TV Dinners: Grand or Gauche?

TV Dinner

He Said: I sit at the counter, tracing the copper veins of the marble Formica, waiting. What’s it going to be today? I ask myself. My grandmother trundles over and slides a bowl thick with purple broth in front of me, then sits down with my mother, father, and me. I poke at the stew, and then I see them. Suction cups! Not just one, but a million. Rows and rows laid out like morse code sending a secret message.

“I can’t eat this!” I say, pushing away the octopus stew and leaving the table. “I just can’t.”

My mother points to my stool and gives me the vigneta look, the do-not-cross-me-now-young-man stare.”Sit,” she commands. I obey.

I push the chunks of demon food around my bowl, occasionally forcing some down in between huge, sloppy gulps of water. I shoot her some of my own vigneta looks, but I’m still in training, and they sluice off her like rain on a roof as she talks with my father.

And so it went every night: a parade of salt cod, my aunt’s blood sausage, my mother’s calf’s liver, my grandmother’s chicken necks. And my theatrics.

Growing up Portuguese in a time when the American ideal was Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby, and Cindy (Brady, of course), nothing in my world resembled theirs. Sure, we had low-slung Danish furniture in our living room and my mother wore shortish polyester dresses and shoes with chunky heels, but that’s where the similarity ended. Especially at the table. Until I was ten, it was a full-frontal assault of odd bits and bobs from every part of every kind of animal.

Then something happened. Something miraculous. Something utterly unexpected. My mother and I were shopping at Fernandes, where she worked as a courtesy booth girl. (This was in an era when someone in a supermarket actually smiled, asked after your husband, and helped you find the peas on sale.) I stood in front of the frozen food section pointing to Swanson’s TV dinners. I locked eyes with her and held my ground.

“No.”

“Please.”

“No!”

“Pleeeeeeeeease.”

No!” We both knew that all I had to do was make the slightest scene–in a place where she knew just about everyone by name–and, well, how courteous would that be?

“Fine,” she said. I won. I stood my ground and I won. From that day forward, I was allowed to eat my own food and could leave the awful offal behind.

And eat I did. I ate my way through just about every dinner Swanson’s made–turkey with stuffing, classic fried chicken, chopped beef–not to mention Hungry Man offerings, and a bizarre line of dinners that promised concerned mothers that their kids would get a full serving of vegetables. How? By making carrot fries and beet fries. I ate them all, ghastly orange and red fries included.

TV dinners were more than a tentative step of filial independence. They were my conduit to becoming an air-brushed, scrubbed-of-all-ethnicity American Me. They drew a line in the cultural sand and separated me from my Boston cousins and countless other children of immigrants who daily bowed over bowls of Old World frugality. They were my ticket into the closed circles of tow-headed kids I went to school with–the Ledouxes, the Fitzgeralds, the Hazels. They said, “Hey, I may be Portuguese, but you and me, we’re the same.”

The irony  is I never once enjoyed my dinner in front of the TV, like my godmother did, eating her homemade French stuffing with one hand and smoking a Pall Mall in between bites with the other. My father insisted we eat at the table as a family. So while my parents and grandparents prattled on about parental concerns, I busied myself with emptying each precisely formed well of my tray. With each bite I imagined that I was the seventh Brady child, getting caught up in all kinds of shenanigans that ethnically neutered children do.

Are frozen TV dinners the paragon of culinary virtue and millennial food politics? Hardly. But for a few brief years in the early ’70s, they helped ease the pain of feeling different, ostracized, ignored. And all for 85 cents.

She Said: Know how when you were a little kid you somehow had to manage to behave yourself for the seeming eternity that was Sunday mass? I spent a lot of those church hours parachuting Fisher-Price people from the backs of pews into the hymnal holders. The rest of the time I spent silently pleading with the man upstairs to do something about my supper situation.

