How America’s Tastiest Pot Pies Disappeared: A History of Morton Frozen Foods

A trio of Morton meat pot pies from the 1960s.
A trio of Morton meat pot pies from the 1960s.

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – An entire generation of Americans recognize the venerable Morton Frozen Foods brand, remembering fondly its many products ranging from pot pies to honey buns. Despite humble origins in an abandoned Louisville church basement, Morton grew to become one of the nation’s premier manufacturers of frozen foods in the mid-20th century.

Although Morton achieved a spectacular level of success with its wide array of products, a succession of corporate buyouts prompted its movement toward obscurity until it disappeared completely from grocery store freezers in the 1990s. However, efforts are currently underway to breathe new life into this icon of American business history.

In 1938, a recent college graduate and entrepreneur named Harold M. Morton ventured into the competitive packaged food industry by establishing a small chicken processing and canning firm in Louisville, KY. First based in an abandoned church basement, the company became known regionally for its signature chicken and noodle dish that it sold in glass jars. While the Morton Packing Company slowly grew, Harold Morton left the helm due to some unforeseen circumstances and went on to engage in other endeavors. However, business boomed for the company during World War II since consumers did not have to surrender many ration points to buy Morton’s chicken and noodle concoction. Further, the company benefited from lucrative government contracts, packaging food – mostly soups – for the U.S. armed forces, and soon moved into a larger manufacturing plant in Louisville.

Post War Innovation & Edward Stettinius

Unfortunately, the bottom fell out for Morton following the war as their signature dish was no longer desirable among consumers. The company would have likely gone under had it not been for a chance luncheon between two corporate leaders in 1946. That year, former U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius dined with respected food industry consultant George Egger at Stettinius’ estate outside of Charlottesville, VA. As they chatted and ate chicken pot pie, Stettinius remarked to Egger, “You know, pot pie is the oldest of our traditional American dishes, but housewives don’t seem to find time to make it anymore. It’s too bad that some food company doesn’t turn out a tasty chicken pie.”

A visionary business leader who was well connected within the food services industry, Egger immediately filed this idea away in the back of his head. A short time later, he was brought in as a consultant to help revive the troubled Morton firm and immediately shared the idea with the company’s leadership. Morton staff quickly developed a commercially viable chicken pot pie and the company’s fortunes immediately changed.

Morton sales began to soar as the American public became fascinated with this new frozen chicken pot pie. Egger, who was appointed Morton’s president in 1950, was also successful in financing a major media campaign that introduced “Colonel Morton” to consumers across the nation. In the meantime, Morton began to diversify into other meat pot pies as well as fruit pot pies, operating four production plants across the country and becoming an industry leader in the frozen foods field.

Morton reached the pinnacle of its success in the mid-1950s, when famed financier John Hay “Jock” Whitney was talked into investing millions of dollars into the company. These resources proved instrumental in making Morton a truly national brand. However, although the American public was increasingly fond of Morton’s “Old Kentucky Recipe,” the company struggled to find the resources to compete with larger corporations that were entering the frozen pot pie market. Consequently, Egger sold Morton in 1956 to the Continental Baking Company and launched a new era for the Louisville firm.

Dessert and Bakery Products

Renamed Morton Frozen Foods and relocated to New York in the late 1950s, the company (later a division of ITT Continental) began to add frozen dinners and other desserts to its lineup of products. Morton’s “golden age” continued into the 1960s, as American consumers were still quite fond of its products. However, increasing competition and the rise of fast food began to spell trouble for the brand in the 1970s. In response, Morton began to transition toward frozen dessert and bakery products, ranging from cream pies to donuts to honey buns. They were well received by consumers but failed to achieve the same impact that Morton once enjoyed with its pot pies. “Colonel Morton” also ceased to exist on Morton packaging as the company shifted to other less distinctive logos.

Further, Morton was sold during this period to a succession of corporations, ranging from Del Monte to its most recent owner, ConAgra, in 1986. This succession of buyouts gradually transformed Morton from a distinct company with its own unique identity into a more artificial brand. A 1990s corporate restructuring prompted ConAgra to remove Morton from its list of active products, and the brand ceased around 2000.

Editor’s Note: A group of individuals with ties to Morton has recently emerged with a plan to put the brand back on the map. Their efforts will be discussed in Part 2 of this article, which will follow.

