TV Dinners: Grand or Gauche?

Are TV dinners exquisitely grand or disappointingly gauche? David and Renee share their experiences and opinions from childhood regarding the iconic American convenience meal.

A tv dinner with sliced meat, stuffing, gravy, corn, and mashed potatoes in a foil container.

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.

Color photo of the Brady Brunch family with David inserted on the right hand side.

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. And for years, I dreamt I was the seventh kid. 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.

David Leite's signature

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 didn’t care for cooking. Still doesn’t. 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 ground 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 uncooked rice, canned tomatoes, cream of mushroom soup, and the like. The resulting creation was infallibly mushy and brown and aromatic in its own distinct way. Each of these is forever etched in my memory.

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 washroom 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. My big brother would tease 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 no longer hushed emotions 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 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 first 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 could circumvent 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 rock in my stomach.

Nothing changed. Ever.

In retrospect, it wasn’t the frozen dinner that was at fault. 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 TV dinner was sufficient to fix what was wrong at our table was the culprit. Even a divinely inspired one. Originally published September 21, 2011.

renee Schettler Rossi's signature

How about you, dear reader? Do you love or loathe classic TV dinners?

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Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

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