He patted my arm. "Let us be the friends. It is not friendly to talk about nothing with such seriousness on your face. It is getting late, and you will both stay to dinner with me, please."At some point TV dinners went from being 50s space-age wonders to being associated with the lower-class or the pathetically single divorced guy living in a dingy crackerbox flat. Perhaps that had already happened by 1971 when Willeford wrote the above passage.
"Thank you very much. We would like very much to stay." He had changed the subject abruptly, but the longer I stayed the better my chances became to gain information about the old man. Or did they?
"Good!" He rubbed his dry hands together and they made a rasping sound. "First I will turn on my electric oven to four-two-five degrees. I do not have the printed menu, but you may decide. There is the television turkey dinner. Very good. There is the television Salisbury steak. Also very good. Or maybe, M. Figueras, you would most like the television patio dinner? Enchilada, tamale, Spanish rice, and refried beans."
"No," I said. "I guess I'll have the turkey."
"I'd rather have the Salisbury steak," Berenice said. "And let me help you--"
"No. Debierue will also have the turkey!" He smiled happily, and turned toward the stove. Relenting, he changed direction, went to the sideboard and got out a box of Piknik yellow plastic forks and spoons. There was a four-mat set of sticky rubber yellow place mats in the drawer. He handed the mats and the box of plastic utensils to Berenice and asked her to set the card table on the porch.
I'm old enough to acutally remember the classic Swanson TV dinner on aluminum tray, I'm sure I had them more than once, and as a kid I thought they were pretty cool, but I can't recall when and where. But kids don't have the most sophisticated of palates, and are always going to dig the novelty of eating off a piece of space-age aluminum as opposed to a boring old plate as long as it's actually a novelty.
Back when I was single and living in America, and barely knew how to cook more than hamburger, my quick and dirty meal was a can of Campbell's chunky soup. A can of beef vegetable stew is a much more efficient food delivery unit than trying to freeze a real home-cooked meal onto an aluminum tray, then reheating it in an oven.
And this leads to the heart of the TV dinner phenomena, trying to imitate a traditional home-cooked meal with separate courses of meat, veggies and dessert.
TV dinners didn't suddenly disappear after ZZ Top mocked of them in 1983, although I've no idea how prevalent they are these days in their hipper, modern form. I don't really see them here in Czechia, except in the form of frozen pizzas (*gasp* *choke*). But "prepared meals" are apparently quite big in the UK. Of course there are all sorts of things like prepared salads in fine supermarkets the world over, but those have as much to do with a classic Swanson TV dinner as a bottle rocket does with Sputnik.
But were classic TV dinners really that unhealthy? The quality and nutritional value of TV dinners likely declined as the traditional home-cooked meal that they hoped to emulate declined, since the whole point of a TV dinner was to replace a home-cooked meal. While the above shot is most likely a idealized promotional, it's a pretty damn good meal--even if its real life counterpart would've suffered from the inevitable sogginess, freezer fatigue, and mismatched temperatures that a TV dinner naturally entails.
The obvious solution to the home-cooked meals gap is for the government to subsidize home-cooked meals. But instead of subsidizing home-cooked meals directly, as the NY Times social engineeress suggests, perhaps the better solution would be for the government to subsidize classic Swanson TV dinners. They could be handed out to children as they left their public schools, with an upbraiding note to the parents about the importance of home-cooked meals along with directions on how to reheat them.