When Frozen Dinners Met the Boob Tube

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Food has always had a close connection to culture. These days, people not only eat vegan, gluten-free or farm-to-table, but they also lead lives consistent with their food choices. Even the obese who subsist on vast amounts of fast food seem to be making a lifestyle statement.

As a relatively young country, America continues to reinvent itself. In the ’50s and early ’60s, while the country was flexing its muscles as a world power, a new driver of social change emerged: television. One by one, American families began purchasing TVs, and the way we received and assimilated information was never again the same.

But first there was the radio. It was the focal point of entertainment in homes, and whole families would gather together to hear news, dramatic presentations and sporting events. It lacked the visual element, of course. That was TV’s real draw.

Around the same time, women began, tentatively, to enter the work force, and they searched for ways to reduce the time they spent on household responsibilities like cooking. Into this perfect storm, a radical new example of Space Age efficiency was introduced: Swanson’s TV Dinner.

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A TV dinner was a frozen meal that time-pressed moms heated in their ovens (this predated microwaves). A full-course meal—including an entrée (my favorite was fried chicken; Salisbury steak was also popular), a vegetable, a starch and a dessert—was served, compartmentalized on an aluminum tray designed to keep each item separated.

The food was, as you can imagine, pretty awful. Frozen and freeze-dried food cannot compete with fresh, but taste was never a TV dinner’s claim to fame. It was fast and easy. And best of all, you’d probably be watching TV while eating. Most homes had several snack tables on hand for that very purpose.

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No longer did families discuss the day’s events at the dinner table. Eating became a much more solitary process, as the TV became our favored guest. It would be decades before we rediscovered great cuisine, and celebrity chefs became rock stars.

I don’t eat this sort of food anymore, but like the TV shows that accompanied them, I recall these dinners with some fondness. Like TV, they were new and modern. Like the throwaway fodder we watched with delight, our TV dinners looked delicious on the packaging, but delivered empty calories and little taste

What was your favorite TV Dinner?

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