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At 50, TV dinner is still cookin'

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"The segmented plate was enormously powerful, and remains so," says Betty Fussell, food historian and author of "My Kitchen Wars."

"The childlike packaging makes it appealing," she adds. "The food is segmented, just the way we separate food on our plates when we're children and don't want things mixed. It's a form of comfort to us. Everything is in its place."

It was 50 years ago that Swanson contributed to an American food revolution by selling its first TV dinner - packaged in Thomas's segmented tray - for 98 cents. It let customers feast on turkey with corn bread stuffing, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes - right in front of their television screens.

The Swansons, a bit skeptical about the new-fangled idea, ordered a first run of only 5,000 meals. But they quickly learned that they had greatly underestimated the demand. In 1954, more than 25 million TV dinners were served in front of 33 million television sets in living rooms across America. [Editor's note: The year of the introduction of the TV dinner is disputed.]

It came, it thawed, it conquered. Americans loved those prepackaged turkey meals almost as much as they loved Lucy. As families gathered around their 8-inch black and white Philcos to watch "You Bet Your Life" and "The Bob Hope Show," they ate from those familiar trays.

The demand soared, and the Swansons - finally recognizing a good thing when they saw it - added fried chicken, Salisbury steak, and meatloaf to their TV dinner menu.

Still, not everyone was thrilled about the new dinnertime innovation. Despite the popularity of the convenient meals, Swanson did receive "hate mail" - mostly from disgruntled husbands who were suddenly coming home to find precooked, reheated dinners instead of their favorite home cooking.

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