Doing the wave

The home version of the microwave oven turned fifty this year. Although the industrial microwave oven has been around since 1947, we did not get the chance to add it to the list of standard kitchen appliances until 1967. The delay in ‘retailization’ was of course due to getting the price down to consumer budgets, although at $495 U.S. you could hardly argue that a microwave was not a luxury item except they did argue that it was a kind of a patriotic necessity during the energy crisis of the 1970’s.

And aside from the respite offered for the electrical grid, the microwave was also touted as a time saving device. Imagine being able to cook a roast of beef in half an hour instead of two hours! Unfortunately, the ‘roast’ ended up looking more like a light grey blob than a mahogany crusted masterpiece, which meant the fantasy of cooking and entire dinner from scratch in the microwave was very short lived.

As well, anyone who has done anything other than reheat a cup of coffee in the microwave knows that its claim as a time saving device is rather dubious. That’s because you are a slave to the timer countdown for the duration of whatever you are trying to cook, courtesy of the constant stirring, rotating and readjusting required in order not to end up with frazzled food on the roof of the oven or searing hot edges and tepid middles. In contrast, once you throw something in the regular oven you can get right back to your Harlequin Romance and not give dinner another thought until the buzzer goes. Or even better, the slowcooker plods away from morning to night giving you the satisfaction of being ‘busy’ cooking while binge watching Orange is the New Black.

And yet the ubiquity of the microwave prevails. By 1986 – roughly when I got my first massive microwave and when the price had dropped considerably – 30% of all households had one. Now it is positively weird to see a kitchen without a microwave shelf or cubbyhole built-in. But when you think about it, the amount of kitchen real estate relegated to this appliance is inversely proportionate to its role in the food processing and preparation continuum.

The things I do with my microwave probably look a lot like the things all of us do: reheat soup, reheat yesterday’s leftover mac and cheese, reheat the dregs of my tea, melt chocolate and melt butter. I do branch out for more culinary purposes by making scratch white sauces (try it – it is awesome) and packaged sauces (Swiss Chalet experience at home – a party in your mouth) but that is pretty much it. Doing the math, I would have to say my microwave gets used about three minutes per week. The extended math would place the cost per use at something like 50 cents per minute, which mean my microwave earns the equivalent of 30 bucks per hour based on a standard work day.

When Amana introduced the first ‘radar range’ for home use, they called it “the greatest cooking discovery since fire”. Thanks Amana, but I think I’ll stick to fire.

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