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The frozen TV dinner is the result of decades of technological advancements and helped end outdated gender roles. Yeah, you read that right.

From frozen Thanksgiving dinners to scorching hot brownies, the TV dinner is the pinnacle of convenience food. But who came up with the idea of putting an entire frozen meal on a tray?

Food History is a new series from Mental Floss where we dive deep into the culinary stories that lead to the food on our plates. If you have an idea for a dish, cooking technique, or cuisine that you’d like us to explore in a future episode, tell us in the comments.


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The first TV dinner may have been one of  the smartest uses of Thanksgiving leftovers of all time.

According to former Swanson  employee Gerry Thomas, the frozen food company had about 520,000 pounds of surplus turkey after the holiday in 1952. They stored the meat on refrigerated rail cars while they desperately brainstormed ways to salvage it.

The winning idea reportedly came from Thomas. On a business trip, he noticed a fancy metal tray that airlines were just starting to  use to serve warm meals on flights. This got him thinking—what if he brought the same technology to home kitchens?

Two years later, Swanson’s Thanksgiving-dinner-in-a-box hit  grocery stores. The meal consisted of turkey, gravy, buttered peas, sweet potatoes, and  cornbread dressing in a segmented, heat-proof tray. [music] Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History.

Gerry Thomas’s account makes for a great story, but its legitimacy is debatable, to say the least. In the early 2000s, The Los Angeles Times reported that several insiders, including former Swanson employees and descendants of the company’s founder, didn’t agree with Thomas’s version of  events. Former employees said the company had eight stories of freezer space that could have held the turkeys, making refrigerated trains unnecessary.

Thomas admitted that he may have  misremembered some details, but he stood behind his basic narrative until his death in 2005. It turns out the history of the TV dinner isn’t as simple as pressing a few buttons on a microwave. To get the story straight, let’s jump back to the early 20th century.

While inventions like cars  and planes were changing how people got around, high-tech appliances were transforming life inside the home. One of the most important domestic innovations of this era was the refrigerator. Prior to the 1920s, ice boxes were thought of as the cutting-edge of home refrigeration.

These wood cabinets were insulated, allowing them to keep large blocks of ice frozen for long periods of  time. The ice kept any food in the box chilled and preserved, which was revolutionary for households. Before ice boxes started becoming common in the mid-19th century, fresh foods had to be pickled,  cured, canned, or eaten before they went bad.

There were earlier innovations in refrigeration, like the yakhchāls of ancient Persia, which we covered in our episode on culinary inventions—but iceboxes were a game-changer. That said, they weren't perfect. The ice blocks had to be replenished about once a week, and a drip dish that collected melt water had to be emptied regularly.

The refrigeration industry really  heated up—or, um, cooled down—in the late 1920s. Companies like Frigidaire and Kelvinator (sidenote: great nickname for my buddy Kelvin) had originally come out of the automobile industry and started working on home refrigeration. In 1927, GE introduced its monitor-top fridge, which combined a cool air compressor and a cold box into one appliance.

It wasn’t the first such refrigerator; GE even (passive-aggressively, in my opinion) bragged, “We did not … go into production until the research had been finished.” But with its simplicity of  installation and quickly-found popularity, you can think of the monitor-top fridge occupying  the same role in refrigeration that iPods did in the world of mp3 players: not the first in, but a big deal, nonetheless. Its success paved the way for even more changes. In 1928, scientists from DuPont, General Motors, and Frigidaire worked together to invent Freon, a trademarked name for  the refrigerants used to keep the units cool.

Basically, your standard refrigerator generates cold air by condensing a gas into a liquid, evaporating it, and repeating the process. Older compressors used toxic gases like methyl chloride, which could potentially leak and poison members of the household. Not cool.

Well, OK, technically, cool, but not—you know what I mean. Freon was the first refrigerant that  was both non-toxic and effective. (It was also effective at depleting the earth’s ozone layer, incidentally, so the classic formulation has since been replaced.)

Eight percent of American households owned a refrigerator at the start of the 1930s. By 1944, that number rose to 85 percent.

In the late 1940s, freezers were introduced  to the home, which allowed consumers to preserve their food even longer. The refrigeration revolution did more than reduce food waste. Fridges and freezers  were among several inventions often credited with helping liberate women from the domestic  sphere.

Before the appliances went mainstream, female heads of household had to devote  many hours each week to either growing food, preserving it, or taking trips to the market  to ensure their kitchens were well-stocked. All the time the fridge saved freed up women to  pursue activities outside the home. According to a 2008 analysis, the number of employed  married women jumped from five percent in 1900 to 51 percent in 1980.

Numerous factors  contributed to this cultural shift, but many experts cite new domestic  technology as a major catalyst. Swanson was one of many food companies  that benefited from the refrigeration boom. In 1899, Swedish immigrant Carl Swanson got  his start selling wholesale groceries in Omaha,  .

Nebraska. The business transitioned to food  processing in the 1920s, and Swanson became one of the biggest names in the industry. Following Carl  Swanson’s death in 1949, his sons Gilbert C. and W.

