Friday, March 27, 2009

The TV Dinner as Turning Point

In the first chapter of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's [Really] Making America Fat, Hank Cardello identifies the invention of the TV dinner as a key turning point on the road to the current state of the U.S. diet and the health problems that flow from it:

There are many people who trace the beginning of our national obesity epidemic to the start of the fast-food chain, to a man named Kroc and the Golden Arches that he started in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955. While I'm the first to admit that fast food and all of its offshoots played a big role in our current situation, for my money, the story of the Swanson TV dinner holds the real key to understanding why we're so fat. The TV dinner marked a lot of firsts: the first time that we embraced en masse convenience over cuisine; the first time that it was better to be easy than to taste good; the first time that a preprepared (frozen) meal was served ready to heat and eat at home.
     But of all these firsts, perhaps the most important, the one that has affected our waistlines and our taste buds the most, is that the Swanson TV dinner marked the first time that a food industry marketing gimmick seduced what might have been our better judgment. After all, the TV dinner was just a way to boost a company's struggling bottom line and cut its losses. On the surface, from a food perspective, there appeared to be little benefit to the consumer. The taste was awful, the food unappealing, and the choices limited. I mean, seriously, who wants to eat frozen Thanksgiving turkey in February?
     And yet, it turned out that was exactly what a lot of people wanted, and they wanted to do it because of how it had been sold to them. They had been sold on the idea that the convenience of this product was their ticket to a happier life. It had nothing to do with the actual food, and everything to do with the image of the food that had been projected.

As you may have gathered from this passage, Cardello, a former food industry executive, sets his sights squarely (though not exclusively) on the food industry in apportioning blame for the alarming rates of obesity in the U.S. today. Having developed a longer view from Harvey Levenstein's histories of food and eating, I don't think Cardello is right about the TV dinner marking the first time a food industry marketing gimmick had such an effect. Nevertheless, after only a couple of chapters, I'm finding Stuffed to be an eye-opening read. No doubt I'll have more to say about it here when I work my way through to the end.


Linda said...

I saw this book at Borders over the weekend, and will be interested in hearing your take on it. I read Fast Food Nation--talk about something that will turn you off fast food places. However, I have to disagree with Mr. Cardello about one thing: all early TV dinners were not bad tasting. Swanson made a ham dinner that was quite good; it came with a raisin sauce that was delicious. My mom would buy a couple every six months or so as a treat. (Of course to us ham WAS a treat; we only ate it at Easter.)

Suko said...

It's a trade-off: less time in the kitchen means more time for TV viewing,work, or other pursuits, as we sacrifice taste and nutrition for speed and convenience. However, I must admit that I sometimes crave Swanson's fried chicken. An extra hour or two each day would help solve this dilemma!