My mom loathed cooking. Still does. Just was never her thing. Whereas in the morning she and I would giggle our way across the gold linoleum kitchen floor, waltzing to AM radio, come 4:00 p.m. she’d pace alone from cabinet to deep freeze to fridge and back again, lost in thought about what to make for dinner. Her demeanor changed, her laughter swayed to indecision, and much rumination and self-recrimination ensued. It was as if her entire being was consumed by the thought, “Oh god. Not again.”

Her coping strategy was a dented recipe tin containing handwritten cards yielding a small rotation of recipes, mostly casserole recipes. That and a deep-freeze she kept crammed full of butcher paper-wrapped bundles of ground beef. Most nights began with her tossing a pale pink brick of beef in a flowered casserole and cooking it over medium heat, impatiently scraping off the barely thawed bits as they browned, draining off the grease, and glopping in rice, canned tomatoes, cream of mushroom soup, and the like. The resulting creation was infallibly mushy and brown and, uh, aromatic in its own distinct way. Each of these is forever etched on my palate.

What complicated the cooking was the timing—or lack thereof. We never knew exactly when my dad would come in from the fields. So we’d wait…and wait…and wait. Mom would guess anew each night as to whether or when we ought to sit down to dinner without him, which didn’t exactly do much to remedy her mood. Or her tendency to overcook things. At some point we’d hear the door slam in the wash room off the kitchen where we kept the deep-freeze. While Dad stomped the dirt from his boots and scrubbed his hands with the gritty green soap that erased all trace of tractor grease, Mom would flurry to call my big brother to the table and I’d rush to clear any textbooks and homework papers, replacing them with a hot pad and a casserole dish before we’d all murmur grace and then fall into place. Dad would glower about soybean prices. Mom would gallantly pretend that everything was hunky dorey until Dad’s complaints wilted her to a seething silence. Big brother would goad me into misbehaving. And I would pout and push my casserole around on my plate, wishing instead for a hot dog. Or, even better, a real dog that would lick my plate clean beneath the table.

At some point my dad would boom, “Kids, you’re excused.” My brother and I would race outside to lose ourselves in chasing fireflies in the twilight, trying hard not to hear the barely hushed words thrown back and forth across the table.

That was my supper situation.

One afternoon things were unusually quiet, the kitchen bereft of drama even in the minutes leading up to dinner. That evening Mom had slid Swanson’s TV dinners onto the kitchen table, flopping her favorite burnt orange and lime quilted hot pad in front of me and placing a steaming foil tray on top. At last, I thought, my Sunday prayers were answered…by what seemed a divinely inspired, albeit pathetically packaged, frozen dinner. I was giddy with my grand expectations—and not just for what lurked beneath that foil lid.

No amount of cold milk could squash the metallic twang that Swanson’s left in my mouth, although my biggest disappointment wasn’t what I found in the tray. It was the dynamics surrounding the TV dinner that I found most disheartening. I’d assumed anything that circumvented my mom’s afternoon angst would change things. That my dad wouldn’t act like a stranger. That my mom would laugh like she did when it was just the two of us. That my brother wouldn’t be a brat. That my parents would make it through a meal without tense voices and heavy sighs. That I wouldn’t feel that brick in my stomach.

Nothing changed. Ever.

In retrospect, the only one doing any deceiving that night was my naive five-year-old self, ascribing super-hero powers to a flimsy tray of pulverized potatoes and disappointingly cardboard-like fried chicken. Thinking that Swanson’s was sufficient to fix all that was wrong at our table was the culprit. I was a kid. I needed more than a TV dinner—even a divinely inspired one. I needed an actual caped crusader. One who liked to cook.

Renee Schettler Rossi's signature
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Comments
Comments
  1. Bkhuna says:

    Sometimes I sit in the corner of a darkened room, the only illumination coming from the television. The wife will have gone to bed, but I sit hunched over while I enjoy my hidden shame. It’s name: Stouffers Mac & Cheese.

    I know there’s help available. And after all, the first step in curing the problem is admitting that you have one. I don’t think I’m ready for that just yet…

    • David Leite says:

      Bkhuna, that’s okay. Help will always be there when you need it.

