Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How about a TV Dinner?

Why do they call them TV Dinners?
Because they taste like eating a television?
Isn’t it amazing what one invention can do? I’m speaking today of the television. Not only was its creation responsible for all of the television shows we watched — and all the commercials — without the television there would be several things we just wouldn’t have today.

We wouldn’t have a TV Guide. We wouldn’t need a TV tray. And we might never have had the experience of enjoying a TV Dinner. Oh, boy. And that’s what we’re going to talk about here today.

As anyone who grew up in the fifties knows, a TV Dinner is a prepackaged, frozen or chilled meal which usually comes in an individual package. It requires very little preparation and contains all the elements for a single-serving meal. And they certainly made Mom’s life a lot easier back in the fifties. But where did it come from (of course it came from the grocery store, but I mean how did it get there?)

We’re going to have to hop in the Wayback Machine again and let Max set the dial for 1953. That’s the year C.A. Swanson and son’t originally developed the product we all came to love (sort of).

They were first called TV Brand Frozen Dinner. The original TV Dinner came in an aluminium tray and was heated in an oven. The first Swanson-brand TV Dinner was produced in the United States and consisted of a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes packaged in a tray like those used at the time for airline food service.

Each item was placed in its own compartment. The trays proved to be useful: the entire dinner could be removed from the outer packaging as a unit; the aluminum tray could be heated directly in the oven without any extra dishes; and one could eat the meal directly out of the same tray.

The product was cooked for 25 minutes at 425°F and fit nicely on a TV tray. The original TV Dinner sold for 98 cents, and had a production estimate of 5,000 dinners for the first year. Swanson far exceeded its expectations, and ended up selling more than 10 million of these dinners in the first year of production. Their early packaging featured the image of a TV set.

The identity of the TV Dinner's inventor has been disputed. In one account, first publicized in 1996, retired Swanson executive Gerry Thomas said he conceived the idea after the company found itself with a huge surplus of frozen turkeys because of poor Thanksgiving sales. Thomas' version of events has been challenged by the Los Angeles Times, members of the Swanson family and former Swanson employees. They credit the Swanson brothers with the invention.

Either way, Swanson's concept was not original. In 1944, William L. Maxson's frozen dinners were being served on airplanes. Other prepackaged meals were also marketed before Swanson's TV Dinner. In 1948, plain frozen fruits and vegetables were joined by what were then called 'dinner plates' with an entrée, potato, and vegetable.

Later, in 1952, the first frozen dinners on oven-ready aluminum trays were introduced by Quaker States Foods under the One-Eye Eskimo label. (How politically correct is that image today?) Quaker States Foods was joined by other companies including Frigi-Dinner, which offered such fare as beef stew with corn and peas, veal goulash with peas and potatoes, and chicken chow mein with egg rolls and fried rice. (Oh, yummy.)

However Swanson, a large producer of canned and frozen poultry in Omaha, Nebraska, was able to promote the widespread sales and adaption of frozen dinner by using its nationally-recognized brand name with an extensive national marketing campaign nicknamed "Operation Smash" and the clever advertising name of "TV Dinner," which tapped into the public's excitement around the new device.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fish Fry

It's Sunday evening and I'm remembering once again those Sunday evenings of long ago. I want to take you back to the summer of 1957. I was nine years old at the time. I can remember going to bed on Saturday night, right after my dad told me we were going fishing in the morning. The events that follow could have been from any one of many occasions, because my dad and I fished a great deal when I was a boy.

I sometimes wished he hadn't told me what was in store because after hearing the news, I had a terrible time getting to sleep. The excitement was rushing through my body like electricity. But I finally drifted off.

What seemed like only a moment later I awoke to the unmistakable smell of hickory smoked bacon. If you're not aware of this, let me explain it. The smell of bacon can find its way from the kitchen, all the way down the hall, and into the nose of a nine-year old. Unlike light rays, the aroma of bacon can turn corners.

It was still dark outside as I got dressed and scurried down the hall toward the kitchen. I can still see the vision of my dad as I rounded the corner. He was standing there with his coffee cup in one hand, and wearing khaki pants and a white t-shirt. There was a Camel cigarette sitting in the ashtray next to the stove, and he was tending the bacon in the skillet as it sizzled.

On a "fishing morning" he would let me have a little coffee with sugar and milk in it, and I thought that was great. Just us two men of the house drinking our coffee (from a real percolator!) and talking about how many fish we hunter-gatherers were going to bring home that day. He would always ask me to look outside and see which way the wind was blowing.

