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Renegade Chef: TV dinners and the Great Depression

“TV-dinners and the Great Depression”

When I was a kid I thought “TV-dinners” were the greatest things ever invented. I don’t know why. Today I consider such meals as punishment. “Prison-dinners” would probably have sold back then as well.

We lived in a low-tech world where the “haves” were astonished by the advent of color-television and the “have-nots” jumped at the chance to visit the “haves”, if only for an hour—just long enough to watch the “Wonderful World of Disney” and maybe see the NBC peacock spread its plumes a time or two.

You see, I was a product of the Great Depression—that would be my mother. I must have been in my early teens before I finally learned the term had actually been applied to a significant historical event. But it didn’t matter—the consequences were the same.

I grew up mesmerized by a black-and-white TV that sported one channel and went off the air at 10:30 p.m. with a loud blast of the National Anthem. I was also frugally raised in a world of homemade “everything”, and on the rare occasion when I was treated to a frozen Banquet TV-dinner (I was a “have-not”—the “haves” ate Swanson’s) I thought I was in heaven—especially if it came with a Coke. And for some reason I always had to eat my TV-dinner on one of those spindly, fold-out tray-stands placed just far enough from the television I wouldn’t get cancer or have my eyes explode. Sometimes the dog knocked over the tray-stand and I ate “floor-dinner”. The Great Depression taught us not to waste food, and since we all got pretty chubby, I guess we must have listened—though some of us got cancer from eating carpet fibers.

What is it with kids and their fascination with compartmentalized, freezer-burned food? It’s all about the packaging. Take the tablespoon of corn, the chemical-tasting slice of turkey draped with a dollop of liquid sodium and the chocolate pudding, and put it on a regular dinner plate and just see what happens. About the same thing that happens when you place wholesome, delicious, homemade food on that same plate. Boring!

Frozen, packaged dinners take up an entire aisle—or more--at most large grocery stores. Banquet and Swanson’s have survived, but the countless brands and selections available today seemed to have evolved as dramatically as crank-phones to i-Pods. In fact, I think I saw i-Pod-dinners in the frozen stacks just the other day—right next to the X-BOX 360-dinners.

Don’t tell my kids, but I purchased a lifetime supply of 3-compartment foil containers long ago. I fill them up with wholesome, delicious, homemade food. They are healthier because of it. And I’ve saved a lot of money.

The following recipes make for a wonderful homemade TV-dinner. The fact the whole thing will be jazzed up with pan-seared turkey cutlets, corn pudding and a gooey chocolate brownie, is meaningless without the 3-compartment foil container.