Back in the day before microwaves and an entire aisle in the grocery store wasn’t dedicated to frozen meals of increasing gourmet pretensions, there was the TV Dinner. TV Dinners were packaged and served on a divided foil plate. You had your meat, smothered in some kind of gravy or sauce, and decidedly not shaped like it came directly from the animal. Then there was a vegetable, usually wrinkly green peas, some kind of starch like a perfectly square corn muffin or a half-dozen French fries, and a dessert. The dessert was either chocolate pudding or some variation on apple pie. The dessert always had a stray pea hiding in it.
They felt like astronaut meals. The foil tray was shiny like a space-suit. TV Dinners were real food, in that you could eat them and they tasted more or less like their non-TV dinner counterparts, but they were also not real. The meat was mashed and reconstituted. The potatoes were a little too uniform. The vegetables seemed freeze-dried in addition to frozen. If you ate the dessert first, you’d blister your tongue. Despite being pre-made, they weren’t instant gratification food. They had to be cooked from frozen in a preheated oven.
These days, I usually eat leftovers for lunch. I am incapable of cooking for one, or two, or even four. I have my mother’s habit of cooking enough for each meal to feed an army of angels who may decide to descend upon my doorstep and need sustenance. I suppose I could learn to halve the ingredients, but I prefer my own cooking to freezer food. I like leftovers. Every once in a while, though, I end up with a commercial frozen meal. The other day I ate something that promised to contain organic, flash frozen vegetables. I showed it to my friend, Diane, and pointed out how far frozen food had come since those TV Dinners.
Thinking of that, I wondered if the originals were still available. The next time I found myself in a grocery store, I bought one. The selection was slim, overwhelmed by restaurants offering up a frozen version of their popular entrees and a variety of meals that promised great health and weight loss. I finally found the Hungry Man dinners, which were shaped like the originals, but with the tray plastic instead of foil for the microwave.
I wanted Salisbury Steak, since that seemed the TV-iest of all dinners, but they didn’t have any. Instead, I got chicken-fried chicken, which had two perfectly oval fried chicken patties covered in an Elmer’s glue-like gravy. It had mashed potatoes, green beans, and a tiny portion of stewed apples cut into perfect squares. I am pleased to say that the apples did not have any vegetables in them whatsoever.
I only glanced at the nutrition value, long enough to see that I didn’t want to know any more. You’d think with all that salt (75% of my daily dose of sodium) the meal would have more flavor, but you’d be wrong. I can’t say it was good, but if I’m going to be honest I have to say I liked it a fair bit better than asparagus, nature’s nastiest vegetable.
Mostly, I think I enjoyed the nostalgia. The last time I ate an honest-to-God TV dinner Jimmy Carter was president and I had no responsibilities in the world beyond cleaning my room when my parents demanded it. Going outside to ride my bike nowhere in particular, or just around and around the cul-de-sac was a valid activity. I had to stop playing to eat my Salisbury Steak and mashed potatoes with a little peak on top, as if they’d been served out of a soft-serve ice cream machine. Our 19-inch TV, the one we ate them in front of, was the fancy big one.
Maybe, instead of reaching back to those times with a TV Dinner, I should just go outside and play. I wonder if I can still ride a bike with no hands or roller skate without killing myself. If it turns out that I can’t do either of those things, maybe they’ll serve Salisbury Steak at the hospital. It is easy to chew, after all.
 I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Elaine Ambrose’s memoir Frozen Dinners. It has a picture of a TV dinner on the cover. Frozen Dinners: A Memoir of a Fractured Family: Elaine Ambrose: 9781612542843: Amazon.com: Books
If you enjoyed this and want to read more like it, visit Lori at her website, www.loriduffwrites.com, on Twitter, or on Facebook. Her newest book, a Foreword INDIES Gold Medal award winner, “If You Did What I Asked In The First Place” is currently available by clicking here.