When Swanson began marketing the TV dinner in 1954, it started off with a single version containing sliced turkey. According to Andrew F. Smith's "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink," the poultry processor picked turkey because it had an oversupply of the birds, thanks to its practice of guaranteeing farmers a set purchase price for any turkeys that they raised for the company. Swanson executive Gerry Thomas said originally this policy had been instituted to make sure that Swanson didn't run out of product during the Thanksgiving season, but by the 1950s, farmers had produced so many birds, the company had thousands of pounds of meat moving across the country in refrigerated railcars because it didn't have enough cold storage warehouse space [source: Smith].
The refrigerated railcar story has since been challenged, and in a 2003 interview, Thomas described it as a "metaphor" [source: Rivenberg]. But one fact is indisputable: After the turkey TV dinner became a huge success, the company quickly introduced versions containing fried chicken or beef pot roast, along with peas, corn sautéed in butter, potatoes and gravy [sources: Pittsburgh Press, Youngstown Vindicator].
Many of the early Swanson's recipes were devised by a young employee named Betty Cronin, who actually was a bacteriologist rather than a chef. But that was OK, because many of her challenges involved finding ways to keep foods surviving the freezing, storage and reheating process. For example, she labored long and hard to devise a fried chicken recipe with breading that wouldn't fall off when it was frozen or become greasy upon reheating, and still tasted good enough to eat -- with the same cooking time as its two sides [source: Gladstone]. Quite a feat.