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A landmark idea, yes, but whose?

Tracing the invention of the TV dinner opens a can, er, tray of worms.

November 23, 2003|Roy Rivenburg | 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."

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