Junkfood Science: TV dinner nostalgia

April 15, 2007

TV dinner nostalgia

A fascinating observation by a Cambridge University archaeology professor in today’s paper reminds us of how similar humans are through the ages. People have probably always held romantic notions about what things must have been like in the “old days” and believe everything with the current generation means the demise of all that is good. It’s easy to forget to look back through history to get the big picture. So, just for fun, let’s do.

One of the popular contemporary legends of great amusement to many Babyboomers is that before recent years (and the onset of the "childhood obesity epidemic"), people never used to eat in front of the television, but sat down to home-cooked meals. Those meals are believed to have always been fresh, from-scratch and healthier. Nostalgia aside, when many of our mothers cooked, it typically meant a fried meat, bacon-covered meatloaf or cheeseburgers of hamburger meat with onion soup mix, with home fries or mashed potatoes and gravy; macaroni and cheese with hotdogs; or some nameless casserole smothered in cream of something soup; and veggies from a can. Home deep-fat fryers were all the rage among kitchen appliances back then. Cakes were from a box with full-fat ice cream purchased in family-size tubs. TV snacks included Chex mix concoctions, potato chips, twinkies and nilla wafers. As we’ve examined here, dietary studies confirm that Americans were eating notably more fat and calories back then and even fewer fresh vegetables than we are today.

Convenience foods held prominent places in most home freezers and pantries half a century ago. Garry Thomas invented the Swanson TV dinner in 1953, cleverly packaged in boxes to look like a TV screen. Americans began devouring meat with dressing, potatoes and gravy, and buttered veggies out of aluminum trays, while gathered around the television to watch I Love Lucy, Candid Camera or Bonanza.

A Telegraph article today offers fun food for thought, taken from the research of professor Martin Jones, who authored Feast: Why Humans Share Food. He went back even further in history to bring us an intriguing perspective:

TV dinners 'are today's campfire'

TV dinners have been blamed for anti-social behaviour, “yobbish" children and the destruction of the family. But new research suggests that eating in front of the telly is what we were always supposed to do. The television is a "virtual campfire" for today's generation, according to an academic at Cambridge University. It is a place where people gather to discover relevant information as they eat, echoing the behaviour of our ancestors who met around the campfire to share food and tell stories.

Martin Jones, a professor of archaeology, claims that eating in front of the television is “a natural consequence of human evolution". The findings are based on archaeological evidence from 12 different ages of human existence, spanning half a million years. Prof Jones found that, as humans evolved, their lives became more complex and how they ate together reflected this.

Primitive Neanderthals ate alone in their caves while “hunter-gatherers", who relied on co-operation to catch food, ate in groups....Prof Jones argues that we are now part of a “global community" and as world events become more relevant to our lives, it is natural to dine in front of the television. He said: “I imagine a time will come when people will eat on the move while chatting to a friend in New York who is doing exactly the same thing. And everyone will be nostalgic for the TV dinner age."

His research was met with objection from a spokesperson for a food campaign group, certain that the recent development of eating in front of the TV has caused the childhood obesity epidemic. :)

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