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.

The Club

My first exposure to a club sandwich was at the Rexall drug store next to the supermarket, where I worked after school and weekends. One Saturday the lunch counter waitress (yes, back then drug stores had lunch counters), a young hottie with whom I was totally infatuated suggested I buy the “daily special” to help her win the weekly sales contest. That, my friends, was the day I enjoyed my first Turkey Club Sandwich–four wedges of triple-decker sandwich, pinned together with fancy frilled toothpicks, and neatly arranged in a circle on my plate with potato chips piled high in the middle.

I’m not sure what, at the time, gave me the most pleasure: knowing my purchase scored points for me with the cute waitress, or the deliciousness of my first club sandwich. I like to think it was the sandwich because it is still one of my all-time favorites. But as much as I enjoyed eating them, my distain for making club sandwiches is equally strong. In fact it’s this love/hate relationship that has, in over thirty years as a professional chef, prevented me from adding this classic to any of my menus.

One of my first culinary assignments was “pantry chef” (formally called garde manger), the position responsible for salads and cold sandwiches. It was there that I learned to loath everything about making club sandwiches–spreading mayo edge-to-edge on three pieces of freshly toasted bread, slicing the turkey, slicing the tomatoes, making sure the iceberg lettuce was dry but crisp, and of course the bacon. OMG, the bacon! It had to be crisp, but not too crisp or customers complained, and my head chef at the time hated complaints. But I believe the worst part was assembling the sandwich. Not only was it the most time consuming sandwich on the menu (especially when there were ten or twelve other orders at the same time), but if not properly stacked, cutting it into four neat, equally sized quarters was all but impossible and led to ugly plate presentations. And ugly plate presentations brought–you guessed it–customer complaints! So after my fourth month as pantry chef, I guess the chef got tired of hearing complaints and told me to “pack my knives and go.”

“Too few people understand a really good sandwich.” – James Beard

As with many of our foods, there are generally several versions of who, how, and where the dish was created, and the club sandwich is no exception. According to one legend, the sandwich was created in 1894 at the famous Saratoga Club House, a gentlemen’s club in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York. It should be pointed out that the original version of the club sandwich consisted of two slices of buttered white toast, thin slices of chicken, bacon, tomato slices, leaves of iceberg lettuce, and mayonnaise. That’s right, it was not the triple-decker, turkey sandwich we think of today when someone mentions a club sandwich. Those versions came a few years later.

Another popular story about the origin of the club sandwich first appeared in the 1916 book Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing Dish Recipes, by Marion H. Neil. It goes like this: One night a man arrived home very late after an evening of gambling at his club. Being very hungry, but with servants gone and his family tucked in for the night, he decided to prepare something himself. In checking the pantry and ice box he found some bread, butter, and mayonnaise. He also found a few strips of cold broiled bacon, some slices of leftover chicken, and a tomato. So he toasted the bread, added butter, mayonnaise, the bacon, chicken, a slice or two of tomato, topped it with another slice of buttered toast, ate his snack and went to bed. The next evening, he told friends at the club about his new sandwich, they in turn had the club’s cook prepare one for them. They enjoyed it so much it was added to the menu as the Club Sandwich.

The earliest published recipe I can find for “A Club Sandwich” appeared in 1903, on page 224 of the Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book originally compiled by the Good Housekeeping staff.

A Club Sandwich
Toast a slice of bread evenly and lightly and butter it. On one half put, first, a thin slice of bacon which has been broiled till dry and tender, next a slice of the white meat of either turkey or chicken. Over on half of this place a circle cut from a ripe tomato and over the other half a tender leaf of lettuce. Cover these with a generous layer of mayonnaise, and complete this delicious ‘whole meal’ sandwich with the remaining piece of toast. –A. W.

The initials A. W. at the end of the recipe suggests it was submitted to the magazine by one of their readers and helps explain the confusion it imparts to those who try to follow its origin. Still, it demonstrates accurately the components of the sandwich.

At the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the club sandwich gained world-wide popularity with no less than four restaurants including it on their menus–Mrs. McCready’s Restaurant, American Inn, The Old Parliament House, and the Japanese Restaurant within Fair Japan.

While the classic triple-decker club sandwich still maintains a strong foothold within the world of sandwiches, it’s not without its distracters. Today, there are vegetarian clubs, California clubs with avocado, fish clubs with salmon or tuna, roast beef clubs, and even breakfast clubs with eggs. It seems though any sandwich that incorporates bacon qualifies as a club sandwich, even a PB&J.

As a culinarian, I’m totally into naming my sandwiches and other fare names that I feel will set them apart from similar dishes. But for me personally, a club sandwich is three slices of toasted white bread, lots of mayo, thinly sliced turkey breast, crisp bacon, iceberg lettuce leaves, and tomato slices, neatly stacked and cut into four equal pieces skewered with a frilly toothpick. Those other so called clubs are simply sandwiches with added bacon.

That’s the beauty of living in this great country of ours–you are free to make your sandwich any way you like it, and you can even call it a club if that’s what your into.