UNTIL I happened into one of those supermarkets the size of a small airport, I had written off TV dinners as the food time forgot and the decades could not have improved.
But there, in a freezer aisle wide enough to drive a truck through, was a wall of Hungry Mans with red and yellow labels that seemed to be flashing neon: "Over 1 1/2 lbs. of food." Something had apparently changed, for the bigger if not the better.
If super-sizing had come to TV dinners, the last bastion of Eisenhower-era ideals, I had to wonder what other innovations might be lurking in the freezer case. And who might be eating them, aside from desperate characters like Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," a new widower trapped in a painful movie?
Right now turned out to be a good time to ask, since this is the year AARP comes for the TV dinner. It's been 50 years since C.A. Swanson & Sons borrowed a presentation idea from airline caterers and came up with full meals frozen on an aluminum tray with separate compartments for meat, vegetables and dessert. The original, in a box designed to look like the wood-paneled front of an RCA, dials and all, had a suggested price of $1.29, a not insignificant chunk of change back then.
By 1955 Swanson had sold 25 million. And the TV dinner had become the bento box for middle America.
The price has changed surprisingly little -- a regular, 1-pound Hungry Man turkey dinner is all of $3.39 at my neighborhood grocery store -- and for the most part neither has the food, which is surprising to anyone who cooks from scratch and sees new herbs and ethnic ingredients and even vegetables popping up every day. Swanson, which still dominates the market, says its bestsellers to this day are fried chicken, turkey and Salisbury steak. The favored accompaniments are just as distant from modern grilled and spiced tastes: mashed potatoes made from flakes, plain peas, plain corn and some sugary variation on stewed apples.
The biggest difference is in the packaging, all plastic since 1986, in deference to the microwave. (The Smithsonian has the 1953 metal tray in its collection.) TV dinners have gotten heftier though: The biggest Hungry Man is actually rated XXL. Manufacturers also prefer the name frozen dinners nowadays, as if no one really still eats the things while watching "Joe Millionaire."
Judging by the boxes and boxes I tried, the concept is frozen in an age when intense flavors like spices and bittersweet chocolate were as alien as personal computers. Processors are constantly churning out new combinations, such as Swanson's grilled chicken with penne or Marie Callender's chicken parmigiana on pasta, but when it comes time for supper, nostalgia wins out most of the time.
In a world where even smaller grocery stores have a salad bar and deli counter and endless other alternatives stocked with what marketers call home meal replacements, TV dinners should be barely hanging on by their plastic. I would never think to buy one, because, like any other urbanite who wants a break from cooking, I now have the world at my telephone and can order in anything freshly made from spring rolls to enchiladas faster than I can heat up the oven.
Yet the American Frozen Food Institute reports that dinners and entrees (as in non-tray meals such as boil-in-bag or bowl food) remain the largest chunk of frozen food sales, with more than $5.9 billion annually in supermarkets. The trade group also actually says sales of frozen dinners have grown steadily for the last 10 years, with the average American tucking into some form of a meal in a box about six times a month.
All that's a little surprising to anyone sensitive to food trends. While TV dinners had a bit of a renaissance in the fat-fearing '80s, when such brands as Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice moved into freezers everywhere, they seem locked in the '50s food pyramid today. None address the fascination with the high-protein diet. Carbs rule. (Modified food starch, anyway.)
But some manufacturers are capitalizing on another magic word: organic. Amy's Kitchen, which makes only vegetarian dinners using organic ingredients, saw sales of its frozen meals rise nearly 17% last year.
Still, the typical consumer of a TV dinner is not exactly trend-driven. Pinnacle Foods in Mountain Lakes, N.J., which owns Swanson and Hungry Man, says that "users" tend to be families with children in which the mother works part or full time. Pinnacle also contends that 20% of all American households eat Hungry Mans each year.
Swanson actually makes 18 different dinners and 13 Hungry Mans. The new XXL line of the latter includes such breakthroughs as Backyard Barbecue and Angus Beef Meatloaf. Swanson's newer dinners now include mesquite-flavored chicken and glazed turkey medallions, which are not exactly giant leaps forward.