Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to cuisine (chefs, dishes, etc.) and whether they are true or false.
CUISINE URBAN LEGEND: Swanson’s TV Dinners were invented due to them trying to come up with a way to get rid of the large supply of Thanksgiving turkeys they got stuck with one year.
There is a famous quote that is most commonly attributed to Plato that states, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” This is a similar thought to the idea that the winners write the history books. In other words, whoever has the control of the historical narrative is the one who is going to get their version of events into the hands of the everyday person. That was definitely the case with Gerry Thomas, a former employee for Swanson who, when he passed away about a decade ago, had obituaries all over the world that said some version of his New York Times’ obituary headline, “Gerry Thomas, Who Thought Up the TV Dinner, Is Dead at 83” Perhaps Thomas WAS the guy who coined the term “TV dinner.” Perhaps Thomas DID come up with the idea for Swanson (a food processing company that began at the end of the 19th century) to get into the world of frozen dinners. Those things MIGHT be true. But what is definitely true is that Thomas got credit for these things primarily due to his ability to put his story out there constantly over the past thirty years of his life, continually telling the story of the creation of the TV dinner. Since he was really the only one talking (and he DID work at Swanson when they began producing TV dinners), his version of events has been accepted as gospel in a variety of major publications, including Time magazine.
His story of how Swanson got into the TV dinner business had a great hook, one that commenter Gavin thought would make for a good legend, namely:
TV Dinners were created because the company had a huge supply of leftover turkeys from Thanksgiving that were traveling around the country in railroad freezer containers. They were losing money on the storage so they had to come up with a way to sell them.
That’s precisely the story that has been told on many sites, magazines and newspapers over the years.
Here’s one take on the story from Smithsonian.com (but really, TONS of people have the same story):
In 1953, someone at Swanson colossally miscalculated the level of the American appetite for Thanksgiving turkey, leaving the company with some 260 tons of frozen birds sitting in ten refrigerated railroad cars. Enter the father of invention, Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas, a visionary inspired by the trays of pre-prepared food served on airlines. Ordering 5,000 aluminum trays, concocting a straightforward meal of turkey with corn-bread dressing and gravy, peas and sweet potatoes (both topped with a pat of butter), and recruiting an assembly line of women with spatulas and ice-cream scoops, Thomas and Swanson launched the TV dinner at a price of 98 cents (those are Eisenhower-era cents, of course). The company’s grave doubts that the initial order would sell proved to be another miscalculation, though a much happier one for Swanson; in the first full year of production, 1954, ten million turkey dinners were sold.
Is it TRUE, though?
I don’t believe so, no (although it is true that their first line of TV dinners was a Thanksgiving dinner meal).
Back in 2003 (while Thomas was still alive), Roy Rivenburg of the Los Angeles Times went in depth on the topic and unsurprisingly, many different people claimed that they deserved the REAL credit for Swanson getting into the TV dinner business (or, in most of these cases, since we’re dealing with people who died decades ago, people claiming that their older relative deserved the real credit). However, what impressed me the most about Rivenburg is how quickly he got Thomas to unravel the most interesting part of the Swanson TV dinner story.
You see, the key thing is that the only real evidence we have that that story is true is that Thomas has been telling it for decades. And when Rivenburg got into it, it was amazing to see how quickly Thomas pivoted on some pretty major aspects of that story.
First up, suddenly it was more of a METAPHOR than anything, as Thomas explained that it STOOD for Swanson always trying to sell leftover turkeys every year after Thanksgiving, and morever, that they really just were sick of only selling turkey at the end of November every year. When Rivenburg explained that Thomas’ story (that an unseasonable warm Thanksgiving in 1951 led to turkey not selling well enough) didn’t match the facts (it wasn’t a warm November that year), he went to the whole “it was a metaphor” story.
Secondly, Thomas outright admits, “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.”
So, considering that frozen dinners were already selling in the hundreds of thousands in the Pittsburgh market at the end of the 1940s under the One Eyed Eskimo brand (created by two brothers named Albert and Meyer Bernstein – Swanson clearly didn’t INVENT the frozen dinner. Heck, it had been used on planes and the military before the Bernsteins, as well), it just makes too much sense to say that Swanson got into frozen dinners because of the sales of One Eyed Eskimo.
Again, there is no record of these surplus turkeys. Thomas himself said he made major parts of the story up and that the turkey surplus was a METAPHOR for how Swanson was always trying to sell more turkey. That sure sounds like a bogus story to me.
Now this doesn’t mean that Thomas didn’t play a major role in the idea. There are no records left from those days, so I can’t tell you for sure that he didn’t coin the name “TV Dinner,” which WAS a major part of Swanson’s success in the industry. Thomas says he got the idea to use an aluminum tray based on a trip he once took on airplane. That could be true. The firat mass-produced frozen dinners were for airplanes.
I just don’t believe his “tons of leftover turkeys on railcars inspiring the creation of the TV dinner” story.
Thus, I’m going with the legend as…
Thanks to Roy Rinvenburg for the information ans thanks to Gavin for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.