July 21, 2005

Unwrap Zap Eat Farewell

  • A great man died yesterday. (No, not Scotty from Star Trek) Gerry Thomas, the inventor of the TV dinner passed away at the age of 83. I used to love television dinners when I was a kid. I craved the structure that was lacking during those chaotic nights of fighting over the usual family fare. With the TV dinner, there was no need to compete for the last drumstick or that extra helping of potatoes. What was mine was on my aluminum tray. The regimental structure of compartmental cuisine delighted me. Even better, if I wanted lasagna, I could have lasagna. Even if my brother wanted chicken and my father desired ham.

    I desperately sought order in my childhood and if peeling a thick skin from my gravied meatloaf while savoring the rubbery texture of sequestered green beans (both within the confines of an adroit tin-foil tray) rewarded me only a fleeting taste of such foodie formality, then so be it. The following is copied from the AP Wire detailing this great inventor's life and passing. God's speed good frozen cuisine maestro, God's speed:

    Thomas, who died Monday after a bout with cancer, was a salesman for Omaha, Neb.-based C.A. Swanson and Sons in 1954 when he got the idea of packaging frozen meals in a foil tray, divided into compartments to keep the foods from mixing.

    The first Swanson TV Dinner -- turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas -- sold for about $1 and could be cooked in 25 minutes at 425 degrees. Ten million sold in the first year of national distribution.

    "It's a pleasure being identified as the person who did this because it changed the way people live," Thomas said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "It's part of the fabric of our society."

    He recalled that the inspiration came when he was visiting a distributor, spotted a metal tray and was told it was developed for an experiment in the preparation of hot meals on airliners. "It was just a single compartment tray with foil," he recalled. "I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."

    He said he came up with a three-compartment tray because "I spent five years in the service so I knew what a mess kit was. You could never tell what you were eating because it was all mixed together."

    Since interest in television was booming, he added: "I figured if you could borrow from that, maybe you could get some attention. I think the name made all the difference in the world. We had the TV screen and the knobs pictured on the package. That was the real start of marketing," Thomas said.

    The Swanson TV Dinner drew "hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did," Thomas said, but it got him a bump in pay to $300 a month and a $1,000 bonus.

    "I didn't complain. A thousand dollars was a lot of money back then," he said.
    After the Campbell Soup Co. acquired Swanson in 1955, Thomas became a sales manager, then marketing manager and director of marketing and sales. He left the company after a heart attack in 1970.

    He later directed an art gallery and did consulting work.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

Oh Niel,

I SO grew up with TV dinners, they were my food of choice. I even requested them for Thanksgiving once, and got them! Turkey, stuffing, just like you described above. And they still kick ass. I would really like to trade links with you

-L. Bomb