Frozen Assets

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When Barbie turned 40 (two days after I did), television was a virtual Barbie-thon, with endless stories about her creation, celebrations of her history and the unveiling of her exciting new future without Ken. Within the last year another legend of the 1950s had a milestone birthday — turning 50 — but strangely, attracted little media fanfare.

In 1954 the TV Dinner was born, an accident of too much supply. According to Fiftiesweb, an executive of Swanson’s was faced with a critical corporate challenge: what to do with 520,000 pounds of leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Reflecting on the trays used in airline service, he put two and two together and the TV Dinner was created. Ten million were sold the next year.

In the intervening years, much has changed about those frozen meals. For one thing, Swanson’s no longer has a corner on the market. For another, they’ve gotten healthier, tastier and even more ethnic. But what hasn’t changed is that they’re still incredibly convenient, and often economical, which makes them perfect for the single person who can’t — or won’t — cook. Of course, knowing which ones to buy and which ones to pass by is the challenge.

That’s where The Single Man’s Guide to TV Dinners comes in. The Guide is an online resource for reviews of frozen entrees. It’s one of the few places in culinary circles where “cheesiness” is a prized adjective and “scrump-diddly-iscious” is the highest praise possible. The rating system — a range of smiley faces from ultra-satisfied to ready-to-puke — does leave something to be desired, however. That Wolfgang Puck’s Hand-Made Pizza is dismissed as merely average while Hot Pockets Pizza Snacks draw a rave is nothing less than a travesty.

The iconic status of the TV Dinner got a boost in 1997 when its famed tray — along with handprints of a Swanson salesman — was placed in the cement outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre. In 1999 the tray got its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If the luminaries of American Idol can earn a place on The Walk, why not an aluminum tray?

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