Saturday, September 10, 2016

Recalling the Introduction of an Iconic Food Product

The food humans devoured throughout history varies depending on where people lived, an area’s plants and animals, climate, and cooking tools. Our cave-sheltered forebears would not recognize most of the items displayed on supermarket shelves today, nor have any idea what to do with the preponderance of kitchen appliances.

More recent ancestors could probably identify much of the food we consume, but our foremothers spent a lot of time preparing meals. Technological innovations introduced over the past couple of hundred years shortcut the process.

Mass-produced fare began appearing during the 19th century…breakfast cereal in 1863…Philadelphia cream cheese and graham crackers in 1872…Heinz ketchup in 1876…peanut butter in 1895…elbow macaroni and ice cream sandwiches in 1900… sliced bread in the 1920s… 

During the first half of the 20th century a stream of firsts made kitchen work easier: the toaster in 1908…electric range in 1910…refrigerators in 1911…Pyrex baking dishes in 1915…electric mixer in 1937… Unfortunately many families could not afford these conveniences during the Depression and war years.  

By the middle of the 20th century America was recovering from years of Depression and war. Soldiers came home, married their sweethearts and begat the baby boomer generation. The economy picked up steam. Women entered the work force in increasing numbers. Manufacturers produced a deluge of products heralding a consumer-buying craze unabated today targeting stressed homemakers.

One momentous event in the development of America’s food lifestyle occurred with the introduction on September 10, 1953, of:

Swanson TV Dinners
Cost: 98 cents ($8.86 in 2016 dollars)

The post-war era also ushered in a golden age of marketers and advertising. Swanson boxed the dinners in a colorful package resembling a TV screen. The first meal consisted of turkey with stuffing, peas and sweet potatoes. TV dinners catapulted to icon status and embodied quintessential Americana. Without the television tie-in, I doubt the product would have caught on and become an American staple so quickly. (Swanson Radio Dinners?)


TV dinners initially seemed revolutionary and wonderful. In hindsight the event was not a positive development for Americans (in my humble opinion), not good for our health, our bodies, our diets. Pre-packaged, mass-produced foods changed (not in good ways) the way we eat, what we eat, when we eat, and how we prepare the food we eat.

Commercial frozen dinners symbolize undesirable aspects of American life: poor food quality, processed food, too much salt, sugar and preservatives, fast foods, express eating, solo dining, minimal family contact and communication…

The quality of the product may have improved in recent years, but there are always better alternatives, unless an individual finds oneself holed up in a frozen, barren wasteland, the only nutrition a supply of mass-produced frozen foods. In that case, my suggestion is eat dessert first. The calories will help keep you warm.