Excerpt From Hank Cardello's 'Stuffed'

Though Swanson did not invent the frozen food concept, its multiple compartments and use of leftover food changed the way the food industry made money and the way America ate its meals. Almost overnight, it seemed that millions of kids were plopped in front of the black-and-white televisions with the aluminum pan in front of them. A few slices of bland turkey in gravy with some cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and perhaps the sorriest-tasting— certainly the sorriest-looking—peas on the planet. It wasn't very appealing, but it was convenient, and the postwar generation quickly and steadily bought into this new concept of convenience foods. Mom and Dad had the evening out, and the babysitter stood in as cook and waitress. In its first full year, more than 25 million tins were served in living rooms and kitchens across the nation. A phenomenon was born, and in one single moment, the face of food in this country began to shift.

There are many people who trace the beginning of our national obesity epidemic to the start of the fast-food chain, to a man named Kroc and the Golden Arches that he started in Des Plaines, Ill., in 1955. While I'm the first to admit that fast food and all of its offshoots played a big role in our current situation, for my money, the story of the Swanson TV dinner holds the real key to understanding why we're so fat. The TV dinner marked a lot of firsts: the first time that we embraced en masse convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a preprepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home.

But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment. After all, the TV dinner was just a way to boost a company's struggling bottom line and cut its losses. On the surface, from a food perspective, there appeared to be little benefit to the consumer. The taste was awful, the food unappealing, and the choices limited. I mean, seriously, who wants to eat frozen Thanksgiving turkey in February?

And yet it turned out that was exactly what a lot of people wanted, and they wanted to do it because of how it had been sold to them. They had been sold on the idea that the convenience of this product was their ticket to a happier life. It had nothing to do with the actual food, and everything to do with the image of the food that had been projected. It had to do with the convenience, the slick packaging, and the easy cleanup. Anytime, anywhere, you could have a meal that you knew. It might not have been a good meal, but at least it was familiar.

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