Pretty much the whole year, but especially as the summer winds down, I keep my eyes peeled for a good Thanksgiving tidbit to share with you in my annual turkey day entry.  Some of them---such as Sarah Hale, authoress of the poem "Mary's Lamb" (Mary had a little lamb . . . ), being responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday, or President Franklin Roosevelt confusing the entire nation by changing the week of Thanksgiving---were pretty straightforward.  All I had to do was research them for background, to make the stories as interesting as possible.  I shoot for that "Wow, I didn't know that!" factor which takes the reader by surprise.  I love those.

 

And sometimes it's me who gets surprised.  My 2012 entry on the first President to pardon the White House Thanksgiving turkey was one of those.  Popular wisdom states that it was President Truman who began that tradition.  In fact, you'll probably hear some commentator or news article state that very thing to-day.  Although some sources will insist that it was Abraham Lincoln.  It certainly qualified as a "Wow, I didn't know that!" moment for me, when I peeled the layers off this particular tradition and discovered that the first turkey-pardoner-in-chief was actually President George H. W. Bush.

 

(Don't believe it?  Here's the link:  http://captaincomics.ning.com/profiles/blogs/deck-log-entry-149-hap...)

 

The subject of this year's Thanksgiving column brought its own set of surprises.

 

It wasn't difficult to find.  In fact, it's been all over the Internet for the past couple of months.  I'm guessing it's this year's "fun fact" for the season.  You've probably already heard some television newscaster mention it as part of the holiday happy talk.  And I know that somebody on the Food Network is bound to bring it up.

 

The story will go pretty much like this:

 

In the fall of 1953, the frozen-food company, C. A. Swanson & Sons had overestimated the number of turkeys it would sell for Thanksgiving, and after the holiday, it was stuck with twenty-six tons of unsold birds.  The turkeys were stored in ten refrigerated railroad cars which were costing the company a small fortune to maintain.

 

Swanson employee Gerry Thomas came to the rescue when he noticed that Pan American Airways used metal trays for its hot in-flight meals.  Taking an aluminum tray and dividing it into sections, Thomas proposed that Swanson sell its surplus turkey as a frozen dinner, including sweet potatoes and peas, each in its own compartment.  The handiness of preparation led to the marketing angle of the family sitting in the living room, eating the dinners on tray-tables, while they watched television.

 

Swanson ran with the idea, even designing the front of the package to resemble a television screen, and introduced the new product to the public in 1954.  Swanson expected to sell, maybe, five thousand dinners.  Once again, the company figuring was off.  Instead, more than ten million of the frozen dinners were sold.

 

Thus was born the first TV dinner.

 

 

 

It's a pretty neat story.  And it had that "Wow!" factor I wanted.  All that was left for me to do was dig up some background, so my column would run longer than a page and a half.  As prevalent as this topic was on line, I didn't expect to dig very deep.

 

But a bounty of information includes its own hiccoughs.  Much as with the verbal game of "Telephone", the various on-line retellings of the Swanson TV dinner account resulted in some minor discrepancies.  Some versions said Swanson overstocked its turkeys in 1952, others listed 1951.  I found several sites insisted that Swanson had been stuck with two-hundred-sixty tons, as opposed to a mere twenty-six tons, and I didn't know enough about the food business to determine which figure would be the more reasonable.

 

The articles even disagreed on Gerry Thomas' specific employment with Swanson & Sons.  Some stated that he was a marketing executive with the company; others, that he was a salesman.

 

Minor contradictions, to be sure, but I wanted to iron them out before posting my entry.  So I kept burrowing---and that's when I discovered, as Paul Harvey might have put it . . . the rest of the story.

 

As it turns out, very little of the account---the one I described above, the one that's commonly related as a cute Thanksgiving piece---is accurate.  Or certain.

 

 

 

Let's start with the situation which created the problem for the Swanson company:  the thousands of pounds of frozen turkeys which were expensive to keep refrigerated.  I discovered that CBR's Brian Cronin had already ploughed that part of the story in one of his Urban Legends Revealed columns.  Mr. Cronin found that the information regarding Swanson being stuck with a gigantic surplus of unsold turkeys came from Gerry Thomas, the Swanson employee credited with inventing the TV dinner.  It was the tale Thomas had told for decades; yet once, when pressed, he backpedalled from it.

 

Cronin cited an interview with Thomas conducted by Los Angeles Times staff writer Roy Rivenburg in November, 2003.  I consulted the article Rivenburg wrote of that interview and discovered the same thing Brian Cronin did.

 

Mr. Thomas stated that Swanson had gotten stuck with the turkey overage due to an unseasonably warm November in 1951.  "It was very warm on the East Coast, so there was less demand for turkeys that Thanksgiving," he explained.  "People don't like to cook when it's warm."

