Posts Tagged ‘Ramsey Lewis’

Frozen Dinners Were A Treat

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

It was later than usual when the Texas Gal got home from work a couple of days ago. She said she’d had the day from hell and just wanted to sit in her chair and work on a quilt. I was not in great shape myself: I’d spent some of that afternoon shoveling snow from the walk and the driveway and kind of wanted to just sit myself. And the early darkness of the autumn afternoon didn’t help.

So we abandoned the minimal plans we’d had for dinner and popped two frozen dinners into the oven. Hers was chicken-fried steak, and mine was a chopped beef steak topped by some kind of southwestern sauce. And the two dinners did what they were supposed to do: fed us well enough and saved us time and effort. That’s why we keep a few in the freezer.

And as we ate, I was reminded of a time when having a frozen dinner was a real treat. Most nights when I was a kid, we ate as a family, all four of us at the kitchen table. About once a month, Dad would attend a dinner meeting of an educational fraternity, and there would be just three at the table. And every once in a while, Mom and Dad would have a dinner engagement somewhere – usually something connected with St. Cloud State – and dinner would be my sister and me.

During the early years, of course, that meant a babysitter would stay with us for the evening and get us through the evening meal. But as we got a little older – starting maybe around 1964 when I turned eleven and my sister turned fourteen – we got to stay home by ourselves and cook ourselves frozen dinners.

Folks who lived through the 1950s and the early 1960s will remember that Swanson, the most prevalent brand of frozen dinner, marketed its meals as TV Dinners, a name dating to 1952 when television was relatively new and the thought of a family huddled around a small screen eating convenient frozen dinners was, well, revolutionary in its way. By 1962, the television revolution was over – TV won – and Swanson, says Wikipedia, dropped the “TV Dinner” label. (Although the name lives on still today in common usage in our home and, I’m sure, elsewhere.) And on those evenings when Mom and Dad would be gone and my sister and I were home alone for a brief time, those frozen dinners were different enough to seem almost exotic, and I always chose my menu for those evenings carefully.

I liked the haddock, either breaded or in cream sauce, and I think there was a fried shrimp dinner. (The fried chicken, which seemed popular from what I saw in the freezer down at Carl’s Market, never thrilled me much.) I liked the Salisbury steak. And later on, in what I think was the late 1960s, Swanson began experimenting and came up with a Mexican meal I liked. But my favorite frozen dinner wasn’t a Swanson meal. I don’t recall the brand – its logo had, I think, a red flag – but it was a seafood platter: It brought me shrimp, scallops, a small fish filet and a crab cake, flanked by what were essentially hash brown patties or maybe tater tots.

Now, I’d certainly had shrimp and scallops in restaurants by the time I was, say, twelve, and I knew that the seafood in that frozen seafood platter didn’t compare to fresh seafood. But if I were going to be eating a frozen dinner at home, that platter was about as good as a Sixties kid could do.

As I think about these things, it seems to me that frozen dinner nights with my folks out somewhere were more prevalent during the late fall and early winter than at any other time of the year. That makes sense: That’s the season of holiday gatherings for the church, civic and educational organizations to which my parents belonged. So earlier this week, the darkness of an early evening in late autumn and a frozen dinner on a TV tray pushed me back to those dinners forty-some years ago. And that was a convenient hook on which to hang a look at a record chart.

I have no idea, of course, if I was dining on a seafood platter forty-three years ago this evening, but I certainly could have been. I was fourteen, my sister was seventeen, and if mom and dad were out for dinner, we almost certainly would be sitting in the kitchen with the oven on, listening to the rhythmic sound of the timer as it ticked its way toward our dinnertime.

If that were the case on December 2, 1967, we probably had the radio in the kitchen tuned to KDWB. And we would likely have heard some of the Top Ten from the list released that day:

“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees
“The Rain, The Park and Other Things” by the Cowsills
“Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock
“To Sir With Love” by Lulu
“I Say A Little Prayer” by Dionne Warwick
“Please Love Me Forever” by Bobby Vinton
“Soul Man” by Sam & Dave
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & The Pips
“I Can See For Miles” by the Who
“An Open Letter To My Teenage Son” by Victor Lundberg

Eight of those are pretty damned good, and one of them – “Incense and Peppermints” – is among my all-time favorites. I do not recall the Bobby Vinton tune at all (having checked it out this morning at YouTube). And then there’s the single at No. 10.

