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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

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.' "

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