A landmark idea, yes, but whose?

Times Staff Writer

In a glass case at the swanky Copia food and wine museum in Napa, an aluminum TV dinner tray sparkles under a spotlight. On loan from the Smithsonian Institution, it's billed as one of the earliest Swanson trays, circa 1953. That part everyone agrees on. But the nearby sign explaining who invented the TV dinner is another matter.

This fall, as Swanson celebrates the 50th anniversary of its famous frozen meal, there is no shortage of people taking credit. Depending on who spins the yarn, the culinary pioneer was either an Arizona octogenarian, a quirky Army lab, a retired bacteriologist, a dead marketing guru, one of the late Swanson brothers, or none of the above.

Even the Swanson company seems confused. In recent years, it has issued at least three different official histories.

Although the truth might be impossible to nail down, two heirs to the Swanson fortune say they know who deserves the honor (or blame, if you prefer) -- and they're irritated by the impostors.

"This has been a source of annoyance to me over the years because I have seen a lot of people claim credit," says Carol Swanson Price, whose father, Clarke Swanson, and uncle, Gilbert Swanson, ran the company in the early 1950s. "I'd like to set the record straight."

The Thomas version

At the Copia museum, the birth of the TV dinner is attributed to Gerry Thomas, a retired Swanson executive who now lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

Thomas, 82, who occasionally wears silver cufflinks shaped like TV trays, is the most renowned member of the inventors club. He has been inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame; his colorful story has been recounted in hundreds of newspaper, radio and TV interviews; and in 1999, the Swanson company sent him to Los Angeles so he could sink his hands into a block of cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre to commemorate the TV dinner's 45th birthday. (That's another thing that keeps changing -- the date of the original Swanson turkey dinner.)

However, Thomas' tale has raised a few eyebrows.

As he tells it, the inspiration for the TV dinner was a crisis: In February 1952, Swanson honchos found themselves up to their beaks in frozen turkeys. Their Omaha-based food company was stuck with 520,000 pounds of surplus birds. As the icy gobblers shuttled back and forth across the nation in refrigerated boxcars, Clarke Swanson summoned his underlings and asked for ideas.

Thomas says he not only hatched the concept of a frozen turkey meal but also designed the three-compartment aluminum tray, coined the trademark name "TV dinner," suggested making the boxes look like a TV set and even provided his mother's recipe for the cornbread stuffing.

That autumn, the first few thousand TV dinners rolled off a makeshift assembly line in Omaha. A year later, to the everlasting horror of food snobs, the product went national.

At Pinnacle Foods Corp., the New Jersey company that currently owns Swanson, Thomas' version of events is considered gospel. However, some of his recollections clash with other accounts.

One sticking point is his story of surplus turkeys crisscrossing the nation for nearly a year aboard refrigerated railcars. Thomas says the gobbler glut was created by unseasonably mild weather in late 1951. "It was very warm on the East Coast, so there was less demand for turkeys that Thanksgiving," he explains by telephone. "People don't like to cook when it's warm."

But climate expert Jay Lawrimore of the National Climatic Data Center says average temperatures on the East Coast during November 1951 were among the lowest on record.

Thomas responds: "What the weather was is not important. The important thing is we had a surplus and had to get rid of turkeys." He calls the railcar story "a metaphor" for Swanson's "annual problem" of trying to unload surplus birds.

Jack Mingo's 1994 pop culture book, "How the Cadillac Got Its Fins," paints a similar scene. "Gilbert and Clarke Swanson had a problem: They were surrounded by turkeys.... They owned the largest turkey processing plant in the country ... and it drove them crazy that most Americans ate turkey on only one day a year: Thanksgiving. The Swansons made it their goal to insinuate more turkey meat into America's diet."

But Mingo's book also says Swanson kitchens began experimenting with frozen dinners in 1951, the year before Thomas says he got the idea. And Mingo says Gilbert Swanson coined the name "TV dinner" after hosting a party at which guests balanced food on their laps while watching "The Ted Mack Family Hour" on TV.