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Is there a hidden camera in my kitchen? I am standing, yes standing, at the kitchen counter, in the dark, shoveling the leftover Stouffers Mac & Cheese into my mouth as fast as I can swallow. Guilty pleasures….

  2. Annie Albro says:

    You make me realize how lucky I was to have a mother that was a good cook. My only complaint was that she insisted I eat my vegetables & she always had a new one, but now I love them all, especially kale & brussle sprouts

    • David Leite says:

      Yes, you’re lucky. My mom and grandmother were great cooks–it was just the food they made wasn’t, um, to a kid’s liking. And as the family assimilated more, we had less offal and odd bits, and more foods I could/would eat!

  3. Sofia says:

    I too feel lucky to have had a Mother that loved cooking and my interest in putting my nose in all pots and pans while they were cooking. I must say though David, I not only understand your upbringing as a Portuguese descent as I too have similar stories to share, yet I also have realized that the Portuguese descent brought up in the States (or elsewhere I am sure) are more stuck to their heritage than the Portuguese living in Portugal. Today as a Portuguese immigrant in the States and with two wonderful daughters I find myself much as your family, trying to make my daughters eat all those odd parts of the different animals (so they do not loose part of their culture). I am lucky though to say to date they very much enjoy what I make. I did however go through a tiny phase with the oldest who each time we would go to the supermarket she would beg for one of those awful frozen kids meals and I consented a few times. Now the one rule I did not grow up with and allow in our house a few times a week is eating with the TV on, yet still sitting at the table and ONLY after we tell our daily news.

    Renee, having now lived in the Midwest for over 8 years I still see that happening. I believe it is a staple of the farm life. A good and dear friend from Iowa once told me, growing up his meals where hues of yellow, from pale yellow to brown and often consisted of corn, potatoes, pork, fried fish and so on. The first time he had something different was when he went on to college and was fascinated by all the taste buds he missed back at home.

    • David Leite says:

      Sofia, you bring up one of the most important points about immigrant families–or at least the Portuguese immigrant families I know: They remain stuck in the past, with their culture, food, ideologies, etc., as compared to residents of Portugal. I think it’s because their heritage was frozen in time the day the emigrated. Life continued for those who remained. I’ve tried very hard to get my parents, who were married in Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel, to visit again after 52 years. My father resolutely refuses. He doesn’t want to see the poverty he remembers. I tried to explain there’s practically none of it, but that doesn’t change his mind.

  4. Kathy in Arizona says:

    Oh, my! Wonderful, wonderful story. Childhood angst at its best. Although my mother was a wonderful cook, sometimes she would foist upon us kids foods we would found deplorable…like green peas. I would hide mine under the mashed potatoes and gravy, thinking she would believe I had actually eaten those horrible, little round mushy critters. Not. I would be excused from the table and be halfway down the block in anticipation of an afternoon of play when lo and behold, I’d hear this Mom voice yelling, “Mary Kathleen, get in here right now and finish your peas!” In dread, I would turn away from my anticipated adventures, slowly trudge back home, delaying the moment of reckoning by stopping to push the rolly-polly bugs along the sidewalk, to talk with every flower on the way, and to bemoan my fate with my imaginary friend, “Wipple.” I’d return home to a lone dining table, my plate sitting there laughing at me, the peas unearthed from the mound of mashed potatoes, waiting for me to gulp them down while holding my nose. For you see, unbeknownst to me, my mom discovered my ill-hidden cache of vegetables when she went to scrape my plate into the dogs’ dish. Unfortunately, she also had eyes in the back of her head. I would sit there for what seemed hours gagging down the vile peas. Odd things is, I love green peas now!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Charming, charming tale, Kathy…and quite well told! Sigh. The things we suffer through during childhood…

    • David Leite says:

      Wonderful recounting, Kathy. And like you, I love my nemesis now: octopus.