 

Thomas had put forth the same explanation many times, but Rivenburg had done his homework.  The reporter had checked with the National Climatic Data Center and learnt that the temperatures recorded on the East Coast for November, 1951, were among the lowest on record.  (I checked with the N.C.D.C. myself.  It documented that, due to a low-pressure trough bringing polar air into the northeastern U.S. early in the month, the average temperature for the mid-Atlantic states in November, 1951, was 36.8F degrees.  That's 1.2F degrees lower than normal.)

 

When confronted with this, Thomas sidestepped by saying, "What the weather was is not important.  The important thing was we had a surplus and had to get rid of turkeys."  When Rivenburg asked him to clarify the need for refrigerated railroad cars, the retired Swanson employee showed that, apparently, factual details were not what was important, either.  He said that he had told the story of the turkeys stored in railcars as "a metaphor" for the company's "annual problem" of trying to unload Thanksgiving birds.

 

I found no other source to corroborate the frozen-turkeys-in-railroad-cars angle .  As Brian Cronin remarked in his Urban Legends column, Gerry Thomas had been the only one putting out the story publicly since the late 1950's until his death in July, 2005.  That, more or less, confirms the "metaphoric" nature of his account.

 

 

 

Well, O.K., it's not unheard of for someone to embellish the details behind his achievements.  But, it turns out, there is some dispute over whether the achievement is actually Gerry Thomas'.

 

"Gerry Thomas had nothing to do with the TV dinner," Betty Cronin, a bacteriologist for Swanson in the 1950's, told Roy Rivenburg.  Miss Cronin (no relation to Brian Cronin, as far as I know) asserted that it was the Swanson brothers, Gilbert and Clarke (the "Sons" of Swanson & Sons), who came up with the concept.  She spoke from having been in a position to know; it had been her job to formulate the process by which the frozen food would come out of the oven tasting like it had been cooked fresh.  Miss Cronin specifically stated that it was Clarke Swanson who came up with the design of the segmented tray.

 

Other former Swanson employees have sided with Betty Cronin.  So have the Swanson family heirs.  Clarke Swanson, Jr., claimed neither he, nor his sister, nor his aunt, had ever heard of Gerry Thomas.

 

"So far as I can recall," said Swanson, Jr., "the marketing concept and the product name 'TV dinner' came out of a team that included my father, my uncle, and Crawford Pollock [Swanson's vice president of marketing at the time].  The actual development of the product was done by Betty Cronin and a Swiss chef who was a friend of my family."

 

 

 

 

O.K., but no matter whose idea it was, Swanson is the company that invented the frozen dinner.

 

Actually . . . no.

 

The earliest complete frozen meal can be traced back to Maxson Food Systems, Inc., which, in 1945, introduced the "Sky Plate"---a meat and potato and vegetable, each housed in its own compartment on a paperboard plate treated with a Bakelite resin.  They were manufactured as meals for passengers on military and civilian aeroplanes.  The Sky Plate was just breaking into the traditional retail market, appearing in specialty frozen-food stores, when the company's founder, William Maxson, died in 1947.  His children had no interest in the business and sold it off the same year.

 

Philadelphia native Jack Fisher realised there was a market for quick and easy meals on the ground, too.  In 1947, he produced "FrigiDinners", frozen meals on aluminum trays, for taverns and railroad dining cars.  There were ten "variety platters" from which a patron could choose. 

 

And we still aren't up to Swanson & Sons, yet.  Sky Plates and FrigiDinners took care of specialised markets, but it wasn't until the creation of Frozen Dinners, Inc., in 1949 that the concept of heat-and-serve meals for the household really took off.  Launched by Albert and Meyer Bernstein, the company produced frozen dinners on aluminum trays with three compartments, under the brand name of One-Eyed Eskimo.  Originally sold in just the Pittsburgh area, demand for the pre-packaged meals grew until the company, reorganised as the Quaker State Food Corporation, distributed to markets across the eastern half of the country.

 

By the early 1950's, Quaker State Foods had sold two and a half million frozen dinners.  That's what got the Swanson company's attention.

 

 

 

Clearly, Swanson wasn't the creator of the frozen dinner, but it certainly can be credited for popularising it and making the term "TV dinner" part of the cultural lexicon of America.  By the way, it wasn't marketed as a TV dinner to promote the idea of eating them while watching television.  Rather, the idea came from way the general design of the tray---one large wedge-shaped compartment occupying the top and centre, with two smaller sections, one in each lower corner---resembled the front of a television set.

 

As for Gerry Thomas, much like Bob Kane receiving sole official credit for creating the Batman, he is formally cemented as the inventor of the TV dinner.  In 1998, the American Frozen Food Institute inducted him into its Frozen Food Hall of Fame, and following year, he was invited to Hollywood to place an imprint of the original TV dinner tray in the cement outside of Mann's Chinese Theater.

