TV makes us fat!

Television helped transform junk food's image from a moral failing to an American pastime

Topics: Food, Consumerism, snacks, Books, Writers, Writing, Popcorn, Television, Media, Editor's Picks,

TV makes us fat!Gerry Thomas, innovator of the TV dinner (Credit: AP/Mike Fiala)
Excerpted from "Three Squares"

Television had (and continues to have) a dual impact on snacking. It simultaneously provided an occasion for between-meal munching while also serving as a venue for snack food promotion. Television’s partnership with snacking arose as Americans shifted their leisure time from the public sphere to the suburban home. In the first half of the twentieth century, people increasingly spent their leisure time at home, rather than at theaters, circuses, sporting parks, and fairs, as in the past. Young Americans found themselves more than ready to start families and settle down following the lean and tumultuous years of the Depression and the world wars. Beginning in 1945, marriage rates reached record highs, and, shortly afterward, a baby boom thundered its way across the nation. Thanks to postwar affluence, luxuries that most Americans could not afford before finally came within reach: a house in the suburbs, a station wagon in the garage, a washing machine in the pantry, a dishwasher in the kitchen, and a lawnmower in the shed. They sought no appliance more, however, than the television. It was perhaps the ultimate form of domestic entertainment: it brought the world into the home, occasioned family togetherness, and delivered hours of relaxing entertainment—all at the fl ip of a switch. Not surprisingly, the rise of television prompted a rise in home snacking.

Popcorn provides a fitting picture of snack food’s migration from the public arena to the private home and of television’s key role in this migration. Once a highlight of amusement parks and country fairs, and later the delight of theater and cinema patrons, popcorn was rapidly becoming a living room phenomenon. At mid-century, popcorn production surged: between 1936 and 1947, it averaged 170 million pounds, but by 1950, it had reached 242 million, and within another decade it climbed to 332 million. At the heart of declines in moviegoing and the rise in kernel sales was the new broadcasting technology; popcorn, cinemagoers’ favorite snack, naturally became the television watcher’s nibble of choice. Although film fans might have attended the cinema once a week, they now viewed sitcoms, westerns, and variety shows in their living rooms on multiple nights. By the mid-1950s, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of the nation consumed popcorn in front of the TV set four evenings out of seven. With Americans devoting more hours to their RCAs than they ever had to the big screen, popcorn flew off grocery store shelves and landed squarely in the suburban kitchen cupboard.

Although perhaps the obvious choice for television watchers, popcorn was not the most convenient one. Someone still had to pop the kernels on the stovetop using a pan greased with a generous helping of oil. This kitchen operation generated dishes to clean and errant kernels to sweep up. Entrepreneurs, including Chicago theater owner Benjamin Banowitz, saw the writing on the wall and began to repackage popcorn for home consumption. Banowitz developed an all-inone hermetically sealed bag that compartmentalized kernels on one side and oil and salt on the other. The cleverly designed cellophane package, which offered the consumer a framed window onto the product, resembled a television, and the product was fittingly called “TV-Time Popcorn.” Jiffy Pop would expand on Banowitz’s contribution by designing an aluminum foil pan with a paperboard handle later replaced by wire. The pan served as both package and preparation utensil and was a novel approach to stove-top popping that saved the homemaker several tasks at once. Whether these packaging innovations significantly increased popcorn sales or simply catered to the greater demand generated by television is hard to say, but they definitely contributed to American snacking culture and strengthened the bond between snacking and watching TV.

Popcorn was not the only between-meal refreshment enjoyed in front of the TV in the 1950s. Television had generated the perfect conditions for a proliferation of commercial snacks. Some of the products emerging during the early television era include Korn Kurls (advertised as the “Aristocrat of snacks”), Chex Party Mix (also known as TV Mix), Ruffles (featuring a novel, rippled texture), and Lipton dried onion soup mix (which combined with sour cream to make a popular dip). Advertisers presented many of the new products as if manufacturers had designed them exclusively for the television viewer.One breakfast cereal ad promoted Kellogg’s Rice Krispies as “good for TV snacks.” “If you could peek into TV rooms across the nation,” read an ad in Life magazine, “you’d find potato chips, popcorn, sandwiches—and 7-Up,” the carbonated beverage that “makes whatever you eat taste better.” Television watching could also transform nonsnack foods, such as canned fish and sliced bread, into snacking staples, according to ads for Maine Sardines and Gentle Raisin Bread.

Some snack food manufacturers underwrote television programs and used costumed stars to promote their products at the opening and closing of broadcasts. TV-Time Popcorn sponsored Annie Oakley, and Kellogg’s, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. In a commercial for Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, Guy Madison (Hickok) and Andy Devine (Jingles) proclaim the virtues of the presweetened cereal, which eaters can enjoy “out of the bowl or out of the box.” This clever ditty suggested that Corn Pops was not merely a breakfast cereal but a snack food as well, and it was not just for morning but for any time of day. The comforting familiarity of these entertaining characters merged with the celebrity appeal of the actors to pitch a product that promised not only to please the palate but also to make the snacker more like his or her television idols.

With the advent of television and the accompanying increase in snacking, use of domestic space changed: the living room became a secondary dining room. Capitalizing on this change, furniture and appliance manufacturers designed items that facilitated munching in front of the television, of which the fold-up tray table was perhaps the most successful. The tray table meant that one could eat where one pleased, including in front of the TV. It was perfect for playing canasta or entertaining at holiday parties, it catered to the television- watching family wishing to munch or even dine while taking in a favorite show, and the decorative tray could be mounted on the wall when not otherwise in use. Special “Thermo-Trays” could keep food piping hot at any location, including on a tray table in the living room. And for the hostess who wished to offer guests snacks or a light meal in the company of the TV, Toastmaster advertised “television’s twin”: a hospitality set featuring a toaster, a tray, and square glass plates designed to fit the tray without sliding. With the help of this “smart snack service,” the hostess could set out some spreads or sandwich fixings on tray tables and make toast right in the midst of the conversation (which was sure, at some point, to touch on the trendy, mobile contraption). This way she did not have to retreat from her guests to the kitchen in order to serve them, nor did she have to risk missing a crucial moment of the broadcast.

Tray tables and hospitality sets anticipated another innovation closely associated with television, though not originally intended for consumption in front of a TV. In 1953, Swanson, a frozen-food company that built on the pioneering work of Clarence Birdseye, the father of the frozen-food industry, transformed the reheated airplane meal, served in an aluminum tray and designed for servicemen during World War II, into a wildly successful household novelty: the TV Dinner. The name and the crafty package, which mimicked a television set—knobs, wooden frame, and all—linked the wonder of the frozen dinner with the wonder of the living room television screen.

Early manufacturers had often associated commercial food with nature and the pastoral life—a milk bottle might display the image of a cow, or a can of pumpkin puree might feature a farmer wearing overalls and a straw hat. But Swanson chose to link its popular innovation with cutting-edge technology. After all, the TV Dinner was the fruit of a prospering new science: fl ash freezing. As a meal cooked in a factory, portioned into three compartments, sealed in a paperboard box, and stored at subzero temperatures, the TV Dinner was decidedly distanced from nature—as were most snacking products, assembled in large manufacturing facilities and sporting fantastical shapes and textures that bore little or no resemblance to their constituent foods. It turns out that TV Dinners shared another intriguing characteristic with snack foods too: package appeal.

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Like commercial munchies, the TV Dinner was a discrete eating occasion tucked into a fancy package. In the 1950s, dinner usually involved a variety of foods either mixed together in a casserole dish and baked in the oven or cooked separately and delivered from pots or serving dishes to a bowl or plate. The TV Dinner, on the other hand, was an all-in-one affair. As with a bag of chips or a box of Cracker Jack, the preparer didn’t have to do any washing, chopping, mixing of ingredients, cooking, or supplementing with additional dishes. He or she simply opened the box and heated its contents. Of course there was no confusing the TV Dinner with a snack: it required a heating appliance and utensils and was best consumed at a table (though a tray table would certainly do). But the simple direct-from-the-package convenience of Swanson’s invention, along with the colorful box’s visual appeal, subtly connected the TV Dinner with the snack foods of the 1950s. Although it provided serious sustenance, the TV Dinner was something more than a traditional dinner: it was a self-contained eating experience, and like snack foods, it was at the same time whimsical, novel, trendy, and fun.

Television helped transform snacking into a household activity, and, as the success of TV Dinners makes clear, it also left its mark on family dining. Nibbling in front of the television—whether on popcorn, pretzels, cereal, or toast—epitomized snacking’s new identity as a respectable middle-class norm. As snacking joined the TV in the living room, eating dinner while taking in the news or an episode of I Love Lucy became increasingly acceptable. The furniture and appliances that facilitated living room consumption, and the products designed specifically with such furniture and appliances in mind, eased the transition of snacks into the home, and both snacks and, to a certain extent, dinner into the armchair-furnished territory of the television. Tray tables, TV-Time Popcorn, hospitality sets, and of course TV Dinners underscore just how much of a norm the new, more casual eating habits had become.

* * *

Since the mid-nineteenth century, when eating between meals was first strongly discouraged, snacking had come a long way. Once seen as a moral weakness, an affront to the family dinner, and a lowbrow indulgence that went hand in hand with boisterous crowds and sketchy immigrant vendors, snacking had become a regular household leisure activity by the 1950s. The public no longer associated it primarily with working-class revelry, unwashed vendors, and vagrant street children such as Dick, the dirt-streaked bootblack, in Horatio Alger’s novel Ragged Dick. Like Dick, who would one day rise to respectability, snacking had come up in the world. Commercialization was the key ingredient in snacking’s makeover, and at the heart of commercialization were packaging innovations and advertising campaigns that transformed snack food into a proper, store-bought staple with a sleek, winning, modern look.

Snack-food companies benefi ted from the new focus on domestic life, especially with the advent of TV; they shrewdly piggybacked on the population’s heightened interest in family and home, presenting their products as solutions to a variety of domestic challenges. When popcorn migrated from movie houses to the living room, the food industry sealed the association by designing products that made stovetop popping more manageable and pitching them as television-watching accessories. It also framed various snack foods as servant stand-ins: as an alternative to the fancy fare of formal dinner parties, packaged snacks provided a refreshingly modern spread that freed the hostess to enjoy her company with sophistication and ease. When hard times hit, forcing households to skimp, manufacturers promoted snackfoods as fillers that helped a housewife feed her family frugally. And when business picked up and more women left the home to work, certain snack foods, combined with a can of soup and a few basic ingredients, made quick, stick-to-the-ribs casseroles that proved so tasty and convenient they remain classics today.

As snacking became subject to the forces of commercialization and domestication, it also underwent a kind of Americanization. Wares hawked by immigrant vendors whose accents betrayed their foreign backgrounds gave way to packaged goods sold on grocery store shelves. The frankfurter, that German sausage in a bun, was rechristened the hot dog, and pretzels, also of German descent, became more symbolic of Pennsylvania than the German Fatherland. Commercial snack foods also subsumed regional, racial, and gender associations. Corn chips, initially associated with the Hispanic Southwest, became a national munching standard; peanuts shed their distinct affiliation with the South and the African Americans who had once been their predominant peddlers; and chocolate’s reputation as a feminine indulgence made room for new ways of looking at the processed cocoa bean: fi rst as a manly source of wartime power and then as a sugary pleasure congenial for both sexes.

Freed from the grip of these cultural associations snack foods themselves became expressions of American freedom. If he rolled up his sleeves, an immigrant-entrepreneur could scrape by in the New World by entering the business of twisting and salting dough or peddling popcorn, and if he dreamed up a tantalizing new product, he stood a chance of great success. Snack food also embodied the freedom to indulge. Though it went against Victorian notions of propriety, eating whenever one pleased had an inherently American quality. If immigrants could now afford to eat cake for breakfast, white bread on weekdays, and dessert on any ordinary evening, it seems only natural that having the freedom to snack at whim was also part of being American. Dispatching nuts or candies between meals subtly laid claim to the nation’s heritage of abundance and constituted a simple exercise of liberty.

Advertising dished out plenty of excuses for crossing once sacred consumption boundaries, and the proliferation of commercially packaged goods made crossing them remarkably easy. But as Americans began to suffer from more chronic health problems, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, worries surfaced that they had taken the widely embraced license to snack too far. Yesterday’s special treat had become a culprit contributing to today’s escalating ailments. The snack now not only compromised Americans’ health but worse, it also threatened to infringe on the family dinner. With the exaltation of the snack, dinner, the meal by which Americans had come to understand themselves as members of a family and a nation, began to teeter on the threshold of decline.

Excerpted with permission from “Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal” by Abigail Carroll.  Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2013.

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