Frozen in Time: 4 Old-School Meals That Live On in the Freezer Aisle

Frozen food lasts a long time, but frozen food trends last even longer. Want to relive your ‘90s childhood? Kid Cuisine and its radical little penguin mascot are still serving up meals of chicken nugs, corn kernels, and those molten puddles of chocolate goo they call brownies. Or throw it back to the 1970s and heat up a Stouffer’s French bread pizza for dinner (whatever you do, take the time to cook it in the oven). 

Of course, there are some even more ancient relics in the frozen aisle. The very first TV dinner—the result of a little creativity and a surplus of frozen fowl—was launched by Swanson in 1953 and consisted of turkey and cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, and peas. Swanson may have shifted its focus to broth, but you’ll still find several near dupes of this classic dinner in your grocery store’s freezer. You’ll also find some meals that have almost no presence in the modern world beyond a little microwavable tray covered in plastic film. They’re almost like edible museum pieces, connecting us to the 19th and 20th century origins of our current grocery culture. Now that I’ve established “grocery store culture” as a concept, I’m going to put on my cultural anthropologist hat (it’s adorable, trust me) and walk you though some dishes that exist almost exclusively in frozen dinner form.

Salisbury Steak

Unless you’re kicking it at a lot of buffet restaurants and cafeterias, you’re probably not encountering a lot of Salisbury steak out in the world. Also, if you are kicking it at a lot of cafeterias, no shame in that game whatsoever. The only thing keeping me from having a regular Sunday dinner of carved roast beef, fried okra, and garlic toast at Piccadilly is that the closest one to Los Angeles is in Shreveport, Louisiana. At old-school steakhouses and such, you’ll frequently find a chop steak on the menu, which is pretty much the same idea: a hamburger patty minus the bun, brown gravy, maybe some mushrooms. This dish was invented by a Civil War-era doctor named Salisbury who was keen on a high-protein diet for soldiers, had a resurgence in popularity during the TV dinner era, and remains a frozen food staple to this day. On a recent episode of Good Mythical More, my colleague Danny Palumbo joined Rhett & Link to taste test six different brands of frozen Salisbury steak. You might not be able to find it at your favorite restaurant, but Salisbury steak options abound in the freezer, baby. (Btw, the guys thought Stouffer’s was best.)

Creamed Chipped Beef

I can honestly say I’ve never seen creamed chipped beef on a restaurant menu, and I’ve been to at least a handful of restaurants in my day. So if you’re itching for salty dried beef drenched in white gravy and served on toast, your options are to make it from scratch or pick up a box of Stouffer’s. As Danny discussed in his exploration of jarred dried beef, creamed chipped beef traces its origins back to early 20th century Army mess halls. As a commenter on the New York Times‘ recipe so vividly explained explained, “To anyone who served in the military, this dish is known as [shit] on a shingle. And for good reason. This isn’t something you eat on purpose — you eat it because the alternative is not eating at all.” Well, if a lot of people weren’t eating it on purpose all of the time, I sort of doubt it would still be taking up valuable real estate on freezer shelves where more boxes of lasagna or stuffed peppers could go.

Turkey Tetrazzini

In the realm of dishes named after bygone opera divas, peach melba doesn’t stand alone. As the story goes, this creamy, noodle-y casserole was invented sometime around 1908 at the Palace Hotel in San Fransisco, where opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini had made her American debut a few years earlier. Today, it’s a clever way to turn leftover Thanksgiving turkey into dinner and an extant staple for Stouffer’s. The dish consists of white meat turkey, spaghetti, celery, and mushrooms in a cream sauce and, if childhood memory serves, it’s delicious in that bland, comfort-food kind of way. You don’t have to like opera to like pasta and cream.

Chicken á la King

According to Politico, this regal dish was featured on upward of 300 New York City restaurants menus between between the 1910s and the 1960s, but has since “thoroughly disappeared.” You’ll still find it at the grocery store, both in a box in the freezer and in a can (thanks, Swanson?). It’s pretty similar to Turkey Tetrazzini, but the spaghetti is swapped out for rice, and some peas and red peppers are thrown in the mix for color. Despite Stouffer’s protestations, reviewers seem convinced the company changed the recipe in recent years. Whether or not it’s true, this dish still does the job of getting you royally full after all these years.

About the Author

Gwynedd Stuart

Gwynedd Stuart, Sporked’s managing editor, is an L.A.-based writer and editor who spends way, way too much time at the grocery store. She’s never met an Old El Paso taco or mozzarella stick she didn’t like.

Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!

Your thoughts.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • I’m still waiting for Jeno’s to bring back the Jeno’s pizza snack tray from the 1960s to early 1970s. It was perfect. Eighteen little pizzas on an aluminum tray. Six each of sausage, pepperoni, and cheese…Yum!

    • That sounds AMAZING.