What a long way we’ve come. Food trends are easy to watch come and go, but there are a lot of things that we overlook as everyday fixtures in our lives that once upon a time were cutting-edge technologies in the food world. There are obvious items, like microwaves and refrigerators, and things we don’t even think twice about, like resealable packaging and plastic containers, that were all considered novel at some point.
I am a big history enthusiast, and this year I have been particularly into WWII. I picked up a couple of issues of the Army’s weekly magazine in WWII, Yank. “By the men…for the men in service.” While paging through I found this article on 1945’s newest breakthrough in food – the frozen dinner. Because it was something most people had never even heard of, the writer goes step-by-step in his detailed description of what exactly constitutes a frozen meal, how they are made, and how to prepare them. Sgt. Meyers peppers his article with army language and gives us a charming reminder of just how novel the kind of cooking we are trying to shy away from 67 years later was in the mid-forties.
“The old, old comedy stuff about getting a full meal by swallowing a pellet out of a slot machine is becoming less and less funny. And more and more true to life.
Right now, if you fly the right places, you can get a partially precooked, quick-frozen meal of steak, French-fried potatoes and carrots all ready to eat in 15 minutes. And after you’re finished you don’t have to wash the dishes. You just toss them away.
This answer to the prayers of housewives and KPs is not one of those postwar promised-land snow jobs. Hundreds of packaged meals are already coming off a food-factory assembly line in Queens Village, New York. At the moment, however, civilians are not getting their hooks in because NATs-the Naval Air Transport Service-has the whole deal practically sewed up.
Several big food-products manufacturers have been experimenting with quick-frozen meals for some time, but the first outfit to hit the market on any large scale seems to be a company whose employees previously had nothing more to do with food than eating it three times a day. The outfit in question is the W. L. Maxson Corporation of New York City.
William L. Maxson, the company’s headman, is probably not known by name to many GIs, but he should be. He perfected, and his company builds, the M45 quadruple mount for machine guns which got some praise as an antiaircraft rig when the Jerries were trying to eliminate out Remagen bridgehead. The Maxson company also builds several precision instruments and computing gadgets for the Army and Navy.
Maxson himself is a graduate of Annapolis. He invented the thing which tells you how much gasoline has been pumped into the car and how much the gas costs. But the really important fact about Maxson is that he’s a big man, weighs close to 300, and likes to eat.
Because it hasn’t been easy of late years for a born chow hound to get along on civilian ration points, Maxson tried to figure out some way of keeping left-overs in edible shape so he could have a snack every now and then. And he was mindful that every time he snacked he got the fish eye for leaving a sinkful of dirty dishes. He talked over his double problem with some sympathetic dieticians and food chemists, and after only two and a half years of trying thissa and thatta he produced the Maxson Sky Plate.
The Maxson Sky Plate is a portable version of the old blue-plate dinner served in a dish with three grooves. The dish, made of lacquered cardboard, serves as the container for the Maxson meal. The meals themselves are prepared, assembly-line style, at the factory and loaded onto the lacquered plates a few minutes before the food is completely cooked.
A cardboard top is slapped on the plate and sealed with a plastic ring. Then the meals are wheeled into a sharp-freeze chamber. After four hours in this chamber at 20 below zero a steak is frozen so solid you can drive nails with it.
Until they’re ready for shipment, the meals are kept in a holding chamber at minus 5 degrees. A refrigerated truck delivers them to customers. Currently, almost all the Sky Plates are delivered to Navy planes that fly the Atlantic. Aboard the plane they’re stored in an insulated, but not refrigerated, balsa box until chow time. Then they’re shoved into a special oven invented by Maxson, and in 15 minutes dinner is served.
This special oven is the main hitch in the Maxson scheme. And ordinary oven, it seems, dries the food. The Maxson Whirlwind Oven uses a fan arrangement that maintains an even heat and keeps the air moving all the time. The fan business is supposed to speed up the thawing process by removing the cold air from the food.
The oven used in Navy planes will take care of six Sky Plate meals at a time and weighs 33 pounds. It’s not in production yet for retail sale, but tomorrow, or the day after, it will probably sell to housewives for from $15 to $25.
Maxson can’t quote any price yet on how much his packaged meals will sell for out of the icebox at the corner grocery store. Too much depends on how quickly the public takes to his idea, and what happens to food prices. The usual rule-of-thumb on prices for frozen foods is that they cost at retail about one and a half times as much as the same foods would set you back if you bought them fresh. Maxson thinks he will be able to sell his meals at about the same price as an average meal at a restaurant.
The hard-eating inventor thinks that most of his customers will be people who want to whip up a quick dinner without much trouble. He seems justified in thinking that there are a lot of such people
Eventually, the Maxson Sky Plate will be available in 50 different menus. Just now there are only six. The main offerings of these meals are steak, meat loaf, beef stew, corned-beef hash, ham steak and breaded veal cutlets-meat courses of which most home fronters have only the vaguest memory. Each plate comes with two vegetables, or one vegetable and hot bread. It all tastes good.
Several commercial airlines are trying to get Maxson Sky Plates for meal service in the air, but so far the Navy and some Army planes have a monopoly on the product. Meanwhile, other manufacturers are beginning to work out all kinds of packaged meals.
The ultimate aim of the manufacturers is to put out a meal in which there will be absolutely no waste. The next big development, obviously, will have to be a precooked, quick-frozen meal that you can eat plate and all. The plate, naturally, will be the dessert and conceivably better than the cake mother used to bake.
Shortly after the edible plate gets invented, we can start sweating out those slot-machine pellets.
Ain’t it gruesome?”