up an assembly line (two dozen women armed with ice cream scoops) to plop turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and peas into 8,000 trays.

The next year, Swanson sold 13 million of them at 98 cents each.

Thomas, and Swanson, had unknowingly caught several converging waves. In 1953, more married women and married women with young children were employed outside the home than in any year in American history, including during World War II (part of a trend that has not abated since). Thus, the need for speed in the kitchen.

But the real breakthrough was the name Thomas bestowed on his brainchild. At the time, just 10 percent of households had TV sets, though it’s probable that the other 90 percent wanted one. In 1998, upon being inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame (if you go, check out the fabulous Flavorless Peas exhibit!), Thomas said one of his motivations was to link eating and TV. “Anything that was connected with TV was like anything connected today with . . . personal computers,” he said. “That’s cool. You’re with it if you’re into that. That’s what TV was.” Swanson cleverly designed the package to look like a TV screen.

Source: Washington Post

As the image from 1952 proves, before Gerry, families and dinner guests used to participate in scintillating table conversation packed full with nutritious philosophical discussion, political debate and high-cultured, poetic, reflections on the nature of life and the universe. Consequently, their brains, well-exercised like any muscle (the brain is a muscle, isn’t it) were bigger and better able to solve complex problems.

TV Dinners created another (albeit more prosaic) kind of “freedom” — relief from hours spent in the kitchen. Women could work outside the home, because food processing technology had foreshortened some of their traditional responsibilities. (How many men and children arrived home at night to find a handwritten note reading, “Left dinner in the freezer. Just warm it up. Love, Mom”?)

Thanks to such “convenience,” more moms had more time on their hands, and fewer were late to their consciousness-raising meetings. Moms left TV Dinners behind, and Dads cooked them, and this had a way of adding to the popular mythology of male culinary ineptitude. The meal was never really served until Dad had burned his hands on it and screamed profanities at it.

And yet the TV Dinner preceded something darker still in family dynamics. Thanks to the TV Dinner (and its accessory, the TV tray), the household center of gravity moved from the dining room to the “family room” or den, or wherever the television was regally ensconced. Every member of the family could now sit simultaneously on the sofa, eat dinner and watch a program. In addition to encouraging sloth, the family TV meal discouraged interaction. Mealtime conversation ceased (or was slipped in during commercials), and a disastrous sort of quietude prevailed.

Source: Washington Post

Though I had the taste-buds to recognize they were bad food, TV dinners were still a special treat. Because of the packaging. The aluminum tray which added its sharp metallic seasoning to the meal. TV dinners were a weird kind of souvenir food for Domestic Tourists checking out the novel air of Modern Life. 45 minutes from grocery sack to table, they were no quicker than a lot of home-cooked meals–and it’s not as if freezing food for later, canned food, the soup pot and sandwich didn’t already exist. They were expensive, comparatively. But they sold like crazy in their television set packaging, perhaps satisfying desires for the ultimate consumer interaction where you can just reach into your television set and extract the object of your desire.

The Washington Post points out that when TV dinners were introduced only ten percent of households had a television so the buying public wasn’t eating them in front of the tube. Then in the 60s when most homes had a television, I wonder how many Boomers remember eating TV dinners in front of the set, because we never ate a single TV dinner in front of the television. We always had ours at the dinner table because, as in many houses, the living room carpet and the sofa were sacred articles not to be flavored with spilled peas and gravy, and because, yes, there was still the notion of dinner as a communal event.

Our dinner conversations ran the gamut from, “You’re not leaving the table until you eat your peas,” to, “You’re not leaving the table until you have at least one bite of your broccoli. It won’t kill you to eat a bite of broccoli.”

My husband, born in 1955, says his family always had their TV dinners at the dinner table. I ask him what his family used to talk about at the table when he was a child and he says he can’t remember.

Does anyone remember being told not to talk because their dinner was getting cold?

TV dinners, in most homes (or at least my home, my husband’s home, and the homes of my childhood friends) weren’t for eating in front of the television. And they weren’t fast food. And they weren’t good food.

But maybe our households were the exception of the 60s and 70s and many dinner tables were lively with conversation on world events or national events like the House voting 257 to 171 to make permanent 14 of the provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire and extend two others for a decade, Sensenbreener arguing that while the law has, “helped avert additional attacks on our soil, the threat has not abated,” and Republicans giving the London bombings as evidence for why civil liberties must be foregone in order to protect our freedoms. Something like that.