Mingo's narrative is difficult to verify. The author says his information came from 1970s newspaper articles and the Campbell Soup Co., which owned Swanson from 1955 to 1998. But his files are lost -- and former Campbell execs say they've never heard the Ted Mack tale.

After hearing Mingo's account, Thomas produces a 1971 clipping from the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald that refers to Thomas as "the man who named the TV dinner."

Don't believe it, says Betty Cronin, who joined Swanson in 1950 as a bacteriologist and later helped direct the TV dinner project: "Gerry Thomas had nothing to do with the TV dinner." Cronin says the Swanson brothers devised the concept -- and their marketing and advertising staff concocted the name and packaging.

Thomas shrugs off Cronin's recollections, saying she wasn't privy to management meetings where he presented his ideas.

Another former Swanson employee, Jean Ott, who toiled in the test kitchen in the early 1950s and still lives in Omaha, quarrels with Thomas' claim that he supplied "my mother's recipe" for the cornbread dressing.

Ott says the recipe belonged to Carolyn Flanders, a home economist from Alabama. Thomas himself told the Newark Star-Ledger in 1999 that the cornbread was created by a female Swanson employee "because that is what she ate in Alabama."

So whose recipe was it?

Thomas says he meant only that he contributed the idea for using cornbread, not the recipe itself.

He also says he dreamed up the idea for making the front of the TV dinner carton resemble a television console. In contrast, journalist Robert G. Phipps' book, "The Swanson Story," which was commissioned by members of the Swanson family in 1976, says the design originated with Tatham-Laird Inc., a Chicago ad agency.

The truth may be lost to history; Phipps is dead, and the ad agency has no records on the matter.

Another piece of the TV dinner puzzle involves a Nebraska wheelbarrow company that stamped out Swanson's first aluminum trays. Suzanne Caruso, whose late father, Fred Arkoosh, co-founded the company, says she grew up hearing stories about a man who came to the factory one day with a strange drawing on a napkin. It was the design for the tray, and the man asked Arkoosh to produce it.

In 1998, when the wheelbarrow company celebrated its 50th anniversary, Thomas contacted Caruso and identified himself as the man with the napkin. Caruso says she'd never heard his name before, "But, boy, he had the exact same story that my father always told, so of course I believed him."

Thomas admits to embellishing minor details in his version of events, such as the number of boxcars carrying surplus turkeys ("After hundreds of interviews, I got so bored with the questions that I started to change the plot just to see if anyone would notice"), but he insists the core facts are "basically correct and accurate."

Five years ago, after Campbell Soup spun off its struggling Swanson and Vlasic divisions into a separate company, Thomas shared his story with Swanson President Murray Kessler.

Kessler, who now heads US Smokeless Tobacco (makers of Skoal and Copenhagen snuff), says Thomas' account sounded "pretty credible." Swanson promoted it heavily for the 45th anniversary of the TV dinner.

As unofficial ambassador for Swanson's signature product, Thomas made public appearances, including a trip to San Francisco for the opening of Butter, a self-styled "white trash bistro" that serves TV dinners. Thomas says the restaurant even created a drink in his honor -- a margarita that replaced the salt on the rim of the glass with Metamucil.

Armed with a stockpile of Swanson trinkets and a charming persona, Thomas became a media darling.

The heirs of Clarke Swanson were incredulous. "I never had heard of Gerry Thomas," says W. Clarke Swanson Jr., who owns a winery in the Napa Valley. "Neither had my sister, Carol Swanson Price, nor my aunt, Gretchen Swanson Velde."

Swanson Jr., 62, who has previously downplayed his TV dinner pedigree (perhaps because it's not the best way to promote his fine wines), adds: "Gerry Thomas may or may not have been involved in developing the TV dinner as a part of the marketing team, but any claim that he is solely responsible for naming the TV dinner and developing that product is, in my opinion, quite dubious."

No surprise there, Thomas says. "In the business environment of the 1950s, valued employees were anonymous. If you invented something, [management] didn't run your name up on a poster. The company took credit." Moreover, Gretchen Swanson wasn't involved in her brothers' firm, and Clarke Jr. and Price were kids at the time, he notes: "They were not in the loop."