  5. Cindi Kruth says:

    OH, you two. What fun reading. This triggered memories of my own. Oddly enough, I remember home-cooked meals (a small rotation of not very inspired fare) AND TV dinners and other canned or boxed or frozen fare. Mom wasn’t much of a cook, nor was she much interested in cooking, but there were dishes I liked. Plain roasted chicken or broiled lamb chops, back when meat tasted good without being heritage, fresh corn on the cob, and ok I’ll admit it, jello chocolate pudding which I considered homemade because we cooked it as opposed to the instant type my aunt served. But also the processed stuff. As the daughter of a grocer in a test-market town, I got to try it all. Often before any of my friends had or even could have. Some tried at the table with the family, some in front of the TV on “tray tables.” Some in a sort of “close your eyes and open your mouth” game Daddy liked top play with seasonal fruits, new packaged products or just my favorite treats. I enjoyed it all, the food, the eating, the talk of food (Daddy being a grocer, grandpa a butcher, me loving food).

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Ah, the memories you inspire…tv tray tables…jello…how lucky you are to have had a childhood filled with food you liked.

  6. Pieri says:

    Ah Childhood!

    I grow up “ethnic”–the only Italian family in a sea of WASPs. My mother forced us to eat homemade soups and breads instead of Campbell’s Tomato and sliced Wonder Bread- it’s a wonder we ever grew up “normal.” THEY got Chef Boy-are-dee – WE had to suffer through homemade gnocchi and pasta. When my English friends came to visit–they couldn’t understand my parents broken English and oh god what are you eating?? Meat sauce on spaghetti??? why -don’t you get Kraft Dinner?? And so my mother, a small-town girl with big-world wisdom, would make me Kraft dinner and I would pretend to love it all the while stealing glances at my sisters plate of soft potato gnocchi smothered in a pesto and cream sauce.
    Who knew that the things I rebelled against so strongly yesterday are the very things that I embrace so fondly today.

    • David Leite says:

      Pieri, I hear you. All those foods that I so detested, that I stood firm and resolute about not eating, are the very ones I plead with my mom to make. The hard part is, because of their age and need to eat carefully, my parents rarely eat that way anymore. Luckily, I got the recipes for many of the dishes and I now make them. Although I don’t make that purple octopus stew. I prefer my cephalopods grilled.

  7. My mother was not talented in the kitchen. Amidst the repetitive nights of Minnesota “Hungarian” goulash and chicken and dumplings or tuna casserole, my Swanson’s dinner was a delicious haven. I would eat any Swanson’s meal as long as it promised the butter soaked corn and sponge-like chocolate brownie. Funny how family food culture can take a toll on adulthood. It took me a long time to wean myself off the overly processed American frozen food and boxed macaroni diet but oh, the memories.

  8. Paul Knipple says:

    I was an early adopter of the single-parent household model. I spent the late ’70s as a latchkey child, and TV dinners were a mark of pride and independence. I could come home after school and take care of myself. I don’t miss the TV dinners, but I do have fond (although probably inaccurate) memories of Morton pot pies. Does anyone else remember those?

  9. Ah, the family dinner table. He Said/She Said brings back memories: mine of growing up with 6 siblings so a garden was a necessity. We grew/canned/froze our own food and always had various parts of a side o’ beef in the chest freezer in the garage. We manned a stand in the front yard with cucumbers and green peppers and tomatoes. Three for 25 cents. We endured the shame of the gassy smell of sauerkraut fermenting in the 10-gallon crock downstairs. (It wasn’t me.) The scratched and scarred arms from picking raspberries and blackberries. (One for me. One for the basket.) TV dinners? Always a desire, until, like Renee I actually tasted one. Seriously? Were those really mashed potatoes? I don’t think so. Fast forward a few decades to the first time my daughter had dinner at a friend’s house and came home, eyes wide. “Did you know spaghetti sauce came in a jar?” she asked.