About the Author

  • About the Author: Dr. Sean Heuvel is a faculty member at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, and holds degrees from the College of William and Mary and the University of Richmond. A historian by trade, Sean is proud of his close familial ties to Morton Frozen Foods. He is the great-grandson of Jean D. Patton (1898-1956), who helped establish the Morton Packing Company with his family friend Harold Morton in 1938. Patton went on to serve as the company’s vice president of production as well a member of Morton’s board of directors. Further, Sean is the grandson of Gene Liberati (1922-2011), who was also a longtime Morton executive. Sean lives with his wife and two children in Williamsburg.

30 Comments

  1. I was just remembering Morton Frozen Glazed Donuts to a coworker this morning. My mom used to buy those out of the frozen food section for us kids as a morning breakfast treat every so often. I miss them, and the memories of having them, like a sneaky treat that’d get us up and out of bed faster than a speeding bullet when the smell hit our noses.

    Any more intel on if/when Morton will be back up and running, cranking out their donuts and other delicious frozen fare?

  2. I remember back in the early 1970s buying Morton cream pies for 27 cents. I had to live on those for over a year in my early teens. It was the only thing we could afford at times. Almost all artificial ingredients, like flavored puffed oil. I just bought a sarah lee whipped strawberry cheesecake the other day, only it was $6. The ingredients were just as bad. It said, made with real cream cheese on the outside of the box. But on the ingredients list it states, less than 2 percent real cream cheese. It was mostly puffed flavored oil, just like mortons cream pies use to be. I guarantee , I’m not going to buy another one of those again. Very unhealthy. Maybe mortons chicken pot pies were healthier, but we couldn’t afford one.

  3. Does anyone remember the Western Dinner that a company made? I think it was Morton’s. It had a western style Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and chili beans. It was one of my favorites.

    1. you sure those weren’t “Nighthawk Dinners”? Those were great, especially for a single meal!

  4. BRING BACK MORTONS!
    Not a single brand comes close to that meatloaf in red sauce.
    I’ve tried every…single… brand imaginable.

  5. WOW, I LOVE THE POT PIES FROM MORTON, FIVE SPOON FULLS OF TASTY FILLING AND A THIN TOP CRUST. 70% PRODUCT INSTEAD OF 70% FLOWER DOUGH LIKE BANQUET.
    BEING A DIADETIC, I AM MINDFUL OF THE CARBS IN FLOWER. WE TRY NOT TO EAT IT, WICH MEANS THAT ALL OF THE CRUST GOES IN THE GARBAGE. SO WITH LESS THAN THREE SPOONS OF PRODUCT THE PIES ARE NOT WORTH BUYING FROM BANQUET, EVEN AT THREE FOR A DOLLER.

  6. HI, I JUST FOUND OUT MORTON IS GONE. I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR IT FOR A LONG TIME. WE LIKE THERE DINNERS MORE THAN ANY THING ELSE. MY FAVORITE WAS THE THREE PIECE CHICKEN DINNERS, THREE FOR A DOLLER! WITH CORN AND MASHED POTATOES AND LATER A APPLE OR CHERRY PIE. REAL LARGE PIECES OF CHICKEN, WHITE OR DARK MEALS WERE AVALABLE. NOT LIKE BANQUETS, ONE PIECE OF MEAT HEAVILY BREADED WITH TWO LARGE PIECES OF MEAT WITH NOTHING IN SIDE THE BREAD BUT BREAD! NO MEAT AT ALL. YUM YUM.

  7. Remember the colonel (he looked like the poor man’s John Carradine) “no soggy under crust. My Mom hated to cook so we got about 1 million of these but never complained, they were way better than her infamous tuna casserole

  8. Does anyone know what happened to the Old Trader pot pies? They were available in early 2000. I bought them from Albertsons/Safeway in Nevada. They were 100% better than anything on the market today. The size the crust the sauce were excellent.
    There could have been more chicken, but all pies could have more chicken! Hoping for a reply.

  9. I wish someone could come up with the recipe for Morton’s chicken pot pie. I hate all the others out on the market and really miss Morton’s.

  10. The whole family loved the Chicken Pot Pies of Morton, very tasty and good for you with good ingredients. Then Beef and Turkey pot pies, great. The Meatloaf dinners were also very good. Too bad these food conglomerates such as ConAgra has destroyed so many great product maximizing profit and sacrificing taste and healthy foods. Not only Banquet’s but Marie Callenders, all ConAgra products are terrible. Marie Callender’s Pot pies are the worst, no taste, plenty of bad crust, no sauce, little good food content, absolutely awful. Local markets have had them on-sale lately obviously trying to get rid of them. Has anyone got a good Chicken Pot Pie recipe, or Colonel Morton’s recipe. No wonder the USA is suffering from obesity and poor health, living shorter lives.