My dad was meteorologist during World War II with the Flying Tigers. Being a meteorologist, he had a thing about weather, obviously. And he told me that fishing success was directly related to weather. He said, "If the wind's in the east, the fish bite the least. If the wind's in the west, the fish bite the best. But if the wind's in the north, don't venture forth. And when the wind's in the south, why, it blows your bait right in the fish's mouth." Over the years that we fished together, that theory proved true on more than one occasion.

After we ate breakfast he made us a couple of sandwiches, wrapped them with waxed paper (we didn't have sandwich bags back then. I missed an opportunity to invent those.) We started loading our gear into the tan Ford pickup. My dad carried the heavy stuff from the garage, and I carried a few rods. (I was only nine, okay?) In a few moments we were off and heading to Allin's Bait Shop in downtown Independence.

The visit to Allin's never varied. There was a bell beside the front door. My dad punched it a couple times to wake Jerry Allin up. A few moments later a sleepy-eyed proprietor opened the door to let us in. Remember, it's still dark outside.

Now, if you've never been inside a live bait and tackle store, there's something I should explain. There are smells in there, and they hit you as soon as you enter. The large tanks holding the minnows act like humidifiers and fill the air with a heaviness that smells a bit like fish. Since Jerry's son was a taxidermist, there were always some dead creatures in the other room that were exuding their own aroma. It all got mixed together and produced an ambiance that only guys would enjoy. And that's probably more than you wanted to know about that.

Aside from from tackle box re-stocking items like split-shot, hooks, and bobbers, my dad usually got two dozen minnows and a can of red wigglers (worms). He was a live-bait fisherman. I preferred the plastic worms so I could catch bass.

I could drag this story out a lot longer, and there were many occasions that would provide a story in themselves, but I'll condense it and say that we always came home with fish. My dad was a great fisherman, and I learned a lot from him.

So, on Sunday evening, the Broadway family gathered around the table to eat the catch of the day. There were always bluegill (big ones, which my dad caught) a few crappie (usually an accident), and maybe a small bass or two (which I generally caught).

Next to the fish platter you could find another big platter of fried potatoes. There was a big bowl filled with salad and a bottle of Good Season's (make it yourself in the jar) salad dressing. I wonder if that brand is still around. And sweet iced tea. My parents were from Tennessee, and I don't think you can get unsweetened tea down there unless you special order it.

I didn't have any trouble at all going to sleep Sunday night.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Meet the Nelsons

Click on the Fifties Video at the right because you’re going to want to listen as you read. We’re taking a trip in the Wayback Machine and heading for October 10, 1952.

(Hey! That’s next week — 57 years later.)

That was the very day we first met the Nelson family in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The series starred Ozzie and his wife Harriet. It also included their two young sons, David and Eric, better known as Ricky. The audience for this program was a large one because the Nelson quickly became synonymous with the ideal American family of the 1950s. In fact, it is the longest-running non-animated sitcom in US television history.

What few people realize is, although Ozzie was portrayed as a bit of dim bulb (did he even have a job?) he was no slouch when it came to business. Before the show aired, he persuaded ABC to agree to a 10-year contract that paid whether the series was canceled or not. This was unprecedented in television history, but Ozzie prevailed and got what he asked for, including his insistence for perfection in the show’s production.

The show was extremely popular and remained on the air continually until September 3, 1966. It strove for realism and featured exterior shots of the Nelsons' actual southern California home as the fictional Nelsons' home. Interior shots were filmed on a sound stage which had been created to look like the real interior of the Nelsons' home.

Like its radio predecessor, the series focused mainly on the Nelson family at home, dealing with run-of-the-mill problems. As the series progressed and the boys grew up, storylines involving various characters were introduced. Many of the series storylines were taken from the Nelsons' real life. When the real David and Rick got married, to June Blair and Kristin Harmon respectively, their wives joined the cast of Ozzie and Harriet, and the marriages were written into the series.

By the mid 1960s, America's social climate was changing, and the Nelsons' all American nuclear family epitomized the 1950s values and ideals that were quickly becoming a thing of the past. Ozzie, who wrote and directed all of the series' episodes, attempted to change with the times, but most viewers related the show to a long gone era.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Psycho - with Alfred Hitchcock

TCM is featuring scary movies this month. Psycho is one of them. This is a great video with Alfred Hitchcock giving us a tour of the Psycho set, including the motel and the house. It's very Hitchcock-ish. I think you'll enjoy it.