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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

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."

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