“An Open Letter To My Teenage Son” by Victor Lundberg was a response to the very real gap between generations that was getting increasingly wider by late 1967. A spoken-word record (written by Lundberg as well) that touched on long hair, hippies, religion, patriotism and the draft, the record ends with Lundberg telling his son – according to Wikipedia, he did have at least one teenage son living at home at the time – that if he burns his draft card, he can also burn his birth certificate as well, because “From that moment on, I have no son.”

The record obviously rang true with a lot of folks, as it stayed at No. 10 for two weeks. It also inspired some answer records, including “A Letter to Dad” by Every Father’s Teenage Son, which was sitting at No. 97 during that first week of December 1967. I’m not going to embed the Lundberg single here, but here’s a link to the YouTube page. I haven’t looked real hard for “A Letter To Dad,” but here’s a link to the lyrics. Now, let’s dig a little deeper into the Billboard Hot 100 released on a day when I might have had a seafood platter for dinner.

At No. 49, we find an instrumental cover of the week’s No. 7 song, “Soul Man.” Ramsey Lewis – credited either by himself or as the Ramsey Lewis Trio – reached the Top 40 twice each in 1965 and 1966, with the best performing single being the first, “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which went to No. 5 in the early autumn of 1965. Lewis’ “Soul Man” would go no higher than No. 49.

In August and September of 1967, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” had spent four weeks at No. 1. Now, in December, her “Okolona River Bottom Band” was at No. 59 in its second week in the Hot 100 and rising toward its eventual peak of No. 54. Gentry wouldn’t reach the Top Ten again, although two duets with Glen Campbell and her own “Fancy” would reach the Top 40 in 1969 and 1970.

I was surprised as I scanned the Hot 100 from that first week of December 1967 to see a listing of “Too Much of Nothing” by Peter, Paul & Mary. The record was at No. 62 and would eventually peak at No. 35, but I don’t recall ever hearing it. Written by Bob Dylan and originally recorded during the then-unreleased (but much bootlegged) Basement Tapes sessions, the version by Dylan and The Band showed up in 1975 when The Basement Tapes album was released. I couldn’t find the studio version of the PP&M version of “Too Much of Nothing” at YouTube, but I did find a performance by the trio on the March 23, 1969, episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

At No. 80, we find a tune called “Sockin’ 1, 2, 3, 4” by a performer named John Roberts. The record – which I like quite a bit – uses the phrase “Sock it to me!” as a hook. Interestingly enough, the record predates the television show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which I always thought had been where the phrase originated. (The show first went on the air, says Wikipedia, in January 1968.) And there’s little about John Roberts out there to tell any more of the tale. The website Soulbot.com says that Roberts was a former school teacher and that the record went to No. 19 on the R&B chart. I’ve seen the record mentioned as a Northern Soul hit in the United Kingdom, and Soulbot.com notes that “Sockin’ 1, 2, 3, 4” was popular at the Blue Note and the Twisted Wheel, two clubs in Manchester, England. All I know is that the record peaked two weeks later at No. 71, spent two weeks there and then fell off the chart.

Lou Donaldson is a prolific and well-known jazz saxophone player, with numerous albums reaching the Billboard 200 and the jazz and R&B charts. And that only proves how much I have left to learn, as I’d never heard of the man. But it was forty years ago this week that his only Hot 100 hit, “Alligator Boogaloo,” stood for a second week at No. 93 after Bubbling Under for five weeks. A week later, the record was gone from the chart.

I have no idea why, but the duets between Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood fascinate me. From “Summer Wine, “Some Velvet Morning” and “Jackson” through the entire album Nancy & Lee, I hear something that I’m not sure I can explain, but it’s a sound that I find compelling. Whatever it is I hear, it’s there again in “Sand,” which during this week in 1967, was Bubbling Under at No. 110. A week later, it was gone.