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Father of the TV dinner dies

To live to 83, he must not have consumed very many samples of his invention. And what exactly was that cobbler-like fruit foulitude in the center compartment?

Gerry Thomas, who changed the way Americans eat – for better or worse – with his invention of the TV Dinner during the baby boom years, has died at 83.

Thomas, who died in Paradise Valley on Monday after a bout with cancer, was a salesman for Omaha, Neb.-based C.A. Swanson and Sons in 1954 when he got the idea of packaging frozen meals in a disposable aluminum-foil tray, divided into compartments to keep the foods from mixing. He also gave the product its singular name.

The first Swanson TV Dinner – turkey with cornbread dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and buttered peas – sold for about $1 and could be cooked in 25 minutes at 425 degrees. Ten million sold in the first year of national distribution. It was fast and convenient, and fit nicely on a TV tray in the living room, so that you didn’t have to drag yourself away from your favorite television show.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said the TV Dinner “started a change in American eating habits bigger than any change in culinary history since the discovery of fire and cooked foods.”

…The TV Dinner drew “hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did,” Thomas said, but it got him a bump in pay to $300 a month and a $1,000 bonus.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding