TV’s longest-running hit

Los Angeles Times

Until I happened into one of those supermarkets the size of a small airport, I had written off TV dinners as the food time forgot and the decades could not have improved.

There, in a freezer aisle wide enough to drive a truck through, was a wall of Hungry-Mans with red and yellow labels that seemed to be flashing neon: “Over 1 1/2 lbs. of food.” Something had apparently changed, for the bigger if not the better.

If supersizing had come to TV dinners, the last bastion of Eisenhower-era ideals, I had to wonder what other innovations might be lurking in the freezer case. And who might be eating them, aside from desperate characters like Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” a new widower trapped in a bad movie?

R ight now turned out to be a good time to ask, since this is the year AARP comes for the TV dinner. It’s been half a century since C.A. Swanson and Sons borrowed a presentation idea from airline caterers and came up with full meals frozen on an aluminum tray with separate compartments for meat, vegetables and dessert. The original, in a box designed to look like the wood-paneled front of an RCA, dials and all, had a suggested price of $1.29, a not insignificant chunk of change back then.

By 1955 Swanson had sold 25 million. And the TV dinner had become the bento box for middle America.

The price has changed surprisingly little — a regular, 1-pound Hungry-Man turkey dinner is all of $3.39 at my corner grocery store — and for the most part either has the food, which is surprising to anyone who cooks from scratch and sees new herbs and ethnic ingredients and even vegetables popping up every day. Swanson’s, which still dominates the market, says its best-sellers to this day are fried chicken, turkey and Salisbury steak. The favored accompaniments are just as distant from grilled and spiced tastes: mashed potatoes from flakes, plain peas, plain corn, some variation on stewed apples.

The biggest difference is in the packaging, all plastic since 1986, in deference to the microwave. (The Smithsonian has the 1953 metal tray in its collection.) TV dinners have gotten heftier, though: the biggest Hungry Man is actually rated XXXL. Manufacturers also prefer the name frozen dinners nowadays, as if no one really still eats the things while watching “Joe Millionaire.”

Judging by the boxes and boxes I tried, the concept is frozen in an age when aggressive spices and bittersweet dark chocolate were as alien as personal computers. Processors are constantly churning out new combinations, like Swanson’s grilled white chicken with penne or Marie Callendar’s chicken parmigiana on pasta, but when it comes time for supper, nostalgia wins out most of the time.

In a world where even smaller grocery stores have a salad bar and deli counter and endless other alternatives stocked with what marketers call home meal replacements, TV dinners should be barely hanging on by their plastic. I would never think to buy one because, like any other urbanite who wants a break from cooking, I now have the world at my telephone and can order in anything freshly made from spring rolls to enchiladas faster than I can heat up the oven.

Yet the American Frozen Food Institute reports that dinners and entrees (as in non-tray meals) remain the largest chunk of frozen food sales, with more than $5.9 billion annually in supermarkets. The trade group also actually says sales of frozen dinners have grown steadily for the last 10 years, with the average American tucking into some form of a meal in a box about six times a month.

All that’s a little surprising to anyone sensitive to food trends. While TV dinners had a bit of a renaissance in the fat-fearing Eighties, when brands like Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice moved into freezers everywhere, they seem locked in the Fifties food pyramid today. None address the fascination with the high-protein diet. Carbs rule. (Modified food starch, anyway.)

But some manufacturers are capitalizing on another magic word: organic. Amy’s Kitchen, which makes only vegetarian dinners using organic ingredients, saw sales of its frozen meals rise nearly 12 percent last year.

Still, the typical consumer of a TV dinner is not exactly trend-driven. Pinnacle Foods in Mountain Lakes, N.J., which owns Swanson and Hungry-Man, says that “users” tend to be families with children in which the mother works part- or full- time. Pinnacle also contends that 20 percent of all American households eat Hungry-Mans each year.