    • Kathy in Arizona says:

      Spaghetti sauce in a jar! How hilarious. I remember that my daughter’s friends at a very young age were amazed after watching me can a batch of cucumbers. They actually thought there were pickle plants which were put in jars on store shelves. If it hadn’t been so funny, I probably would have cried over the things the “new” generations take for granted.

  10. Amanda says:

    Oh, dear, there is every chance that I will need therapy now to cope with the resurrected memories of my own grandmother’s meals.
    My parents split when I was only 7 (deeply shaming for a Catholic family in the ’60′s), and we went to live with my grandmother who doted on my mother–sadly, less so on me. She was 72 by then and a dreadful cook, a predilection she passed on to mum. We, too, were faced with plates of offal on a regular basis–liver fried to the consistency of shoe leather, tripe cooked in a white sauce, kidneys with their faintly urine flavour. It was all simply ghastly.

    My sister and I grew to become good cooks with an interest in food and nutrition, but now my kids complain about the food I give them. Seems they would prefer sausages or chops and mashed potato to the Moroccan tajines and the Middle Eastern dishes I like to cook!

    One day I will cook them up some tripe and onions in white sauce–that should shut them up!

  11. Susan says:

    This was so funny. I loved it!

  12. Judy says:

    I grew up Australian Asian at a time when dinner for most of the population was still a ‘Meat&3 Veg’ affair. I remember the family making a two hour drive once a month to the Chinese grocers in Chinatown for condiments, meats and vegetables necessary to bring Asian flavours to the table.

    Ironically and in hindsight, rather shamefully, all we (the kids) wanted was to eat McDonald’s for dinner every night. Dad was great about it though and would routinely give us a homemade western meal of his own making in the form of steak and fries. He’d always sneak some soy sauce into the steak marinade so there was still the Asian taste to it. I realise now that Dad was years ahead of his time in being able to bring fusion flavours to our suburban palate long before the master chefs were capable of such a culinary feat.

    TV dinners were always a novelty in our house too and to this day I still delight in having my own serving of carefully portioned meals for the faux nostalgic value if not for the taste factor.

    Is it shameful too, in this Age of the Gourmand, to confess that I am still delighted by airline meals for the surprise factor and compartmentalising of my meal.

    I admit, I’m weird.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      I think it’s terrific that you can look back and respect how your Dad would appease both your cravings and your culture. Smart guy. And as for your last comment, Judy, I disagree. Not weird. We each have our unique and inimitable penchants and quirks. It just sort of is what it is. Embrace it.

    • Kathy from Arizona says:

      We weren’t privy to very many fast food delights when I was growing up. I suspect that was due to limited financial resources to “squander on junk,” as my folks put it. I still don’t relish fast food very much, but my dog Buster has another mindset altogether! Maybe he’s the inner child in me getting spoiled? All I have to utter are two words: Ride and hamburger. He’s out the door lickety split waiting to jump in the car! The short-legged waddle-butt moves as swiftly as any racing greyhound when warranted.

      I’m so glad you brought up airline meals, because until now I was afraid to admit that my love of water chestnuts all came about from a very memorable meal served on a flight many, many years ago. I never could figure out just what the entree was, but it consisted of stew-like chunks of beef in gravy with chunks of what I thought were potatoes…raw ones at that. Then I somehow figured out the potatoes were actually water chestnuts with that terrifically wonderful crunch. I had never had water chestnuts until then, but have been eating them ever since. They are a staple in my larder. The problem is I’ve never been able to replicate that dish!

  13. Ling Teo says:

    Um, these were available for sure in the supermarket in 1980′s Singapore, but none ever crossed the threshold of our home… I guess Mum thought they were the food of the Devil, but bro and I never really developed a curiosity overwhelming enough to badger Mum into getting these.