 

(To be fair to Thomas, in a 1999 Associated Press article, he demurred when reporter Walter Berry referred to him as "the father of the TV dinner".  "It bothers me," said Thomas.  "I really didn't invent the dinner.  I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name, and developed some unique packaging.")

 

 

So, to-day, while you and your family are watching the parade, and one of the celebrity hosts, during the lull while waiting for the next float or marching band to come down the street, reports the "interesting fact" that a surplus of unsold Thanksgiving turkeys led to the Swanson company inventing the TV dinner, you'll be able to impress everyone by knowing the true story.

 

Who says my column isn't educational?

 

 

NOTE:  This past Tuesday night, The CBS Evening News ran a piece on President Trump's pardoning of this year's Thanksgiving turkeys.  CBS anchorwoman Norah O'Donnell correctly reported that the Presidential pardon of the White House turkey was "a tradition that goes back thirty years."

 

You don't suppose she read my . . . Nahhhhh!

 

* * * * *

 

 

From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Day, and many more of them!

 

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Replies to This Discussion

Educational and entertaining, as always, Commander. Happy Thanksgiving!

Commander,

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving. Excellent researching.

Commander, I have long thought you should shop your comics related columns around to Marvel or DC as possible introductions to their Archives or Masterworks series, but your Thanksgiving columns alone would make a nice collection of more general interest. It could be a perennial best-seller! You should think about it.

He's right. It's good stuff and it probably does have a wide range of appeal.

Jeff of Earth-J said:

Commander, I have long thought you should shop your comics related columns around to Marvel or DC as possible introductions to their Archives or Masterworks series, but your Thanksgiving columns alone would make a nice collection of more general interest. It could be a perennial best-seller! You should think about it.



Fraser Sherman said:

He's right. It's good stuff and it probably does have a wide range of appeal.

Jeff of Earth-J said:

Commander, I have long thought you should shop your comics related columns around to Marvel or DC as possible introductions to their Archives or Masterworks series, but your Thanksgiving columns alone would make a nice collection of more general interest. It could be a perennial best-seller! You should think about it.

Gentlemen,  I don't think I've ever received a higher compliment about my writing than your two posts.  Thank you!  

I think the largest impediment to me shopping my columns around for print publication is the logical argument one would expect from any publisher:  "Why should we pay to print your stuff when it's already available on line for anyone to read for free?"

Commander Benson said:

I think the largest impediment to me shopping my columns around for print publication is the logical argument one would expect from any publisher:  "Why should we pay to print your stuff when it's already available on line for anyone to read for free?"

And the answer to that question?

The stuff that's free doesn't have your knowledge and your expertise.

I mean, to offer an example, the news of the day is what it is. But there's a reason why people choose to get it from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or some other paper. They aren't just buying the bare recitation of events; they're buying the information that has been gathered by the reporters on those staffs, they're buying the editorial judgment as to what pieces of that information are relevant, and they're buying the style, the verve, the flair -- and yes, the editorial biases -- from that institution.

Look at the very column above. Sure, all the pieces of it were online. But it's what you did with them that made the column interesting and informative. That ain't nothin' to sneeze at. 

I think what the Commander meant was that as his pieces are online, why would anyone pay for them?

But a lot of people would sooner have stuff like that in a convenient form than search through this site to find them all.

It's also possible to self-publish easy and cheap by a service like Draft2Digital. I use them and they're very simple, and they take their cut off the sale price. So if nothing sells, you pay nothing but time.

ClarkKent_DC said:

Commander Benson said:

I think the largest impediment to me shopping my columns around for print publication is the logical argument one would expect from any publisher:  "Why should we pay to print your stuff when it's already available on line for anyone to read for free?"

And the answer to that question?

The stuff that's free doesn't have your knowledge and your expertise.

I mean, to offer an example, the news of the day is what it is. But there's a reason why people choose to get it from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or some other paper. They aren't just buying the bare recitation of events; they're buying the information that has been gathered by the reporters on those staffs, they're buying the editorial judgment as to what pieces of that information are relevant, and they're buying the style, the verve, the flair -- and yes, the editorial biases -- from that institution.

Look at the very column above. Sure, all the pieces of it were online. But it's what you did with them that made the column interesting and informative. That ain't nothin' to sneeze at. 

"I think what the Commander meant was that as his pieces are online, why would anyone pay for them?"

Yes, but I meant shop them around as examples of his writing, not necessarily to use verbatim. Some introductions could be adapted from online articles, others could be written from scratch.

TV dinners may turn out to be one of those things that remain vital in the memory of the members of the generation that experienced them--and a matter of incredulity to later generations, a vanished transition technology like dial telephones, ditto machines, transistor radios, and the game Pong. 

If called by modern day foodies to testify on whether the food was any good, my memory is that the meat and veggies survived the process OK, but the mashed potatoes were horrid, edible only with the addition of plenty of butter.  

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