Gerry Thomas, Inventor of the TV Dinner

Day to Day offers an appreciation of Gerry Thomas, the inventor of an American cultural treasure: the TV dinner. Thomas died this week at the age of 83.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And this news item today. Inventor Gerry Thomas has died at age 83. You may not recognize his name, but you sure know what he did, changing American culture in way we're still struggling with. A little more than 50 years ago, Gerry Thomas invented the TV dinner. He was working for Swanson & Sons in Omaha. They had tons of frozen turkeys they couldn't sell. Gerry Thomas came up with the idea of a meal featuring turkey frozen in a ready-to-heat aluminum tray. Patrick Kiger writes about pop culture.

Mr. PATRICK KIGER (Writer): Thomas, as the story goes, dreamed up this idea when he was traveling. He was a salesman. He saw the trays from Pan Am, international flights. They had just recently developed a dining tray for the long flights. And he saw that. That made him think of eating rations back on the battlefield in World War II. Eating a small meal like that was difficult because the stuff all got mixed together, and he saw the little compartments on the trays.

CHADWICK: Before the TV dinner, families actually used to sit around a dinner table eating meals that took Mom hours to produce. Members of the family felt connected, they knew about each other's lives. Almost immediately, Patrick Kiger says, Gerry Thomas was blamed for changing that.

Mr. KIGER: He went through a period where he was getting a lot of hate mail from men basically because they said that we were ruining family life. Men said they would divorce their wives if they served our dinners. They wanted them to fix their meals from scratch. But, you know, he saw that that wasn't going to happen, basically, and that was his response as well. You know, such is life, basically. This is the way the world's going to go.

CHADWICK: The original TV dinner took about 25 minutes to cook or reheat. It's much less now. And that may be Gerry Thomas' greatest legacy.

Mr. KIGER: The TV dinner was part of the beginning of the, you know, now, I-want-it-now kind of culture in a way. Again, something that he probably didn't really envision happening. But in some ways, it sort of was the beginning of our collective impatience with--you know, we want everything in two minutes; if we can get it in two minutes, we want it in a minute. And then it's going to keep getting smaller and smaller.

CHADWICK: Writer Patrick Kiger. Gerry Thomas invented the TV dinner for Swanson's. He died in Paradise Valley in Arizona at the age of 83.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY.

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