TV Dinners

How many of you remember TV dinners? While I can certainly remember them, how popular they became, and other innovations they brought to our lives, they were never a big item at our household. Oh don’t get me wrong, my family tried them but their popularity was short-lived in our home. Perhaps it was their size (it took at least two of them to satisfy my father’s hunger), or maybe it was the cost which, although only 98 cents each, severely strained my parents’ very modest food budget. But I think the biggest reason was the limited selection from which to choose. I mean, how many times a week do you want to eat turkey, roast beef, or Salisbury steak?

One of the biggest changes TV dinners brought to our home was the divided aluminum trays, which we were mandated to wash and save so my mom could reuse them to plate her mouthwatering home-cooked meals, meals which we ate off of cheap, rickety folding TV tables, while watching Ozzie and Harriet and I Love Lucy on our 21-inch Magnavox table model television in glorious black and white.

Although it was the Swanson Company of Omaha, Nebraska who coined the name “TV dinner,” they were not, as many people think, the inventor of the frozen meal. Utilizing the freezing technique invented in 1925 by Clarence Birdseye, the first precooked frozen dinners called Strato-Plates were actually developed in 1945 by Maxson Food Systems for the airlines. Unfortunately, William Maxson’s untimely death two years later prevented his company from offering those meals to the American consumer.

Next on the scene was the Bernstein brothers, Albert and Meyer, who in 1949 created Frozen Dinners, Inc. They sold their frozen meals in a custom-made three-compartment metal tray under the One-Eyed Eskimo brand name. Initially the Bernsteins only marketed their brand in the Pittsburg area with 1950 sales of slightly more than 400,000 units. In 1952 the brothers formed Quaker State Food Corporation, expanded their market area, and by 1954 they had sold over 2,500,000 frozen dinners.

Enter the Swanson Company who, with their already well-established brand name, successfully brought frozen meals to homes nationally. On this, food historians agree. They also seem to agree that the creation of these meals was brought about as the solution of what to do with 260 tons of frozen turkeys the company had over-purchased for the 1953 Thanksgiving season—turkeys that were stored in refrigerated railroad cars traveling back and forth across the country to prevent their spoilage. (It seems that refrigerated cars at the time only worked if the cars were moving.)

The controversy associated with the Swanson’s story lies not in the resolution but in exactly who’s idea it was for finding their way out of their turkey dilemma.

For years the accepted story was that Gerry Thomas, a Swanson & Sons salesman, was the brainchild behind the whole idea.  Thomas suggested they fill aluminum trays similar to those used by Pan Am Airways with a turkey dinner complete with cornbread stuffing, gravy, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes. In fact, the story was so popular that Thomas was honored by the American Frozen Food Institute’s “Frozen Food Hall of Fame” as the TV dinner’s creator. He was also credited with coming up with the name “TV dinner.”

Betty Cronin, who at the time was a 21-year old bacteriologist and the Swanson employee charged with figuring out how to reheat the dinners evenly and safely, asserted that it was actually the sons Gilbert and Clarke Swanson who were the inspiration. They then turned to their marketing and advertising teams of which Thomas was part of to develop the name and sales strategy for introducing the product.

Regardless of who was the actual inventor, the fact is that the Swanson TV dinner was an immediate success. Introduced on September 10, 1953 at a price point of only 98 cents each, Swanson’s first year sales exceeded 10 million units, and 25 million the next. 

With such a success, it didn’t take long for Stouffer’s (1946), Banquet, Morton’s, and others to join in with their own versions of pot roast, Salisbury steak, and fried chicken dinners, eventually making the frozen meal industry worth several billion dollars annually.

While the term “TV dinners” went away in the mid-1960s, Swanson remains a prominent player in today’s crowded frozen meal market with its Hungry-Man and Sports Grill line of dinners. And for those who perceive these larger more manly portions of chicken, pork, and beef dinner choices a bit too unhealthy, there is always Lean Cuisine’s “low calorie” dietetic choices.

Another thing that has gone the way of TV dinners is the low price. Today’s frozen meals cost an average of $3 to $4 for a single entree and as much as $10 to $12 for a “family size” dinner.

