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The irresistible allure of microwave ovens



She was built like a Buick Special: encased in burnished chrome, adorned with a mesh grill, her red-studded knobs gleaming like taillights at the drive-in.

The 1955 Tappan microwave oven, one of America's first commercial models, carried a retail price of $1,295, in today's money, $11,124. I happened to see her across a room during a recent visit to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. I wanted to caress her, stroke her, place my hot cheek against her cool chrome.

"Marry me," she said.

"What's in it for me?" I countered.

"Plan dinner at 5:30. Eat by 6."

Fast, convenient and instantly gratifying, the microwave oven, along with the TV and remote control, forms the centerpiece of American living.

More than 65 years after the microwave's invention, it remains that way. You can nuke your dinner, carry it to the TV room and sit down on your crumb-crusted couch to watch 30 Rock.

"You'd ruin an entire company just to get to me? Think of the employees, the pensions, the kittens we use to test the strength of our microwaves," says character Jack Donaghy, vice president of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric.

The technology of the microwave oven originated during World War II. An electron tube generated microwaves, which enhanced British radar systems' ability to spot Nazi warplanes, reports Wired magazine. In the mid-'40s, Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer for Raytheon, dreamed up the microwave after working on a radar set that accidentally melted a Mr. