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Death of a 'TV dinner' salesman

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Gerry Thomas with a present-day version of the TV dinner
Gerry Thomas said he was proud to invent a part of American culture
Gerry Thomas, the US salesman who brought the concept of the TV dinner to the world, has died of cancer aged 83.

Fifty years ago, his idea of packaging frozen dinners in a compartmentalised foil tray was to change forever the way meal times were viewed.

Instead of families sitting down together around a table to eat a home-cooked dinner, they could combine dining with the new 1950s hobby - watching television.

Gerry Thomas' initial brainwave in 1953 was a clever solution to his company's post-Thanksgiving surplus of turkey.

Buttered peas

Mr Thomas, then a marketing executive for CA Swanson and Sons, of Nebraska, had been handed the challenge of finding a home for 270 tons of unused poultry.

While travelling on business, he spotted a metal tray being tested out for in-flight hot dinners, and the idea of pre-packaged frozen dinners was born.

It's a terrible invention as far as family life is concerned
Dr Pat Spungin
UK campaigner on family meals
"It was just a single compartment tray with foil," he recalled in a 1999 interview with news agency AP. "I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat."

The first Swanson TV Dinner - made up of three sections containing turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas - went on sale in 1953 priced at 98 cents.

Ten million of the cartons, innovatively packaged to look like a TV screen complete with knobs, disappeared from US shop shelves in 10 months, as viewers settled down to munch as they watched number one show I Love Lucy.

The TV dinner's runaway success led to a pay rise for Mr Thomas, booming business for Swanson and a culinary trend of convenience which shows little sign of falling from favour.

'Eating in a line'

However, Mr Thomas' invention is not remembered fondly by all.

"He has a lot to answer for," UK child psychologist and parenting expert Doctor Pat Spungin told the BBC News website. "It's a terrible invention as far as family life is concerned."

Swanson TV Dinner box from 1954 - courtesy of Pinnacle Foods Corp
Gerry Thomas came up with the idea to help market unsold turkey

Dr Spungin - who has set up the Back to the Table campaign in the UK to encourage families to eat home-cooked meals together - says the problem is that the TV dinner destroys conversation.

"Even if you have seven people together eating TV dinners, they are eating in a line and that's not conducive to communication," Dr Spungin said.

"Eating together has always been a mark of family life. You also eat together as a sign of hospitality and welcome.

"[The TV dinner] is a big problem in the UK and America but I think in countries with a stronger food/family tradition, like Italy and Spain, the concept of the TV dinner is probably regarded with horror."

'Hate mail'

In the UK, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has launched a high-profile campaign to improve children's diets by cutting down on processed food.

Even in its early days, the TV dinner was not universally well received.

Mr Thomas received "hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did", he said.

But Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, believes it is unfair to blame Mr Thomas for the decline of home-cooked food.

He was a gourmet cook. He never ate the TV Dinners
Widow Susan Thomas

The advent of the TV dinner coincided with a changing society where women were increasingly going to work and had less time to cook, he told AP.

"Some people claim the TV dinner was the first step toward breaking up the American family because it made it possible for everybody to eat in a 'modular' way," he said.

"That was going to happen anyway. The redefinition of the American family was going on anyway."

It was not until the 1990s that Mr Thomas' role in inventing what became a national icon was fully recognised. The original aluminium tray can now be seen in the Smithsonian Institution.

Mr Thomas said of his invention: "It's a pleasure being identified as the person who did this because it changed the way people live. It's part of the fabric of our society."

But wife Susan has admitted her late husband's pride did not extend to consuming the fruit of his labours.

"He was a gourmet cook. He never ate the TV dinners," she said.

SEE ALSO
Table manners
18 May 05 |  Magazine
Blair supports TV chef's campaign
20 Mar 05 |  Education
White House seeks new head chef
04 Feb 05 |  Americas
The culinary United Nations
29 Aug 03 |  Europe

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