At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee said yea to a bill that modifies the Patriot Act, placing new restrictions on secret searches and surveillance in terror probes and requiring greater oversight of the Justice Department. People would be able to challenge warrents and subjects of secret searches would have to be notified within seven days (after the fact) unless an extension is approved by a judge. It’s anyone’s guess how this will be reconcilled with a bill passed last month, by the Senate Intelligence Committee, that broadens government powers, allowing the FBI to use its own discretion in monitoring mail of “some terrorism” suspects and permitting them to demand records in terrorism investigations (don’t forget that qualifier) without a judge’s order.

Back in the House,

…critics of the law did not back down, charging that Republican leaders on the House Rules Committee had stifled debate by refusing to allow the full House to consider amendments that would have prevented the government from demanding library and bookstore records and would have forced a reconsideration of some surveillance provisions in 4 years instead of 10.

The provision preventing the government from reviewing library records passed the full House by a wide margin last month as an amendment to an appropriations bill, but the rules committee did not allow it to be considered Thursday. Representative Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who wrote the provision, said the committee’s refusal to bring the issue to a vote was “an outrageous abuse of power.”

Even some Republicans were alarmed by the exclusion of many amendments.

Representative C. L. Otter of Idaho said the action amounted to a “gag rule” that prevented a full debate on needed restrictions in the law. “I’m embarrassed to be on this side of the aisle,” Mr. Otter said.

Source: NY Times “House Beats Back Challenges to Patriot Act”

I would be too.

And I’m tired of thinking about TV dinners, which we rarely ate when I was a child. We did have frozen pot pies once a week but those, though frozen and out of a box and in an alumium pan, weren’t TV dinners.

There was a difference. They were never advertized as TV dinners.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

8 thoughts on “Pot pies, Patriot Act, and the myth of TV dinners”

  1. Mmmmmmm. Chicken pot pies. Must get some soon.

    When I was a kid, TV trays were all the rage for gift-giving. In our house – and, no doubt, in many others – they stood like ready soldiers in a closet, untouched. Besides the fact that eating dinner while watching TV was considered “tacky” by my mother, no one really wanted to hunch over the damn things anyway.

  2. I liked the crust of the pies and was disappointed when we would have the kind that didn’t have a bottom crust.

    Weren’t TV trays awful for eating? I’ve tried it, don’t remember when, or I wouldn’t remember how uncomfortable they are, and rickety feeling so your feel wary throughout the meal. Sitting on the floor and using the coffee table is definitely preferred. But sitting on the floor and dining at the coffee table would never have occurred to us when I was a kid.

    We never gave TV trays as a gift and we never received them.

  3. TV dinners to my sisters and I were associated with nights our parents went out dancing, and so–along with beans and franks–became synonymous with improvised partying, which for us consisted of following up our Swanson’s snack (vegetables scuttled) with mass quantities of ice cream consumed from under blankets outdoors where we recreated a drive-in movie ambience by putting the TV in the doorway facing out. TV trays with wheels enabled us to pass entire browsing platters around without getting up in the middle of Gunsmoke.

  4. I remember some place called maybe the Starlite between Pasco and Richland? A dance/club? Were there neon stars? Was fascinated by it and always wondered what it looked like inside.

  5. I loved the fish fillets and mashed potaoes. Also, the yummy cherry pie that had to be uncovered. We didn’t have a microwave. They were baked in the oven. We didn’t have color TV until the late 70’s or 80’s.

    I didn’t give a damn about sodium content. I didn’t give a damn about exercise. I just ran out and played all day….and “Swanson’s was the next best thing to your good cooking. Swanson makes it good.” LOL

  6. We never gave TV trays as a gift and we never received them.

    How unfortunate. Try not to harbor too much regret for the missed opportunities.

    I suspect the only reason we would’ve given them as gifts is because they were probably easy to obtain by way of S&H Green Stamps.

    When I was teenager, I worked as a courier for a drugstore and delivered to a lot of elderly people, many of who used them as stands for crafts & hobbies, or just handy junk accumulators. They were especially great for teetering.

  7. Oh yes, green stamps. My mother collected those for a while.

    My grandparents used TV trays as holders for smokes, drinks and chips during their weekly Bridge games.

  8. Steve – we do eat not “Tv dinner” fish fillets but just plain frozen. We didn’t eat them until H.o.p. was around 3. There were a lot of foods we didn’t eat ever until H.o.p. was 3.

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