Sunday, April 04, 1999

TV dinners? We've got to draw the line




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My only experience with TV dinners was when I baby-sat for the Benders. Mrs. Bender knew that I would have no time to cook. I would be too busy trying to keep her children from cutting the dog's hair and setting each other on fire. As I recall, she would leave chicken dinners. I am sure the meal included peas and carrots.

        She said the same thing every time, “Confucius say: "Woman who cook carrots and peas in same pan is untidy.'” Then she would give a giddy laugh. Part of her glee, I am convinced, was being able to escape the Bender children for a whole evening.

        I have lost touch with them, but I am sure that the children are incarcerated somewhere, still eating off metal trays.

        I would not like to relive an evening with them or their anemic food or their television with the foil on the rabbit ears. I don't miss lard, and I'll bet my brother doesn't miss K-rations.

Tons of turkey
        For once, I think marketers may have overestimated the baby boomer idolatry of our past. It's true that we are buying up the new and improved VW Beetles as if we were teen-agers again and they were a cure for acne. We admit that we probably listen to more oldies music than is absolutely healthy, and we publicly cheered another round of John Glenn in a capsule.

        But we will draw the line somewhere.

        The line will be drawn, I believe, at TV dinners. We didn't love them when we were kids, and we won't love them as reruns.

        Invented in 1954 by a man named Gerry Thomas who was trying to get rid of about 270 tons of excess turkey, the meals were marketed by Swanson. The first aluminum tray of turkey, cornbread dressing and gravy, buttered peas and sweet potatoes sold for 98 cents. Then a frozen fried chicken dinner was introduced in 1955. They stopped calling them TV dinners in 1962.

        But now C.A. Swanson and Sons, celebrating its 45th anniversary, is bringing them back, aiming a $5 million advertising campaign at baby boomers. They are serious about this, even promising to resurrect the aluminum trays. At least temporarily. Haven't they heard what happens to stuff like this when you put it in a microwave?

        Swanson also has announced plans to “re-engineer” its frozen chicken dinners to make the meat more recognizable as chicken.

        A worthy goal.

Sign of sloth
        Do they really think that we're just dying to sit around watching The Garry Moore Show and Father Knows Best on a black-and-white Philco? With a side order of gluey potatoes and gummy gravy? Haven't they heard that people will actually deliver hot pizza, sandwiches and lo mein to your door?

        Echo advertising, as it is known in the trade, is brand identity bought and paid for in the 1950s and 1960s that reverberates today. This assumes that we want the product back. Maybe Swanson hasn't noticed, but we boomers are spoiled. We might like to reflect warmly on our past, but we don't want to can our own pickles.

        Does anybody really have fond memories of peeling back the foil to find corn embedded in his brownie? Does anybody hanker for the feeling of scalding steam on her fingers as she lifts the corner of a Salisbury steak dinner?

        My mom wouldn't even let them in the house. It was the mark of a slothful homemaker, in her opinion. Plus, they were expensive. That 98 cents is about $6 today. You can have a banquet at Wendy's for that. McDonald's will throw in a toy.

        There are some things we boomers won't bite on. We don't have to. We're grown-ups now. You can't ground us. You can't make us eat our peas. And you can't make us nostalgic for peach cobbler with gravy on it.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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