Entertaining self-indulgence. A short history of food, flicks, friends and family.
Enjoying a meal while being entertained boasts a history that long predates television. It’s a story of self-indulgence, of feeding the body while feeding the mind, but most of all it’s a celebration of togetherness, of being at our most relaxed and most revealing while sharing the stories of others or ourselves with friends, families and occasionally in-laws.
Older than time. Better than frozen turkey.
There’s both something reassuring and slightly disturbing about the classic TV dinner. At least there was in my youth. On the plus side, it meant we’d be enjoying food that tasted like it might have been served in a restaurant just off the highway exit; the kind of place that’s attached to a service station and is crowded with people headed to or back from the cottage and intent on enjoying 2-1/2-star food in a 1-1/2-star setting. Taste aside, for this kid the TV dinner was exotic stuff. A bit like opening an edible Christmas gift while watching my favourite TV program or, in this case, my dad’s favourite. Dad loved The Lawrence Welk Show, which, if you’re not familiar with the program, could best be described as a one-hour ride in a stuffy elevator with an elderly aunt and a lot of polka. The only way a 10-year-old could stomach it was to be treated to a TV dinner, and, as I’ve come to learn, the only way my gourmet parents could stomach TV dinners was to eat them while watching Lawrence Welk. But that’s me. TV dinners have come a long way since and, fortunately, so has television.
The TV dinner can trace its origins back to the birth of the oral tradition and the fortuitous moment that fire, language and food first collided countless thousands of years ago. Stories told in the light of the dying embers of a blaze that transformed a hard-won kill into a much enjoyed meal was as essential as it was entertaining. Stories told, stomachs sated, it fell to the quiet flicker of flames to assume first the role of entertainer, then ruddy lullaby, until the sunrise bade the cycle start anew.
Now let’s skip ahead thousands of years to the dawn of television and the inevitable invention of the TV dinner, and what some might argue was the birth of an entirely new food group, fast food.
Aluminum vs. irony.
It was the unholy marriage à trois of nuclear annihilation, the idolatry of modern convenience, and the never-ending need to streamline and commoditize lifestyle that produced the first true TV dinners. Legend has it a trainload of unsold frozen Thanksgiving turkeys and the bottomless bottom line pushed Swanson & Sons into creating the archetypal aluminum tray version I grew up with. But beyond its invention was the need to invent it. The 1950s were a time of exponential societal, political, scientific and lifestyle transformation: the bomb, the Red Scare, the pill, rock & roll, and the explosive growth of television as the medium of popular entertainment. And it was television that brought most of this topical neuroses into our homes, so it only stands to reason it should be entrusted with providing a few hours of casual, mindless entertainment to take our focus off the ever-accelerating pace of our lives and the threat of being nuked or hula-hooped as we slept. TV was the new campfire, and TV programs the stories told around it. It seemed only right that we should celebrate the new era by eating food that was as instant and disposable as television.
I can recall my first TV dinner. Peeling back the crinkly paper-thin aluminum cover to reveal turkey with gravy, peas, corn and mashed potatoes (or some pasty, starchy facsimile good enough to fool a hungry tweenager) with inappropriately hot applesauce for dessert. Pulling back the aluminum cover was an adventure in itself. Although each component of this gourmet meal was intended to sit alone, isolated in its own compartment, “transport and handling” insisted on a creative rearrangement – and more often than not it was the applesauce that ended up flavouring everything else. The irony was irresistible. Did I care? Nope. I was watching The Lawrence Welk Show, WHILE EATING. Wow! If this seems anything but extraordinary, think back to the first time you made a cellphone call on a flight. See what I mean? This was uncharted territory. Exciting, untamed, filled with limitless potential… and a tad too much applesauce.
The transformation of the tray
The simplicity and, arguably, the naivety that was the 1950s TV dinner has benefited from advances in food technology and culture. Educated consumers asked for and received the sophistication their palates demanded – exotic fare, special diets, low-calorie selections, micro-wavable meals, and even entire pre-packaged breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus delivered in bulk and designed to feed a family for a month have become part of the TV dinner landscape. All of it designed to cater to our indulgent need to relax, revel in the comfort of food that was friendly and familiar, all while sharing in the laughter, tears or scares broadcast into our homes night, after night, after night.
The TV menu has changed considerably as well, and not always for the better. While TV programming is enjoying a golden era, with high-quality streaming content that reflects the morals and values of those watching rather than a squeamish, picky-eating advertiser too terrified to venture beyond the central comfort zone – how we consume entertainment has gone against the reason entertainment, and arguably sharing a meal, exists in the first place: togetherness. It’s delicious irony that the full circle has closed so imperfectly. Case in point, that most modern mutation of the 21st-century TV diner, the hungry commuter. Public transit is where the latest iteration of the TV dinner has reappeared, and it ain’t pretty. Where people once sat and talked as the world rushed by, suburban lanes melting into city streets, or sat quietly nose-in-book, now entire busloads of commuters gorge on breakfast wraps and guzzle coffee from designer travel mugs with noses softly lit by the pale glow of their smartphones. They might be streaming, they might be texting, they might even be sharing a photo of their breakfast wrap on social media, but whatever they’re doing, they’re not doing it together.
Moving ahead to the past
So, are we doomed to being prisoners in a world of tiny screens feeding tiny minds eating tiny meals while speeding to our tiny jobs in a world of outsized ambition and ambiguity? Good question, and eloquently written I might add. Smartphones are great. Streaming content is great too. There are even a few commuter-friendly breakfast wraps that can almost pass as edible. But we have to reach back to those nascent days of humanity, where food prepared over a fire stoked our imaginations – long before convenience became a four-letter word.
The point is to make self-indulgence respectable again. To make a communal meal one where the effort put into preparing it is as much a form of entertainment and human exchange as consuming it. Choose to make it from scratch, and then stream your favourite content while revelling in every bite and every bit of pithy dialogue. But do it with others, not in a hermetically sealed bubble with a half-dozen episodes of The Alienist as your only company. Great show, by the way, but not recommended dinner company. There’s something to be said for slicing, dicing and julienning your way to happiness – slow food, slow convenience and extended bouts of smiling. Sure, trough it down while binging through seven seasons of Pretty Little Liars, or in my case a Ken Burns retrospective, but opt for food that is up to par with the choice of entertainment available today. Better still, entertain each other. Friendship is less filling and better for you. The streaming content will still be there when you’re done. That’s kind of the whole point of it.