From aluminum to plastic

Michael Raffety


When I lived on Bernal Heights in San Francisco my landlord, who lived upstairs, was working on his Master of Fine Arts degree from San Francisco State. His oeuvre was using an airbrush to paint large oil paintings of Swanson TV dinner trays lit by colored lights.

He held his master’s show at his house. Afterall, it had a view of the Oakland Bay Bridge, like our apartment downstairs did likewise, only better.

I mention this because you just can’t find frozen dinners on aluminum trays anymore. Totally unartistic. Not only that but sales of frozen dinners and frozen juice have fallen 3 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the June 27 Wall Street Journal.

The article by Annie Gasparro, besides noting the increased preference for fresh foods by shoppers and viewers of shows like “Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals,” included some fascinating history about frozen foods.

The frozen food industry got its start in the 1920s when Clarence Birdseye invented a technique for quick-freezing fish. Freezing helped keep the flavor. Birdseye sold his company in 1929 but frozen vegetables still use his name.

In 1981, the Mountain Democrat staff did a three-section special edition called “13 Decades.” We each took a decade and read through old bound copies of the Democrat to write about each decade. Our staff was larger then. I took on the 1930s and added some spice by interviewing Joe Flynn, who moved from Georgetown to Placerville during the school year to attend high school. The one thing I noticed in looking over the advertising was the newness of refrigerators to this area back then.

Many people still had ice delivered for their ice box. Refrigerators with freezers made the ice man obsolete. But not the milkman. I still remember in the 1950s getting milk delivered to our front porch in glass bottles with cream on top.

My parents went to New Zealand on vacation in the 1970s and were treated to milk bottles with cream on top delivered to their motel doorstep.

Gasparro went on to note that metal rationing during World War II helped to popularize frozen foods, especially as ownership of refrigerators became more widespread.

I never could understand why some people insisted on serving canned peas instead of frozen peas. There was nothing yuckier than canned peas.

I remember looking at a model home in Vancouver, Wash., with my parents in the 1950s and seeing a microwave oven. It didn’t catch on until late in the 1970s, with most people getting theirs by the 1980s. It was the microwave that doomed the aluminum container for frozen dinners.

I always wanted to try using watercolors to paint from frozen TV dinner plates, but the plastic that frozen Marie Callender or Banquet come in have no visually redeeming qualities.


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