There was a deep divide growing among Baby Boomer households across the country at the dawn of the 1950s. Most parents of boomers grew up during the Great Depression, and were raised on a steady diet of canned foods. While Clarence Birdseye got his frozen food business going in the 1920s, it was the 1930s before his first frozen products became widely available. However, few grocers had freezers, or could afford them, so Birdseye supplied freezers to merchants on a lease basis. Still fewer people had freezers, so despite being affordable, the market for frozen foods languished until World War II.
The War brought tin rationing, which affected the canned goods manufacturers, and in the process gave a boost to frozen foods. Consequently, some parents of boomers, who had a refrigerator with a freezer, were served frozen fruits and vegetables during the 1940s.
After the War, several components came together at the beginning of the Baby Boom. Newly married couples were having children and establishing homes in the suburbs, and with them, the acquisition of refrigerators with freezers. Appliance manufacturers were expanding the size of freezers for these new families. Refrigerator sales were growing at a faster rate than that of television sets. It was all in the name of progress. Now these boomer households had a choice: canned vs. frozen. As one might expect, many factors figured into whether a boomer household was for or against one or the other, with most at least partially living on both sides of the debate.
In Mister Boomer’s experience, the major decision was economic. Most homes he knew of during those years — classmates, neighbors, relatives — had small freezers and limited budgets. Frozen food could cost more than canned goods, and was only a convenience if it was eaten within a week or two, lest it freeze solid, possibly locking the package into the ice building up on the wall of the freezer. Cans lasted what seemed like forever. Taste didn’t enter into the equation as much as cost and convenience, for Mister Boomer’s particular class. However, Mister Boomer’s spouse had the opposite experience. Her family was raised on frozen vegetables, simply because it was thought by her parents to be better tasting and more nutritious.
Consequently, Mister Boomer’s parents tilted heavily in favor of canned instead of frozen. Living in the Midwest, it was also prudent to have some food in storage just in case of tornadoes or blizzards. In Mister B’s house, the space below the basement stairs had been walled off and dubbed “the fruit cellar.” It was where cans of fruit and vegetables were stored, rotating upstairs into the kitchen cupboards whenever a huge sale happened at the supermarket.
In retrospect, Mister B finds it amusing to think that what the family regularly had on hand in cans during the 1950s and ’60s was very dependent on which parent requested the goods. His mother always had Libby’s or Del Monte canned fruit cocktail or peaches in the cupboard. For vegetables, she favored Del Monte green beans, corn or peas. There were other brands purchased, to be sure, but Del Monte was the default house brand. She also kept Contadina Tomato Paste and Tomato Sauce, and College Inn Chicken Broth. Mister B’s father was a real child of the Depression, and seemed to enjoy practically anything in a can. He loved Spam, so there was almost always a can on the shelf. Occasionally, he would purchase a can of cocktail wienies, which the kids found to be exotic “baby hot dogs.” There was a time when he was jonesing for Underwood Deviled Ham, in a can. Hormel Corned Beef Hash and Dinty Moore Beef Stew were also shelf regulars, as were Campbell’s Tomato and Cream of Mushroom Soups. His canned vegetable choices were a bit more expansive, though. He loved Green Giant canned asparagus and not only introduced Mister B to the vegetable, it was after his college years before Mister B tasted the vegetable fresh. Mister Boomer also recalls that he had not had a fresh green bean until the day in the 1960s when the family visited his aunt and uncle and she was canning a bushel of fresh green beans. Mister B helped his cousins prep the beans for his aunt, crunching a few raw in the process.
Mister B’s sister had a big influence on the canned products that were regularly purchased. For her, Campbell’s Pork & Beans and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni were two things she could not live without. She had a time when Franco-American Spaghettios were her major source of sustenance. The boomer brothers were more flexible on the subject, eating what their parents put in front of them. Nonetheless, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli had a place on the shelf more often than not.
1954 was a big year for frozen foods, since that is when Swanson TV Dinners made their debut. Within a few years, TV Dinners accounted for nearly a quarter of all frozen food sales. Mister Boomer has written before that his family rarely got the Swanson TV Dinners, but did, on occasion, get the cheaper brand versions. His parents did buy Banquet Chicken Pot Pies, though. They were cheaper than Morton, and when they went on sale, they were ten for a dollar. It was an economical way to feed a boomer family of five.
How about you, boomers? What role did canned or frozen food play in your family’s meals?