This wasn't the first time Swanson scions had rolled their eyes at an "official" history of the TV dinner. In 1989 and 1994, Campbell Soup marked the 35th and 40th anniversary of the product by touting bacteriologist Cronin as "the mother of the TV dinner."

In reality, Cronin simply devised the recipe for Swanson's fried chicken dinner. In media interviews, she named Gilbert and Clarke Swanson as inventors of the TV dinner itself. But not everyone paid attention to that footnote.

By 1997, historian James Trager's authoritative guide, "The Food Chronology," proclaimed her the sole creator of the TV dinner.

Even Cronin's former colleague Ott thought Campbell's PR blitz went overboard: "I remember thinking: 'Whoa, now Betty Cronin is getting all the credit.' "

The Pollock entry

Another contender in the TV dinner derby is M. Crawford Pollock, a deceased marketing whiz whose career path included stints with DuPont, Swanson (as vice president of marketing) and Green Giant (where he reportedly helped pioneer boil-in-bag vegetables).

The archives of Frozen Food Age, a trade magazine founded in 1952, list Pollock as the brain behind Swanson's TV dinner.

Thomas theorizes that Frozen Food Age based its conclusion on an "erroneous" article in the Nov. 24, 1965, New York Herald Tribune, which called Pollock "the inventor of the TV dinner."

Although Pollock isn't mentioned in other TV dinner lore, Clarke Swanson Jr. says he did play a role: "So far as I can recall, the marketing concept and the product name 'TV Dinner' came out of a team that included my father, my uncle and Crawford Pollock. The actual development of the product was done by Betty Cronin and a Swiss chef who was a friend of my family."

Swanson's sister, who says she was old enough to have clear recollections of that era (she was at least a teen), doesn't remember Pollock being involved. "The family legend has always been that my dad did it [created the TV dinner]," says Price, whose husband, Charles H. Price II, served as ambassador to Britain under President Reagan. "My father was the idea man.... I think the TV dinner should be attributed to him and my uncle."

Thomas replies: "I don't want to create animosity with them. I'm happy with what they want to keep in their hearts."

So, whom to believe?

The correct answer is: none of the above.

The real story

The real first frozen dinner debuted in 1944. It was sold to the Navy and airlines by the W.L. Maxson Co. of New York and consisted of an entree and two vegetables on paperboard trays treated with Bakelite resin, according to Frozen Food Age magazine and food historian Laura Shapiro.

Other companies that beat Swanson to the punch include Pennsylvania-based FrigiDinner, which created the first aluminum tray in 1947, and Quaker States Foods, which sold meals in 1952 under the appetizing "One-Eye Eskimo" label. FrigiDinner helped draft the first military specifications for frozen dinners, which might explain why the Army's Natick Labs (a Boston research center that develops soldier rations and gear) claims it had a hand in inventing the TV dinner.

According to journalist Phipps' book on Swanson history, Gilbert and Clarke Swanson were inspired by the other companies. "Both men were aware of the many earlier attempts to market a frozen dinner but were not impressed," Phipps wrote.

Shapiro, whose forthcoming book is "Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America," believes that whoever coined the name "TV dinner" gave Swanson the key to its success.

But Frozen Food Age editor David Wellman theorizes that Swanson's triumph "lies not in the TV dinner name or package, but the simple fact that the company knocked the price under a buck soon after it debuted."

Today, the other companies are forgotten and Swanson is synonymous with frozen dinners, now a $6-billion-a-year industry.

Kevin Lowery, a former Swanson publicity chief, isn't surprised by all the competing claims surrounding the invention. He recalls something President Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs fiasco: "Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."

Fittingly, although that quote is widely ascribed to JFK, he reportedly lifted the line from a 1951 movie, "The Desert Fox." The movie, in turn, swiped it from a 1942 diary entry by Benito Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano.

No word on whether the count's diary also contained the phrase "TV dinner."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°