By Suzanne Corbett, STLSportsPage.com Food/Travel Editor
It was the golden age of TV. The 1950s when I Love Lucy ruled, and families gathered around the tube. They gathered to watch the shows, and to eat off TV trays designed to hold another famous 1950s iconic pop-culture creation, the TV dinner. The foil tray holding a meat and three sides premiered in 1953, the same year Little Ricky made his debut on I Love Lucy.
The concept, which would redefine home convenience foods, and how Americans would eat, was an invention of necessary according to the Swanson Company. It happened when Swanson found itself stuck with 260 tons of frozen leftover Thanksgivings turkeys. The overage was being held in refrigerated railroad cars that only worked (held its cooling abilities) when the train was moving. To keep the birds from defrosting and spoiling, Swanson had the train traveling back and forth between its Nebraska headquarters and the East Coast to keep the refrigeration running until a solution could be found. Gerry Thomas, a Swanson salesman, had the idea to cook the birds and create single serve dinner packaged and frozen in aluminum trays paired with holiday sides – cornbread dressing and sweet potatoes. The idea took off.
Another account of how the the TV dinner was born differs within the Swanson company.
Other report claims the sons of Swanson founder Carl Swanson, Gilbert and Clarke, came up with the idea. Perhaps the Swanson boys lifted the idea from Maxson’s Strato-Plates who produced frozen dinners as early as 1944 for the airline industry. A similar look and prep, which Maxson tried to market as Sky-Plates, but they never took off. Too expensive. But that’s another story.
While the ultimate claim for the invention continues to be disputed, the fact remains that Swanson’s TV dinners were a hit. Swanson sold ten million dinners the first year they were rolled out. Since then, frozen fare has been a staple in the American freezer. And TV dinners continue to be eaten while watching TV.
TV dinners and vintage TV shows are still a winning combination, especially those shows that featured child actors. Just ask Laurie Jacobson, a St. Louis native, who used those ingredients to cook-up her successful book, TV Dinners: 40 Classic TV Kid Stars Dish Up Favorite Recipes with a Side of Memories (2020, TV Classic Press).
It’s a cookbook full of captivating memories and comfort food recipes from child stars still watched in reruns on networks and cable networks as ME TV. Among those favorite child stars with a strong fan following are Jerry Mathers who played the Beaver in Leave it to Beaver; Butch Patrick, Eddie Munster from The Munsters; Angela Cartwright, Penny from Lost in Space; and Jon Provost who played Timmy in Lassie. Provost may have been the inspiration for Jacobson’s book – the two are married.
TV Dinners fit perfectly into is this year’s theme for the annual Rainbow’s For Kids Gala, Childhood Memories, November 10 at Orlando Gardens, Maryland Heights. Special guest for the evening will be four of those kid stars feature din Jacobson’s book, Jerry Mathers, Butch Patrick, Jon Provost, and Keith Thibodeaux – Little Ricky from I Love Lucy. In addition, comedian and tribute artist Rik Roberts will appear as Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show.
General admission tickets include buffet, cocktails and entertainment VIP tickets also include a pre-party with the evening’s stars and a signed copy Jacobson’s book, which includes from all the nights kid stars. For info on tickets visit rainbowsforkids.org/gala