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Salisbury Steak and Couch Potatoes

May 02, 1999|Mary Melton

What the TV is to entertainment--switch it on and let the machine do the rest--the TV dinner is to home cooking. When Gerry Thomas, a 30-year-old salesman for C.A. Swanson & Sons in Omaha, Neb., conceived the TV dinner 45 years ago (roast turkey, stuffing, peas and sweet potatoes for 98 cents), did he know it would forever change mealtime? We spoke with Thomas last month after he put his name and distinctive aluminum tray in cement at Mann's Chinese Theatre (the slab now resides at Swanson headquarters in Cherry Hill, N.J.).

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Q: Talk turkey.

A: In 1954, Swanson was the biggest seller of turkeys in the world. Thanksgiving [1953] was warm, and there was an overabundance of turkeys. Not many storage houses had refrigeration, so we put them in refrigerated railroad cars. We had 52,000 pounds in each car, 10 cars, literally going back and forth across the country.

Q: Those were some well-traveled birds.

A: If they had flown that far, they'd have never made it.

Q: And the idea for TV dinners?

A: I found a container Pan-Am was experimenting with on airplanes, sketched out the tray and invented the name "TV dinner." All I was trying to do was look good and get rid of all those damn turkeys. In 1954, we sold over 10 million turkey dinners.

Q: Ever introduce a meal that didn't click?

A: In 1958, I was a little ahead of my time and came out with the "World's Fare" line: a Mexican dinner, Polynesian dinner, Italian dinner and German dinner. People weren't ready for them, particularly not the German.

Q: Too close to the war?

A: Yes, it's a shame, because the German dinner was outstanding--Bavarian red cabbage, sauerbraten, spaetzle. Men wrote us letters and said we were ruining the families, that Mommy wasn't cooking from scratch anymore.

Q: Did you feel bad?

A: I really didn't feel guilty.

Q: Plastic trays replaced aluminum in 1986. How do you feel about cooking in microwaves versus ovens?

A: The faster you heat something the less good it is.

Q: First thing that comes to mind when I say, "Salisbury steak."

A: You've got me. If you'd have said, "Meatloaf . . ."

Q: Pot pie?

A: Our original success in convenience. Today they do 250 million a year.

Q: They're pretty good.

A: Oh, God, yes. Oh, heavens, yes.

Q: Ever imagine your effect on America?

A: In addition to changing the way people planned meals, [TV dinners] also changed homes: The kitchen became part of the living room. In the West, certainly, many homes are being built without dining rooms.

Q: Do you have a dining room?

A: No, don't have one. Just one big room. But there's no TV in it.

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