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At 50, TV dinner is still cookin'

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It began as a solution to that All-American holiday problem - what to do with the leftover turkey. But executives at C.A. Swanson & Sons weren't talking about just the remainders of the family meal. They were talking 520,000 pounds of poultry.

The Omaha, Neb., frozen food company had overestimated the demand for and undersold its 1953 Thanksgiving supply. Having insufficient warehouse facilities to store the overage, brothers Gilbert and Clark Swanson loaded the turkeys into 10 refrigerated railroad cars, which had to keep moving to stay cold.

As the turkeys traveled from Nebraska to the East Coast and back again, the Swanson brothers handed their staff a challenge - make good of this "fowl" situation.

Enter Gerry Thomas, a company salesman. Visiting the food kitchens of Pan American Airways in Pittsburgh, he caught sight of the single-compartment aluminum trays the cooks used to keep food hot. Thomas requested a sample, then spent his flight home designing a three-compartment tray that was a step up from the serviceman's mess kit. He decided his design might be just what Swanson needed to sell off that turkey.

Back in Omaha, Thomas presented a turkey dinner-filled tray to the Swanson brothers. Then he suggested tying the dinners to the nation's latest craze, television. Packages were designed to resemble a TV screen, complete with volume control knobs - and the TV dinner was born.

Swanson didn't actually invent the frozen dinner. That can be credited to (or blamed on) Clarence Birdseye, who in 1923 invested $7, purchased an electric fan, buckets of brine, and some ice, and invented a system of packing and flash-freezing waxed cardboard boxes of fresh foods.

But it was that packaging - the compartments for individual servings - that put Swanson on the frozen food map.

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