Frozen entrées, appetizing or otherwise, came to revolutionize the social culture of America and, in due course, the entire First World. Although the science of quick freezing had its beginnings early in the century, by the 1950s, the development of the process and the successful marketing of frozen food products came both to reflect and advance wider changes in working, family, and social habits. Despite the criticism that has always attached to frozen cuisine by those of more discerning palates, convenience has triumphed over considerations of taste in sufficient quantity to support a massive frozen food industry. By the end of the twentieth century, these "instant meals" had become an accepted constituent of American domestic life.
People who lived in harsh winter conditions with access to ice and snow, had always slow-frozen foods as a means of preserving them. Slow freezing, however, causes irreparable harm to the cellular structure of organic material, making it barely edible when thawed out. Clarence Birdseye was the first to accomplish quick-freezing, inspired by his work as a naturalist and then a fur trader in Montana from 1910 to 1917. When Birdseye noticed that fish caught at temperatures of 50 degrees below zero froze almost immediately, and upon being thawed, were still fresh and tasty, he was inspired to develop his own quick-freezing techniques. He first employed these in 1924, freezing fish, fruits, and vegetables. He had two methods: to chill foods by means of a very cold (-40 to -45 degrees) calcium chlorate solution, or, through the vaporization of ammonia, to chill foods to -25 degrees. The other important component of successful quick-freezing, Birdseye discovered, was to encase the food in protective packaging before freezing it, and thus to protect it from the deleterious effects of direct contact with the cold.
In 1929, the Postum Company (founded by C. W. Post) bought Birdseye's frozen haddock factory and became General Foods. The first line of Birdseye frozen foods, which included peas, spinach, raspberries, cherries, meats, and fish appeared in 1930, but struggled to catch on in the marketplace for several reasons. The public was inclined to view the frozen foods with suspicion, considering that they were inferior in quality and fit only for institutional use, or even that they had been accidentally exposed to cold and then resold as "frozen." In addition, during the 1930s fewer than half of Americans had iceboxes or electric refrigerators, and fewer still had mechanical freezers in which to store frozen food. The first dual-compartment, dual-temperature refrigerator came on the market in 1939, promising greater success for frozen foods, but World War II forced appliance manufacturers to turn their production efforts toward war materials instead.
The end of the war brought a boom in retail manufacturing and sales, and also a new American ethos that began to value convenience over quality. General Foods had offered a few frozen dinners, such as Irish stew, in the 1930s, but the post-war culture saw a great expansion in frozen dinner lines. In 1945 Maxson Food Systems, Inc. introduced "Strato-Plates," individual frozen meals on trays for both military and civilian airplane passengers. In 1951 Swanson came up with Pot Pies, and followed these with their mass-marketed "TV Dinners" in 1955. A turkey dinner with cornbread dressing, gravy, peas, and sweet potatoes comprised their first offering and sold for about one dollar. Roast beef, fried chicken, Salisbury steak, and ham with raisin sauce quickly followed as additional entrée choices. Other companies eventually joined in the trend, among them Stouffer, Banquet, and On-Core. According to Consumer Reports, "By 1959 frozen dinners had become the best-selling of all frozen food items, outstripping the ever-popular meat pot pie." Americans bought 70 million dinners in 1955, 214 million in 1960, and an incredible two billion in 1994.
The first frozen dinners came in compartmentalized aluminum trays which held meat, vegetables, a starch (usually mashed potatoes), and dessert. The entire meal was baked in an oven anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. These dinners represented a revolution in food preservation technology and, more significantly, a change in American eating patterns. The frozen dinner meant that American family members no longer had to eat the same thing at the same time; and the American housewife did not have to cook it. Children and husbands could prepare frozen dinners, and they could be eaten in front of the television on "TV trays," rather than at the dining room table. Further, people were no longer tied to the seasons or regions for their choice of food—quick-freezing meant that they could have any meat, fruit, or vegetable at any time.
Swanson launched the "Hungry Man's Dinner" in 1972, appealing to those who wanted larger quantities of meat and potatoes. During the 1970s the company also changed its product name from the "TV Dinner"—which had become a generic term in the American vocabulary—to the "Frozen Dinner." The 1980s saw an influx of new products. Individual dinners were broken up into individual components, with "frozen entrées" overtaking dinners in popularity. In 1986, the four-section aluminum tray had been superseded by plastic serving dishes, which could be placed in the microwave oven for quicker heating. These contained more specialized meals to suit various palates and dietary needs, and by 1990, 651 new entrées came on the market, compared with 55 dinners that same year. Companies introduced ethnic cuisine, pizzas, gourmet meals, side dishes, cakes, and pies. Lean Cuisine, Budget Gourmet, Le Menu, Weight Watchers, and Healthy Choice were among the main market competitors producing these ranges.
For all the apparent variety that frozen entrées offer, people generally agree that the food is mediocre at best. Meats contain fillers and constitute only a small percentage of the total food in the dinner, while vegetables taste bland and too often need the addition of salt. Nonetheless, with the development of domestic technologies, leading to the widespread popularity of freezers and microwave ovens in the home, attitudes to eating have changed. Where once the evening dinner was a requisite social activity that reinforced familial bonds, by the 1990s people were content to eat their own individual meals alone, sacrificing taste and conviviality for standardization and convenience.
"Better than TV Dinners?" Consumer Reports. March 1984, 126-127, 170.
Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. New York, Harper Collins, 1990.
Volti, Rudi. "How We Got Frozen Food." Invention and Technology, Spring 1994, 47-56.