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Column

Special dinners created special memories

As children, the Friday night ritual was to go the grocery store. We usually went to the Piggly Wiggly on West Peru Street — my favorite because they had Blackie the horse that gave you ride after ride for a handful of pennies, however, we also went to the Piggly Wiggly which is now home to the Princeton Police Department. For just a quick trip or one or two items, we went to the Red & White, the A&P or Anderson Brothers.

But Friday nights were reserved for our weekly grocery shopping trips. I'm not sure why the kids in my house went, except everyone in the family went, which meant nobody was home to watch over us. I don't remember dreading those trips because the three of us would plot and plan this grocery store excursion — hoping to get exactly what we wanted into those brown paper bags.

Years ago, getting somebody in my family to buy TV dinners was like we’d conquered an unknown enemy. I’m not sure why, but we just knew TV dinners weren’t coming home with us. TV dinners were like those packages of cookies that lined the store shelves. Seldom did either of them make it into our shopping cart. Typically, the three of us were allowed to go to the Jell-O aisle, and between the three of us, we could choose one box of Jell-O. I don't every remember that working out in my favor.

Pleading for cookies and root beer-flavored Popsicles, we’d ride along standing on the side and back of that shopping cart like it was some San Francisco trolley. But as soon as we’d turn the corner to the freezer cases, we’d hop off the shopping cart and head right to the stacks of Swanson TV dinners.

I don’t know for sure, but I think TV dinners must have been relatively new back then. Boxes with an entire dinner inside — even a dessert; it was the best thing we’d ever seen.

But one of the best parts of TV dinners was the fact that everybody got to choose their own meal. It wasn’t like the dinner that Mom or Grandma made, where you better like it or tough luck. TV dinners gave us each an opportunity to please our own palates, despite the likes and dislikes of the rest of the family.

Though I hated those frozen peas and that little glob of cranberry sauce in the dessert section, I usually opted for the turkey TV dinner, for we seldom had turkey unless it was the holidays. It seemed like a smart decision. The other two kids in the family (Debbie and Greg) always seemed to lean toward the fried chicken TV dinners. Though it always looked absolutely delicious, I tried it once, and the chicken sure didn’t taste like Grandma’s chicken. Sometimes, Greg would get the Salisbury steak or the spaghetti instead of the chicken. We always thought it was a daring decision.

We’d take those TV dinners home knowing they’d be reserved for a Friday or Saturday night. While the adults were never nearly as excited as we were, seeing those little silver trays on the kitchen table were almost as important to us as the root beer-flavored Popsicles still hiding in the deep freeze.

The adults would place the TV dinners in the oven, while we raced to the living room, setting up TV trays in strategic places around the room. After all, TV dinners were meant to be eaten in front of the TV. The box even said so. There would be no dining room table for us that night.

Finally, the meal arrived via thick pot holders.

Funny. I remember the process, the excitement of actually being able to get a TV dinner and being allowed to eat them in a room that had carpet on the floor (which meant a drop of anything might send us back to the table), but I don’t really remember eating or even liking those TV dinners. I know we had to eat everything in that tray — even those hard little frozen peas, but that’s it.

What I do remember, though, is all of us being together in that living room. Though the TV was on, we really didn’t pay much attention because these new-fangled TV dinners were more spectacular than Lawrence Welk or Lassie or the 6 o’clock news. Together, we’d dine on our own separate meals, lingering over them like they were really something special. We’d talk about what lived in our own little compartments, comparing and already planning our strategies for the next trip to the store.

And while none of us realized it, those moments together etched memories on our heart that didn’t have anything to do with frozen food in silver trays, eaten in the living room in front of the TV.

Tonica News Editor Terri Simon can be reached at tsimon@tonicanews.com.

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