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Archived updates for Friday, July 22, 2005

TGIF for Gerry Thomas, Creator of the TV Dinner

Gerry Thomas, creator of the "TV Dinner" more than a half-century ago, died at the age of 83 this week.

Neccesity was truly the mother of his invention. "After Thanksgiving, Swanson had ten refrigerated railroad cars -- each containing 520,000 pounds of unsold turkeys -- going back and forth across the country in refrigerated railroad box cars, because there was not enough storage in warehouses. We were challenged to come up with a way to get rid of the turkeys," Thomas reportedly said.

Making use of aluminum serving dishes, used also at that time to serve dinners on aircraft, he packaged the leftover turkey with cornbread dressing, frozen peas and sweet potatoes, each in its own compartment. The entire dinner could be removed from the outer packaging as a unit, the aluminum tray could then be heated directly in the oven without any extra baking dishes, and you could eat the meal directly out of the same tray. According to USA Today, he came up with a three-compartment tray because "I spent five years in the service, so I knew what a mess kit was. You could never tell what you were eating, because it was all mixed together."

The first production order for 5,000 dinners required about two dozen women armed with ice cream scoops filling the new trays at night. But the key to its sucess was on coming up with the name and packaging to match the market. Few consumers owned freezers back then, so the dinners were typically bought and prepared the very same day.

"We had the TV screen and the knobs pictured on the package. That was the real start of marketing," Thomas said. And perhaps the start of something else. The dinners initially drew hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did.

Get the official history of the TV dinner from Swanson and learn to cook with "The Single Man's Guide to TV Dinners" from Ray Cole.

Thank Goodness It's Friday,

--Bill Heinze (e-mail, v-card)
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