Three guys sit around a table in an empty bar. Divorced, single, married. Fueled by cheap beer, free peanuts and a bizarre childhood memory of chicken that emerges through the alcohol haze, one of the guys asks his buddies to talk about the most depressing meal they’ve ever eaten.
They tell their tales and then he tells his. Thanksgiving, about eight years ago. Back when he lived five hours from the nearest family member and had to work early Friday morning. He turned down his co-workers’ offers to join them on the big day, choosing to sleep in. Late in the afternoon, as the Cowboys kicked off against the Dolphins, he finally looked into his freezer and pulled out a Swanson’s TV dinner. Fried chicken, the dark meat. Forty minutes later he sat in front of his television and ate his mashed potato, two chicken pieces, and corn. He washed it down with a Bud and the brownie. He called his family, assured them he’s doing well, says he went to a friend’s house for a big lunch. Hangs up. Throws the dinner away. Weeps.
That is not an autobiographical sketch — at least, not a completely accurate one. But I have had TV dinners on Thanksgiving, although at some point in the meal I probably had a grim smile on my face, even while each bite of corn and potato forced me to confront all the life choices I’d made up to that point.
The Swanson TV dinner turned 60 on Tuesday, according to some tweets and one of those This Day in History sites, which link the creation of a frozen dinner to, say, a key victory by the North in the Civil War. The first one was apparently sold in 1953, although if you see any from that original batch in your local grocery don’t be alarmed — the food’s probably fine.
I consumed hundreds of TV dinners the first 28 years of my life and I’ve had perhaps two in the nine years I’ve been married. I’m guessing that’s a common tale for TV dinner fans, Market research shows single people buy 98 percent of TV dinners, with those whose spouses are away on business accounting for two percent. Eventually life reaches a stage where you can no longer bear the idea of meticulously poking holes in the top of your mashed potato before shoving it into the oven.
Over the years I’ve proven that I can’t cook anything real, but I could dish up a nice TV dinner. I always had chicken, never steak or turkey or whatever other meats could be frozen and served with a veggie and starch. And usually white meat, probably 75 percent of the time, although I can’t confirm that number because only a serial killer would keep a notebook that detailed every TV dinner he ever ate, handing out grades to each item in the tray. Right?
While I’ve never been afraid of eating anything — I could watch 100 straight hours of anti-McDonald’s documentaries, turn it off and walk five minutes to the nearest franchise and order McNuggets and a burger — the dark meat in a chicken TV dinner always gave me pause. I poked at it carefully, respectfully.
Louise still hasn’t forgiven me for once saying I’d want my last meal on death row to include the corn from a TV dinner. She misinterpreted what I said and thought I would take the whole meal as the last one, somehow believing this disparaged the delicious meals she cooks every time she fires up the oven (if we lived in a world where a spouse was allowed to cook a condemned man’s last meal). So one night she made a TV dinner and made the same meal on her own, real chicken, potatoes, corn and a brownie. She conducted a taste test and I gave it an honest go. This was science, it deserved no less. Her meal obviously won, in all categories. And today my last meal would no longer include Swanson’s corn, not even slathered in butter with a dash of pepper on top, the way I always prepared it.
It’s been so long since I ate a Swanson’s meal that I don’t even know about any exciting advancements that might have taken place in their presentation or in the preparation. Have the recipes been altered at all, has dark meat been eliminated? I probably won’t learn these things anytime soon.
So happy 60th birthday, Swanson’s TV dinner, even if giving you up is one of the main reasons I might one day celebrate my own 60th.