Tray Chic : TV Dinners Make It Possible to Eat Potatoes While Being Couch Potatoes

The sale price was $59.95, a bargain we could hardly believe.

After bringing them home, I pulled two from their individual cardboard boxes, set them up and admired them.

They were beautiful, and they were ours.

I ran my hand across the wood, feeling the slick finish while experiencing the pride of ownership.

We sat down in front of them.

"A little high," I said.

"A little heavy," my wife said.

"We'll get used to them," I said.

"Will we really?" she asked, unsurely.

"Got to," I replied, the quaver in my voice betraying my emotion. "It's time to move on."

Then we switched on the set and ate dinner on our new TV trays.

Tick tick tick tick.

On the screen, "60 Minutes" flickered. We love "60 Minutes." But this time it wasn't the same, not without the wobbly, tinny, fake wood-grain TV trays that we threw out only because they kept collapsing. For 13 years, they'd been our friends, through thick and thin, through "Dallas" and "Who's the Boss?" through "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Jake and the Fatman."

What incredible little gizmos.

If TV trays could talk.

They'd speak of "Gunsmoke," "The Life of Riley," "The Original Amateur Hour," "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports," "Playhouse 90," "Naked City," "Tombstone Territory" and everything else that came down the electronic pike, then disappeared.

They'd speak of TV dinners.

Without TV dinners, who'd have ever needed TV trays?

All the TV dinners I'd eaten through the years--those little aluminum compartments of food that made mealtime in front of the set so manageable--flashed before my eyes, along with a lifetime of viewing.

It occurred to me that television itself has evolved as a TV dinner, a heat-up meal for the mind. It's filling without being exciting, handy without demanding anything from the consumer beyond turning on a switch.

The medium, as broadcast scholar Erik Barnouw noted, did indeed become "the environment and context of our lives." No wonder that the original TV dinner--from Swanson--was packaged in a carton resembling a TV screen, symbolizing how watching and eating were to become a single experience forever after.

That was 37 years ago.

"I feel very proud," said Betty Cronin.

Yes, on the phone from Camden, N.J., was Ms. Salisbury Steak and Mashed Potatoes herself, the woman who helped turn TV dinners into a national institution.

It happened while she was a young bacteriologist for Swanson in Omaha, Neb., when the family-owned company was just getting into frozen foods. "We were working on pies at that time, but in 1952 we started working on the dinners," said Cronin, now 62.

It was a time when the sheer newness of TV made it irresistible. Watching a black-and-white test pattern--to say nothing of commercials--was fascinating.

"Television was such a miracle that people would even stand outside and watch it in store windows," said Cronin, who recalls how as many as a dozen men in her own extended family would cluster on the floor in front of a 10-inch screen to watch boxing.

"So Gilbert and Clark Swanson, the two brothers who owned the company, got the idea that if you had a TV in your home, that no matter what you did you sat down and watched it," she said. "And they thought it would be nice if, while people watched television, they ate our food."

Cronin endorsed the idea. "The advertising agency was brought in," she recalled, "and they said, 'Let's call them TV dinners.' " Cronin was put in charge of developing the product.

"We called the aluminum people and asked them to come up with some kind of tray for portable eating, and they finally settled on the three compartments."

A critical issue remained: The shape of the compartments. "We tried rectangles," Cronin said. "We tried bar-strip dividers. We tried circles." Triangles won out.

That left only one matter to be resolved: What to put into the compartments. "The question was what people would eat in their living rooms," Cronin said. "We weren't trying to change people's eating habits but only where they ate. So we started with popular foods like turkey--which is still our No. 1 dinner." Your 98 cents not only bought you a slice of turkey, corn bread dressing and gravy in the main compartment, but also peas and whipped sweet potatoes in the other compartments.

Meanwhile, Cronin and her associates solved another pressing dilemma--what should accompany roast beef--by settling on gravy, mashed potatoes and corn. Of course ! Gravy, potatoes and corn.

"We had a gut feeling about these things," said Cronin, "and we were usually right."

In 1952, Swanson TV dinners were introduced between Omaha and Chicago. They went national in 1954 (the year Swanson was purchased by Campbell Soup Co.) and met with instant success.

At last, Americans could eat a potato while being a potato.

"Our concern was that not enough people with television had freezers to store the dinners in," Cronin said. "But it didn't matter, because they took 'em home and fixed 'em right away.

"What we didn't anticipate was that the kids just went bananas for 'em. I guess they felt grown-up that they could choose their own kind of food. And the parents could leave the kids with a baby-sitter and know they were well fed."

While watching TV.

But even a three-compartment dinner still placed too heavy a burden on TV viewers. Not only did they still have to decide for themselves on dessert, they also had to somehow gather the energy to get up from the set and get it. It was all just too taxing.

Imagine the enormous sigh of relief when Swanson added a fourth compartment in the early 1960s. Yes, apple or cherry cobbler would now add to your viewing pleasure, or, for the true dining rebel, a brownie, introduced with the meal that would become Cronin's own favorite, the original fried-chicken dinner.

Foolishly, Swanson dropped the brownie in 1986. But the company was forced by popular demand to bring it back the following year.

There have been other changes in TV dinnerdom. Postscript:

* Other food manufacturers have shared in this explosion, and the business has grown to the point that now frozen meals especially designed and packaged for TV-watching kids are on the market.

* The advent of the microwave doomed the old aluminum container.

* Cronin was reassigned from TV dinners in 1956, and is now director of Campbell's microwave institute in Camden.

* One of Swanson's original compartmentalized aluminum trays now resides at the Smithsonian Institution.

As for my wife and me, we are still watching TV while getting ever more comfortable with our recent acquisition.

Meanwhile, I've come up with an idea for a product that may put me on easy street: a freezer/microwave/TV tray/TV set, self-contained in a single unit.

No fuss, no exertion, nothing demanded of you beyond being alive. I think it will really catch on.

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