Clarke took over the business, and they began  experimenting with pre-made frozen dinners. Swanson’s frozen chicken pot pie  hit the freezer section in 1951, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The  product took full advantage of the modern kitchen while meeting the customer’s growing desire to  make a home cooked meal without spending a ton of time and effort.

Three years later, Swanson’s  TV dinner took this concept to the next level. The idea to package frozen food in trays didn't  come from Swanson, though. The first complete meal of this kind was produced by Maxson Food  Systems, Inc. back in 1944.

Like the TV dinner, Maxson's Strato-Plates served different components  of a meal in separate compartments of the same heat-proof vessel. But instead of people's homes,  this product was consumed in airplanes. Maxson tried to commercialize the product as “‘Sky-Plate’  cooked meat dinners,” but they never took off (pun could not be more intended).

It was just  too expensive and too hard to manufacture. The challenge was taken over by other  manufacturers. Brothers Albert and Meyer Bernstein started selling frozen meals in aluminum trays  in 1949, to great success: They sold more than 2.5 million dinners in five years.

So no, Swanson  wasn’t exactly a pioneer when it came to selling frozen food in compartmented trays, but the  company did make a clever branding decision that set their product apart: adding TV to the name. Around the same time that domestic appliances were freeing women from some of the responsibilities  of the kitchen, the television was compelling people to spend more time in their living rooms. Black-and-white TVs were adopted more quickly than any other device of the era.

The number  of sets in the U. S. grew 2000-fold in just five years following World War II. By 1955, half  of all homes in the country owned a television.

At this point, stations were only airing a few  hours of new programming a day, and Americans made time to watch it. Unlike the quality  content on the Mental Floss YouTube channel, these shows weren’t available whenever the  viewers were. Primetime was after school and work—a.k.a. the time traditionally spent in  the kitchen and around the dining table.

People still needed to eat, but their old schedule  no longer fit into their new lifestyle. Enter Swanson’s TV dinner. The meal came in a  special aluminum tray that could go directly from the freezer to the oven to the table to the  trash.

Like every other part of the Swanson story, the details around its name are disputed, but  Gerry Thomas claims he chose the name because TVs were a hot household commodity, and he thought  the dinners could piggy-back off the glow. It’d be like if a company today decided  to market frozen TikTok burritos, and oh god, now that I’ve said it it’s only  a matter of time before it comes into being. I'm so sorry for what I've created.

Whatever the origin of the name, TV  dinners were a hit: In the product’s first year, Swanson sold millions. Transforming the way Americans eat wasn’t a piece of cake, though—or a piece of  frighteningly hot brownie. Cooking a starch, meat, sauce, and vegetable together in the  same tray posed numerous logistical challenges.

Betty Cronin was tasked with solving them. She joined Swanson as a bacteriologist in 1953 and she was quickly promoted to  director of product development. She figured out the method for cooking multiple  frozen components for the same length of time now known as synchronization.

It involved cooking  the various foods separately before freezing them and making sure the different portion sizes were  just right. In addition to making the precooked frozen food taste as good as possible, she  also ensured it wouldn’t make consumers sick. Like refrigerators, TV dinners were credited with  reducing the time women spent in the kitchen.

The food item was also similar in that it  was generally more appreciated by women than men. In a 1999 interview, Gerry Thomas  recalled receiving hate mail from men who wanted their wives to make home-cooked meals like their  mothers used to make. He told AP, “Women got used to the idea of freedom that men always had.” The idea that quick frozen dinners are inferior to fresh meals still persists today.

Part of that comes from the myth that freezing food lowers its nutritional value. While it is  true that food tends to be most nutritious when it's at its freshest, there are still plenty  of vitamins and minerals in your frozen meal. Veggies that were frozen right after they  were harvested may be even more nutritious than produce that's been sitting in your fridge  for several days.

Of course, pre-prepared frozen meals tend to be higher in added fat, salt, and  sugar than what you'd find at the farmer's market. So while the TV dinner may be the greatest  convenience food of the last century, it didn’t do much for the country’s collective health. TV dinners underwent a few more innovations in the following decades.

Desserts got  their own tray compartments in the 1960s, and in the 1980s, manufacturers introduced  containers that were safe for microwaves. You also won’t see the name “TV dinner” on  packages any more. That’s because the makers want consumers to eat the meal in any room at any  time of day.

Despite these changes, the concept of a full meal in one convenient, partitioned  tray hasn’t changed much in the past 70 years. So next time you eat a Salisbury steak and  a brownie that tastes a little like green beans out of the same tray while watching  The Bachelor, thank Gerry Thomas. Or maybe Gilbert and Clarke Swanson.

According to Betty  Cronin, Carl Swanson’s sons were the ones who first had the idea to sell a frozen meal in  a tray. Today, the Library of Congress cites both Thomas and the Swansons as inventors. No matter who we attribute the TV dinner to, we should remember that the technology of the  mid-20th century deserves a lot of the credit.

And, really, wait five minutes before biting  into that brownie. It’s not worth the pain. Our next episode is all about jello  salad.

And yes, I am being forced to eat several varieties of nightmarish, jiggly,  neon-colored concoctions on camera. It’s gonna be… great. Make sure to subscribe  so you don’t miss it, thanks for watching.