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Swanson's in the cozy cathode glow

My appetite for news got a special treat not long ago, when officials at the Swanson Frozen Food company announced a series of events to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the TV dinner. The celebration will include new products, big advertising, and even a brief reintroduction of the famous aluminum tray.

I'm not ashamed to say that while growing up, Swanson cuisine passed through our kitchen on a regular basis.

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My mother was always intrigued by consumer innovations during the postwar years. And by 1954, when the new meals made their debut, speed and convenience were becoming dominant themes in American culture.

Gerry Thomas is the man who thought up the dinners. He says the TV label was a way to make the product seem trendy and cool, by linking it to the explosive popularity of the new electronic medium.

Again, I confess: My family did eat many evening meals in our living room while watching television.

For a variety of reasons that are too complicated to explain here, the dining room table was usually piled high with junk mail and old newspapers. But at least we were watching quality programs such as the Huntley-Brinkley Report ("Good night, Chet." "Good night, David. And good night for NBC News.")

In my opinion, what made TV dinners so appealing was the tray.

Aluminum was a product of space-age technology. I could easily imagine myself staring at the carefully measured portions of food while hurtling toward the rings of Saturn in the cockpit of a mighty star cruiser. TV dinners also gave kids the incredible option of eating the apple crisp dessert before the main course.

At this point, I must also comment on the other towering achievement in Swanson history, the chicken pot pie. There was always a moment of uncertainty that I enjoyed immensely as the pies emerged from the oven. Should I eat mine out of the aluminum tub, or flip it over onto a plate so it resembled a small, golden igloo?

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Chicken was the best flavor, turkey was so-so, and beef was discouraging. The beef gravy had a dark, sludgy appearance, like the dredgings from our local yacht harbor. Sorry, Swanson, but you can't expect us frozen-food gourmets to swallow everything with a smile.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the old trays. My mother washed and saved every one of them while explaining, "We can use these for other things." I have an uneasy feeling they all ended up in a landfill. But since aluminum recycling is now a standard household policy, I plan to buy one of the new commemorative TV dinners and cook it, so my daughter can get a taste of what the old days were like. Maybe I'll even let her eat the dessert first.

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