    Powerful, personal and evocative writing from the both of you – not what I expected to read. Thanks for sharing :)

    Ling

  14. Nancy says:

    My family immigrated from Denmark and I loved almost all the food that would appear on the table. Sliced beef heart, liverwurst, a bounty of vegetables, yum making me hungry. BUT my grandmother would try to trick us into eating turnips by mashing them and making them “look” like mashed potatoes. As soon as the bowl got near I would smell them, yuck, can’t fool my nose. Really that’s about the only bad thing I remember being on the table, oops forgot brains Grandpa liked them scrambled with eggs, they made me gag. The good did outweigh the bad. I wish I knew how to make the pudding like dessert that was made with grape juice, can’t remember the name of it. Gotta go fix a snack, no brains or turnips involved.

  15. Jane says:

    I love how both of you painted such vivid stories in my head. David, your childhood memory, albeit sad, made me laugh out loud.

    But is it a crime I’ve NEVER eaten, let alone touched, TV dinners? The sight of them lined up like soldiers in the icy depths of the frozen food aisle makes me cringe. I’ve always been prejudiced about whether frozen meals could taste any good, plus they’re doused in a gazillion foreign chemical ingredients. Since my bad experience with food that “lurked beneath the foil lid” (bright colored bugs in my airplane food! gah!), I’m staying clear of TV dinners.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Jane, I don’t blame you one iota your disdain for TV dinners. I’m with you, the further away you can stay, the better…for so many reasons. As for your kind words on our stories, it is remarkable, isn’t it, the memories we hold so close to us, even if we don’t always recall them?

  16. Cindy Bowman says:

    If TV dinners looked like the photo, they wouldn’t be quite so, um, icky? I, for one, have NEVER uncovered one that looked like that! Peppy potatoes, plump corn and brown (not gray) turkey and stuffing… yum!

  17. Lauralee Hensley says:

    Never really had TV dinners growing up, had some after I grew up though. I find TV dinners lacking, but once in awhile you just don’t feel like cooking or spending tons of money on takeout. Family meal times were tense around our house, too. My Dad felt children should be seen and not heard. You had to sit just so when eating, too, or Dad would make you stand outside in the backyard while everyone else finished their meal. I spent a few meals standing in the backyard. I remember that green, gritty LAVA soap, too. My Dad used to wash his hands with it when he came home from work.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      Times are quite different now, aren’t they, Lauralee? Sorry to hear that we had similar experiences, although it sounds like we both, surprisingly and maybe a little amazingly, overcame them and love to cook…

  18. Joyce Hanson says:

    David, somehow your family “supper situation” sounds quite lovely and nostalgic from where I see it in 2012. Your detailed descriptions bring those memories back so strongly. I’m now visualizing my own family’s little suburban kitchen, with Mom dressed for a Saturday night date with Dad, in her rhinestones and black velvet dress, pulling a couple of Swanson’s chicken potpies from the oven for me and my sister.

    • David Leite says:

      Joyce, who would have thought we’d be nostalgic over frozen dinners, right? I remember on Saturdays finishing my lastest version of frozen dinner, taking a bath, and getting ready to watch “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and finally “The Carol Burnett Show.”

  19. Carmen says:

    My nemesis? Beets. My mother would open a can of beets, heat them up, and plop a plate full of blood clots in front of me. I’d have to choke them down, end up gagging, and race to the sink—only to be presented with a second plate. I’d sit for hours, be sent to bed in a fury, and have the same plate presented to me, cold, for breakfast.

    Issues, yes, I have them. That’s one of the reasons I’ve worked so hard to become a good cook.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Oh, Carmen, my stomach is doing flip-flops at the mere thought of this. Gack! Have you read Carol Penn-Romine’s essay on her mother’s tactics for getting her to try turnips? If not, I encourage you to stop whatever you are doing and read it right now. I think the two of you could form a support group…

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Send it along. Covet one of those spiffy pictures of yourself to go along with your comment? Get a free Gravatar. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

*

Daily Subscription

Enter your email address and get all of our updates sent to your inbox the moment they're posted. Be the first on your block to be in the know.

Preview daily e-mail

Weekly Subscription

Hate tons of emails? Do you prefer info delivered in a neat, easy-to-digest (pun intended) form? Then enter your email address for our weekly newsletter.

Preview weekly e-mail