So next time you don’t feel like cooking dinner, you might consider picking up one of these frozen “delights” to pop into your microwave. Oh, did I forget to mention that today’s frozen meals come in microwavable containers? Yeah, the compartmentalized aluminum tray is no longer available.



America’s Contribution to Mexican Cuisine

Being raised in Texas I’m no stranger to Mexican food, as it’s readily available in just about every town and community, large or small, in the Lone Star state. From school cafeterias to mom and pop cafes, to regional chain restaurants and fast food joints, to food trucks and street carts, the abundance and variety of this popular cuisine is practically endless. From a very early age, my love for these spicy, earthy foods was as pronounced as that for the southern country favorites prepared by my mom.

During my time as a traveling chef for an international senior living company, one of my favorite on-the-road snack food was chimichangas—easy to eat while driving, not too messy, and a nice change from fast food burgers. Like many people, if not most, I always associated this deep-fried burrito as just another Americanized Mexican dish. Then while visiting one of my Arizona communities I was surprised to discover that the chimichanga is actually a hometown invention.

That’s right, the chimichanga is said to have been created not in Mexico but right there in Phoenix, Arizona U.S.A. . . . or, maybe it was Tucson. Then there’s the theory that Chinese immigrants from Baja are actually responsible for their existence. And like so many of our foods in America, exactly where and who invented the chimichanga is totally dependent upon which of these legends you choose to believe.

Legend 1 – Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant

According to family members, in 1946 Woody Johnson was looking for a way to extend the life of some unsold burritos at his first restaurant, El Nido, so he tossed a couple of them into the deep fryer. Wanting an opinion as to the success of this experiment, he gave one of the resulting crispy, golden brown burritos to a customer who immediately proclaimed it so good that he placed an order for the new item. When Johnson opened Macayo’s in 1952 his “fried burro” was prominently included at the top of his menu.

Today, the 14 Macayo’s in Arizona and four in Las Vegas are famous for their many varieties of the original chimichanga. And to celebrate this long-standing chimichanga legend, Macayo’s holds an annual “Chimi-Fiesta,” during which a dollar is donated to the Diamondbacks Foundation for each and every chimichanga sold.

Legend 2 – The El Charro story

As the story is told, in 1922 Monica Flin founded a small Mexican cafe called El Charro on North Court Avenue in Tucson, Arizona. One morning in 1951while preparing bean burritos for dinner service, Flin accidentally dropped one into the deep fryer. Her first reaction was to yell out chingada, a Spanish explicative cognate to the f-word, but because children were in the area, she called out “chimichanga” instead. When she fished out the burrito it turned out to be crispy and delicious, and a new dish was born.

Today El Charro, with five Tucson locations and a USDA-certified food factory, has the honor of being America’s oldest Mexican restaurant continuously owned by the original founder’s family.

Legend 3 – Enter the Chinese

This story comes by the way of Professor Francisco Paz, a geology instructor at the Universidad de Sonora. According to the Professor, chimichangas (or chivichangas as known in that state) were the results of the Mexican wives of Chinese workers trying to recreate Chinese food—namely egg rolls.

This legend becomes a bit more plausible when one considers that the word chimichanga has absolutely no roots in the Spanish language. However the Cantonese phrase “Gee May’s chun geen” (Gee May likely being the name of a food vendor and chun geen, Cantonese for egg roll) when said slowly certainly sounds roughly similar to Chimichangas, especially to the Mexican peoples ear and their tendency toward elision.

Without a doubt these are’t the only players laying claim to having invented the chimichanga. Others include Club 21, Mia Ranchito, and Micha’s, all in Phoenix. And then there are the claimers in Nogales, just across the Sonora-Arizona border—The Chimi Chango bar and La Frontera Restaurant.  But the three most legendary claims are those described above.

So the next time your travels take you to Phoenix or Tucson we hope you’ll have an opportunity to visit one of these restaurants and enjoy a plate of the crispiest, tastiest chimichangas ever to pass between your lips.

And for those unable to make the trip to Arizona, you can take pleasure in knowing that those chimichangas you’re eating just might be as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.