In anticipation of frozen food month and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Swanson's introduction of the TV dinner, obscure foodstuffs expert Dave Starry and I (both of us raised on flash-frozen/flash-thawed edibles) thought it fitting to conduct an assessment of modern TV dinner technology. While nobody wants to admit to actually eating a TV dinner, a quick stroll down the frozen food aisles proves their status as a widely enjoyed guilty pleasure.
The "TV Dinner" moniker on Swanson's original 1953 foil tray frozen dinner had more to do with the box graphics (which were designed to look like a television set) than any marketing scheme designed to suggest that this stuff would make ideal TV-watching fare. And while they stopped officially calling them "TV Dinners" in the '60s, by that time, it was too late. TV dinners had become established and widely accepted as the perfect nourishment for the TV generation.
Almost half of the supermarket's frozen dinner section was dominated by "healthy" or "diet" versions of the all-in-one meal. Fortunately, the familiar fat, salt, MSG and preservative-laced favorites were also well represented.
Dave: "We have to get the classic fried chicken. That was always my favorite. You get two pieces of unidentifiable chicken parts."
We hit the classics hard: Swanson's fried chicken ($2.59) and sliced turkey (the original and at $2.49 still the best seller) and a Salisbury steak dinner from Banquet ($2.28). We also decided to pit a cheap classic brand (Swanson) against a fancy, pricey relative newcomer (Marie Callender's at $3.79) in a head-to-head turkey dinner death match. As we made our selections, we noted the extreme disparity between the images on the boxes and the "food" that surely lurked within.
Mike: "Like it's really gonna end up looking that good."
Dave: "That's why at some point they made them put this little disclaimer on the box: 'Serving suggestion.' As if they're suggesting that instead of eating their dinner, you should go and get some real food." You could eat what's in this box..."
Mike: "...Or you could eat what we've got pictured on the cover."
Even though all frozen dinners these days are wrapped in plastic and designed for microwave-ability -- those great foil trays went out in the mid-1980s -- we felt the uniform heat from a conventional oven would produce better results.
Upon removing the dinners from their boxes, we were appalled by the goofy orientation of the food (the meat course should always be on the bottom), all the plastic (plastic that doesn't melt in 400 degree heat is just wrong) and the complicated pre-cooking procedures.
Mike: "Let's see, 'Remove plastic cover from chicken. Poke holes in plastic over potatoes and corn. Stir potatoes and corn before serving.' You never had to deal with any of that with foil trays. Those things went right into the oven."
Dave: "The foil tray was always part of the charm -- it imparted a nice tinny flavor to the chicken."
But the biggest disappointment was the uniform and complete lack of dessert, which was always the best part of the otherwise lackluster meal.
Mike: "I can't believe it. No apple-cranberry cake cobbler to sear your mouth like hot lava?"
Dave: "Yeah, do you have to step up to the Hungry Man for that now?"
Now the tricky part. One by one, the entrees emerged from the overloaded, overtaxed oven. Dave's Swanson fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and corn was stuck to the baking tray -- another thing you never had to worry about with foil trays -- but we ate it anyway. I awarded it a C. Dave, feeling nostalgic, gave it a B-.
Mike: "This white meat portion is really good. But look, it's all backward and inside out."
Dave: "Aside from the esoteric parts that no one ever eats, like the neck, how many chicken pieces are there? Four, right? The thigh, the breast, the leg and the wing. Swanson chicken never resembles any of those. It's not even close enough where you could go, 'Well this is part of the thigh.' It's always, 'what part of the chicken is this?' "
The turkey dinner death match between Swanson and Callender yielded somewhat surprising results. The vegetable battle (firm, tasty green beans with cranberries vs. mushy, tasteless snow peas and carrots) went to Callender. The mashed potatoes in both were equally fluffy and translucent. Swanson's turkey is of the loaf variety while Callender's "medallions" appear more like actual turkey meat. Taste-wise, it was almost a dead heat. By unanimous decision: Swanson -- C; Callender -- B-.
Last and most certainly least came the Banquet Salisbury steak meal. Dave took one look at it and promptly abstained. I eventually gave it a D- based on the fact that though the meat patty was more boot heel than "steak," it didn't fail utterly as food.
Dave: "Oh god, that's evil. Where are the grill marks? That one doesn't even deserve to be consumed. I never liked Banquet."
Mike: "Look at that. What kind of meat is that? The gravy looks like epoxy and the corn is mummified. I'm gonna eat part of it."
While we didn't dare delve too far into any of the dinners' incredibly lengthy and cryptic ingredient lists, we couldn't help but note with some amazement the inclusion of something called "turkey type flavor" in the Swanson turkey dinner and the No. 1 listed ingredient of the nearly worthless Banquet Salisbury steak meal: gravy.
Dave: "There's more gravy than anything else in here."
Mike: "How is gravy an ingredient?"
We knew from the outset what we were getting ourselves into: a semi-nostalgic experience featuring allegedly convenient food of dubious quality. The lack of foil may have rendered our adventure something less than nostalgic (or convenient for that matter). But the food? While not something you would necessarily choose to eat, it's somehow comforting to know that it's still out there, standing by, edible and ready to serve.
We leave you now with these gentle words of warning:
"Temperatures above 350 degrees F and/or failure to use a cookie sheet may cause damage to plate, food and/or oven."
Publication date: 02/20/03