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The Prepackaged Masculinity of the Hungry-Man Dinner

How a meat-and-carbs calorie bomb in a box became a symbol of male ambition

Men: They’ve always eaten food. But over the years, what they’ve eaten — and what’s been marketed to them to eat — has changed. That’s why MEL enlisted Meg Favreau, a weird history writer and person who eats food, to start Feed the Beast, an occasional series about the most interesting and foul food trends for dudes through the ages. This week: The Hungry-Man Dinner.

Here’s a simple question to determine whether you, according to our culture, are a man: Are you hungry?

Men, we’re told, inevitably are. Whether the hunger is for food or life, the hunger gnaws at men, rumbling in their stomachs, driving them to work and play and eat hard. While women are supposed to try to convince themselves that a small handful of almonds will keep them from being hungry for the next 24 hours, men, we’re supposed to believe, are never satiated.

Well, that is until they eat a food product that has been specifically formulated to satisfy a man’s testosterone-fueled, Sarlacc-sized hunger.

And so we come to the stark beauty of Hungry-Man. It’s one of those names that’s so simple, it’s dumb. But it tells you everything you need to know: If you are a hungry man, there is a food that can satisfy you. And even better, you can put it in the microwave.

The history of Hungry-Man is, partially, the history of TV dinners… and of World War II. Before the war, Americans didn’t really eat frozen dinners. The first commercially available eats, from Birds Eye, didn’t even make it to grocery stores until 1930, and they weren’t that popular. But during the war, the tin for canning was both scarce and crucial, needed to send food to soldiers. Thus, Americans at home were urged to buy frozen instead of canned goods, cementing frozen foods as an everyday staple.

During that time, some companies did sell ready-made frozen meals. But it was after the war that the real breakthrough in quick-meal technology — and the TV dinner name — arrived, thanks to C.A. Swanson & Company. And if you believe the story, the only reason they made the TV dinner was because they did something so many of us can relate to: They fucked up Thanksgiving dinner.

The story is that Swanson overdid it on the turkey in 1952, and after Thanksgiving, still had 260 tons of frozen birds hanging out. Around the same time, someone at Swanson got the idea to use airplane-style compartmentalized trays to package frozen meals. Who, exactly, came up with all of this is in contention — for years, a Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas said the idea was his, but a Swanson heir has disputed that story. (Here’s hoping that if Thomas was lying, it’s because “I invited the TV dinner” reliably got him laid.) But no matter who came up with it, the effect was the same: The TV dinner, in all its high-sodium glory, was born.

And it was wildly popular, selling over 10 million dinners in the first year it went national. In 1969, Swanson added breakfasts, too, because nothing says “delicious breakfast” like “frozen and reheated scrambled eggs.”

Then, in 1973, Swanson finally introduced the most masculine of compartmentalized dinners: Hungry-Man. According to Pinnacle Foods (which acquired Hungry Man from Swanson’s parent company, Campbell’s, in 2001) the idea was pretty straightforward: They wanted to offer “larger, heartier portion sizes specifically targeted toward the hungry male consumer.”

This sense of male hunger — both literal and more philosophical — has always been integral to the brand. Their first spokesman was “Mean” Joe Greene, who did a series of commercials linking his NFL-sized hunger to the big ol’ trays of salisbury steak Swanson was hocking. He was soon joined by fellow NFL player (and current motivational speaker) Rocky Bleier, in commercials like this, where they make sure to use the word meat as many times as possible:

And this, with its spectacular jingle:

Swanson even sponsored a 1989 project at NFL Films, unsurprisingly called The NFL’S Hungriest Men, further cementing the idea of hunger as an element of greatness, with lines like, “It is a world where many men hunger for what few will ever taste. Where the supreme law of the land is not glory, but guts,” and “It is only within the hearts of the NFL’s hungriest men that true heroes are born.” (Which is a pretty disappointing revelation for anyone who was hoping to be a true hero somewhere other than in the NFL.)

Associating masculinity with food has been an effective marketing strategy for Hungry-Man and other “masculine” foods — and an unhealthy one, since man foods tend to be meat-and-carb calorie bombs. David Sax wrote an excellent piece for New York Magazine about just that earlier this year. In it, he quotes Katherine Parkin, a history professor who wrote a book called Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, and Parkin calls out Hungry-Man, if not by name: “The manly foods — for example, a 4,000-calorie manly frozen dinner — all play on a notion that these foods will make you a man and ensure your virility.”

And the marketing really does work. Despite general trends toward healthier eating, Hungry-Man’s sales have actually increased recently. In 2015, when many unhealthy food purveyors were dealing with how to maintain sales with increasingly health-conscious consumers, Pinnacle Foods reported that sales of Hungry-Man actually went up. According to Rob Wile at Fusion, Pinnacle helped fuel the sales increase by “using more select meat products and rolling out a series of ‘trendier’ flavors, while keeping sodium and calorie counts the same, or even bumping them up.” Because hey, what’s manlier than continuing to eat the manly foods you love, even if they’re slowly killing you?

Today, Hungry-Man is promoting its healthfulness, sort of — the Hungry-Man boxes boldly note on the front how much protein they contain. But that doesn’t really mean much, since “protein” has basically become “fat-free” for dudes: a shorthand to imply that something is healthy when it really isn’t. Because while men (and all humans) do need protein to build their muscles, many nutritionists — even sports nutritionists — agree that the current protein marketing is only that: marketing. Hope Warshaw recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which several experts agreed that we don’t need as much protein as we think — especially if we’re not actually that active. Because, surprise: You actually need to work out to build muscle. Otherwise, all that “healthy” Hungry-Man protein just becomes fat.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped Hungry-Man from associating themselves with hyper-masculine athletes. The recent “Smackdown Your Hunger” campaign paired Hungry-Man with the WWE, and Hungry-Man set up a meet-and-greet event with 440-lb wrestler Big Show. It seems fitting that Hungry-Man’s new partnership is with TV wrestlers: Both are in the business of selling a story about what it means to be a man.