  11. I just sent this note to Banquet (Conagra).

    ————–

    Having nice memories of pot pies (Morton) from childhood, I just bought a dozen of Banquet’s pot pies, in part as I thought my 100 year old mom would enjoy them. She pronounced the one I fixed her as terrible and pitched it. I tried one. It was indeed terrible. Never mind how small it was, does it really cost that much more to load in more carrots, peas and potatoes instead of the mystery glop filling in most of the pie? And the salt levels for something that small? It’s all one tastes. Yak. Now I’ve got ten of them to try and do something with, and am at a loss. I thought of a neighbor’s cat. I can’t stand the cat, so that’s the leading alternative at the moment, though it would probably disappear after the first pie and the owner might get upset with me if things went poorly for the cat. Sweeny Todd wouldn’t go for these. Those planning future Solyent Green recipes would shy away. In the race to the bottom, these pot pies are contenders.

  12. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, and LOVED the Morton meatloaf TV dinners and those little mini cinnamon sugar donuts they made. There was nothing better than heating up those donuts in the oven, and eating them while they were hot! Yum!
    Wish these products could be brought back, along with Sara Lee frozen brownies (the best!), Betty Crocker lemon pudding cake mix, and Team Flakes cereal, my all-time favorite.

  13. I have truly missed the MORTON’s chocolate cream pies. I could eat a whole one by myself!!! I’ve tried all the other’s in the past few years – even tried on my own to make one – NOTHING COME’S CLISE TO MORTON’S!!!!!! PLEASE BRING THEM BACK!!!!!

    1. I absolutely loved the Morton spaghetti that was in the little aluminum tin and would love to see it come back. Best flavor ever in a frozen pasta product.

  14. I miss the tasty pot pies. I eould be a constant customer. Do hurry

  15. Please, please bring these back!!!!

  16. All frozen pot pies sold today have top and bottom crust Morton had only the top crust they coked better and tasted better

  17. Does any one remember Morton’s “Great Little Desserts?” I loved those when I was a kid!

  18. im 59 yrs old….I still look for morton pot pies! lod them!!!

  19. Morton frozen honey buns!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I could eat a whole package at a time. The best honey bun ever, at least as I remember it or maybe it was made better by the blob of butter I put on top of each one. Maybe it’s a good thing the brand died…

  20. I well-remember the commercials with the faux Kentucky colonel promoting Morton “Old Kentucky Recipe” products. Though a pre-teen, I was sufficiently intelligent (and therefore cynical) to believe this was all marketing — there were no such recipes.

    I made cracks about Morton “Old Kentucky Recipe” chicken chow mein. I have similar feelings about Red Baron pizza. The antithetical mashups seem limitless (County Kerry lasagna?).

    I wish success to those trying to revive the Morton brand in producing high-quality products.

    1. I also remember Morton pot pies and the Meatloaf tv dinner was my favorite. I hope they start making it again. I’ll be the number 1 customer. Lol😊

  21. I’m with Danita,the meatloaf dinner was my favorite growing up (1960s-early 70s) I loved the tomatoe sauce especially..mmmm!! Wish I had one now…seems like a lot of good things go away,replaced with cost cutting crap…and downsized portions.

  22. When I was a kid, a Morton meatloaf TV dinner was my favorite food in the world – I would have eaten it twice a day every day, if left to my own devices. Good times. I hope they can bring the brand back.

    1. I remember the meat loaf dinner with the red sauce from the early 80’s when I was in college. 49 cents a dinner back then. I would double up on each variety. No red sauce meat loaf dinners today. I miss my favorite, the beans and franks dinner.

  23. Scott,

    If you’re talking about the ‘Bremer’ pot pies sold at ALDI’s in a box of four, they’re discontinued. That’s one of the frustrating things about being an ALDI customer – if you like it, they’re quite likely to drop it. Their management is completely immune to consumer entreaties, too.

  24. Not only do I remember Morton’s pot pies and TV dinners with a great deal of fondness, they also made frozen spaghetti packaged in the same little aluminum pans used for their pot pies. That spaghetti had a wonderful taste like no other. I blush to admit that I considered it a real treat back in my student days of the early ’70s.

  25. Hopefully a revival of the brand will happen. A definite niche between the hideous offerings of Banquet/Swanson and the top-of-the-line Marie Callender’s definitely exists. Aldi has demonstrated that they can make a profit on a product that resembles Marie Callender’s pot pies (but at a much lower price) and even at a higher price point, Morton would still be competitive given the market they would be entering.

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