The panko-breaded pork chop, served the old school with mushroom and onion sauce, corn and mashed potatoes, is „one of our favorites,” says cook Kate Williams, owner of Karl’s at the Siren Hotel in Detroit. „Maybe it was one of our family dinners or something.” Williams is now serving the dish on the Karl menu – but unlike the usual plates of diner classics, this one comes in a four-compartment aluminum tin that looks like another familiar meal: the TV dinner.

Over the past year, the pandemic has forced us to rethink how we get meals on the table. When the case numbers were high and restaurants had to stop eating indoors, many people who were used to eating out several nights a week had to mingle to figure out what to do for breakfast, lunch, and meal. and Dinner. In the meantime, restaurants have had to jump through hoops to adapt Months full of ups and downs, panning and finding creative ways to make enough money to stay afloat. For most business owners, this meant it Hugs from boxes and bags like never before. For some, it meant reinterpreting the old school TV dinner. Williams wanted to pay homage to the original dinner in a way, „but it also went perfectly with our style of dining at Karl, so it was a no-brainer.”

How many innovations is the history of the development of the convenience food – A normally frozen full meal that just had to be warmed up in the oven before eating – is not easy. Gerry Thomas, a Swanson employee, is often referred to as the inventor of the meals, which debuted in 1953 first frozen dinner, created for the aerospace industry, actually dates back to 1944, and other brands claim versions that launched in 1952. It wasn’t until 1954, when the Swanson TV Dinner was first sold in retail stores, that it started in the United States. Traditionalists viewed the TV dinner as an „abomination,” but it turned out incredibly lucrative: As millions of American women entered the world of work, women and mothers who were away from home to cook elaborate meals had a prepared answer to the question „What for dinner?” By 1955, 64 percent of US households had a television; The frozen meal essentially corresponded to the changing times.

Nowadays the TV dinner is more of a novelty for many people, nostalgic except for the TV tray. But while there are leftovers in the freezer aisle, from Amy to Stouffer, the iconic portioned aluminum bowls were rather a rarity in restaurants – until COVID-19 prompted some chefs to revisit the container. „There’s so much room for opportunity and creativity at TV dinner,” says Nyesha Arrington, Los Angeles chef who recently reinterpreted a Stouffer’s TV dinner in a video for eater. “It doesn’t have to be meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They can be very fun and interesting. “For them, it means playing with Salisbury steak with a wild mushroom sauce and nacho-inspired mac and cheese. “It’s a really creative way [enjoy a meal]especially if you are not a cook. „

Before the office of JB Pritzker, Governor of Illinois, the cessation of indoor dining in Chicago for one second timeJames Geier, owner of Marvins Food & Fuel, had created enough awareness to continue on the takeaway route. But his decision to introduce TV dinners – featuring dishes like lasagna, meatloaf, and enchiladas with toasted vegetable sides, and chocolate cake – was one way to bring the dining experience to customers’ homes. „People started eating more at home,” he says. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to get really full, properly plated meals to their homes while they’re watching TV? ”

In New York City, Hearth boss / owner Marco Canora’s ltop dinners, which are sold frozen, serve the same purpose. „Sometimes taking away doesn’t feel like eating nutrient-rich goodness,” Canora says. „It’s a pleasure that comforts you, but it’s not exactly something that fills you with energy.” With meals like fried salmon with salsa verde (portioned with risotto and roasted cauliflower and broccoli), chicken parmesan (with compartments for baked ziti and broccoli rabe), and beef stew (with side dishes made from polenta and root vegetables), Canora hoped to create a solution. „I want a real dinner … but I don’t want to spend more than 10 minutes in the kitchen.”

To Williams, the decision to go for something fun and nostalgic seemed obvious. „The world was on fire and people yearned for childhood things and comfort foods,” she says. When her stylish lunch break briefly reopened for an indoor dinner in the fall, she added TV dinners (and breakfasts) for people who felt uncomfortable eating in person during the pandemic.

One look at Karl Online menu – the separate compartments of the aluminum bowls, with each bowl holding a full meal (think warm chicken tenders with coleslaw and potatoes with garlic butter) – and you will be transported back immediately. „We just had a lot of fun branding,” says Williams. „We also made film recommendations with meals.” Warm-up instructions came along with suggestions for pairing spaghetti and meatballs Goodfellas and the kids mac and cheese with Troop Beverly Hills.

An old-school aluminum TV tray with three compartments: lasagna, veggies, and a berry sprinkle

A Lasagna TV dinner from Marvins Food and Fuel in Chicago

Eric Kleinberg / Courtesy of Marvin’s Food & Fuel

Geier says there was only one negative: there isn’t enough dessert for many guests. And there are some challenges in creating dinners where all the components are heated at the same time. Karl’s is known for its patty melters, but Williams chose to skip that particular TV dinner because she knew the bread would absorb steam and turn to mush. „Sandwiches are pretty hard to make,” she says. “And everything that is breaded and fried. Fried foods don’t travel well. ”

Cooks who prepare their own TV dinners need to know how long it takes to cook certain ingredients of a particular meal so that nothing is undercooked or overdone when reheating. „It’s a whole art and science and a fine ballet of balance to bring a meal together,” says Arrington. „There are so many moving pieces, from boiling water for pasta to grilling Salisbury steak.” For pasta, Arrington recommends an al dente texture: “I might cook it 60 percent and possibly add more sauce that looks uncomfortable [like too much]. It may look like macaroni soup in the container, but the reality is if we press z on the microwave that the noodles will cook, the starch will come out and thicken this sauce. If you enjoy it, it will be creamy. “And while some chefs choose to use a fish-based protein for their TV dinners, especially as fillets in fish fingers, Arrington recommends grinding it or serving it as a stew like a chowder. “The type of protein used is extremely important. Fish does not do well because it can gum up after freezing. The water retention completely changes the protein structure. „

As vaccines continue to roll out across the country, experts are predicting some normality will return by summer. While the pandemic has decimated countless companies and livelihoods, the industry is rebuilding. Restaurant owners have learned new lessons and adopt new practices over the past 12 months. For these three restaurants, TV and ltop dinners are here to stay. Williams says she is looking forward to the day people return to the Siren Hotel because she believes their TV dinners will be a room service hit. Geier hopes to sell his dinner to office workers on their way home who need a quick meal for the night, or to people on their way to the park or a drive-in movie when the weather is nice.

Canora is installing glass-door freezers in his side dining room that he hopes will serve as a convenience store for customers who want to take home the ltop dinner along with other items from its frozen food line. „I think there is a real future,” he says.

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