Swanson actually makes 18 different dinners, and 13 Hungry-Mans. The new XXXL line of the latter includes breakthroughs like Backyard Barbecue and Angus Beef Meatloaf. Swanson’s newer dinners now include mesquite-flavored chicken and glazed turkey medallions, which are not exactly giant leaps forward.

When I went looking for all those brave new dinners in my sprawling neighborhood, though, I did not find many, and not just because a cold snap with temperatures in single digits had left some freezer shelves stripped bare of heat-and-eat meals. In the best-stocked stores, the top three sellers — chicken, turkey, beef — might as well be the top 20. (I did find, though, that there is a direct correlation between demographics and selection with TV dinners: the swankier supermarkets carry fewer than the store nearest me that does a boom business in food stamps.)

No matter what the brand, you can always find a turkey dinner, which remains the most popular concept. Salisbury steak, which to me is the most unforgivable false advertising of a dish, is equally inescapable in culinary arcticland. Even Amy’s offers one. And if the steak is not steak in the real thing, the birdseed reinvention is an affront to cows everywhere.

Fried chicken is also stacked high in every freezer case, but to me it’s the impossible dream of TV dinners. Both the Hungry-Man and the Banquet versions in my highly unscientific sampling were heavy on the breading, light on the seasoning. Marie Callender’s “country fried” chicken was redeemed only by its gravy, which had to be boiled separately in a plastic bag. My consort, who agreed to be a guinea pig on the chicken, kept asking: “Why wouldn’t someone just buy Kentucky Fried?”

The scariest dinner I tried was the one Conagra markets as Kid Cuisine, a triumph of chemistry over nature. (So much for the idea that regular TV dinners are for children.) The oily chicken patties, shaped like little dinosaurs, contained no fewer 15 ingredients, none with a hint of bird flavor. Instead of mashed potatoes, there was apple-strawberry sauce in case the pudding dessert did not pack enough sugar. The one advantage I could see was that kids who indulge in dinosaurs at least will grow up suspecting that meat comes from animals and be less likely to join those vegans who famously “won’t eat anything that has a face.”

Aside from the food, the distinguishing characteristic of TV dinners seems to be a list of instructions not much simpler than a VCR manual. The tray has to go on a baking sheet or major damage may be done. Some parts of the packaging need to be slit or poked open, others left sealed. The oven time varies from box to box, which means heating two or three at a time is impossible.

By the time I had ripped open the third box I realized that this is Sustenance for Dummies. Typical warnings included “CAREFULLY” remove cover; “PRODUCT WILL BE HOT.” Almost all labels insist that the food should be reheated thoroughly; some even advise testing it with a thermometer.

Since I may be the only cook in the country who has resisted the microwave, I had to wait 25 to 50 minutes for my suppers after first heating the oven. And not one of the dinners I tried cooked evenly. The most bizarre was Stouffer’s beef pot roast: the green beans were smoking when the beef and potatoes had heated barely enough to thaw.

Just when I was starting to blame myself for not being properly applianced, though, I read the fine print on a few boxes and saw “for crispier chicken, prepare in conventional oven.” You can’t win.

After subjecting myself to a dozen or so types of these dinners, I started to understand why a hot new item in cookware catalogs is the TV dinner tray. Sur La Table and Chef’s Catalog both report that they repeatedly sell out of their stoneware TV trays, at $7 or $8 a pop, and now Crate & Barrel has started carrying them as well. The trays are heavy, sized for the Hungry-Man, and can go into either a regular oven or a microwave.

Sur La Table speculates that buyers are either using the trays for children’s meals or “just don’t like to have their food touching,” the marketing director said. Chefs’ Catalog credits their popularity to either novelty or nostalgia.

The catalogs suggest using them as serving trays or for party food as well as for keeping the peas straight in front of the TV. The photo in the Crate & Barrel catalog tries to steer the buyer, though: what appears to be a grilled cheese sandwich sits where the turkey should be, tortilla chips in the potato compartment and salsa in the center, with a coconut tart in the corner.

The message is clear: If you want a satisfying TV dinner, you might have to assemble it yourself.