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Remembering the Man Who Brought Us TV Dinners

Recently an American pioneer -- or rotten scoundrel, depending upon your point of view -- died at age 83.

His name was Gerry Thomas. He's responsible for that icon of convenience foods: the TV dinner. In 1948, he was a traveling salesman for Swanson Foods, which was busy shipping eggs and chickens and turkeys all over the country. One day, company officials were aghast to learn that more than 200,000 kilos of plucked fowl were sitting, unused, in chilled boxcars. What to do with them?

Mr. Thomas remembered that an airplane stewardess had served him a meal in a compartmentalized tray that kept the gravy on his mashed potatoes from sloshing over into his dessert. What if Swanson were to cook the chickens and turkeys, cut the meat into slices, and package it with other fixin's into frozen meals in trays, wrapped in foil?

Swanson loved the idea and turned it into a multi-million dollar business -- in part because of its inspired name: the "TV dinner." You peeled back the foil so steam could escape, popped the aluminum tray in the oven, ate the meal in your easy chair when it was done, and then discarded the tray. No muss, no fuss.

For this masterpiece of simplicity, Gerry Thomas got a $100 raise and a small bonus. As his Washington Post obituary pointed out, Mr. Thomas "came to regret" not asking Swanson to give him, instead, a penny for each dinner sold.

Not everybody liked TV dinners -- or Mr. Thomas for inventing them. He got hate mail from men, in particular, who said their wives were also plopping in front of the tube and eating these things, and no longer fixing them yummy, home-cooked meals. So we pause to remember Gerry Thomas: frozen-food legend -- and homewrecker!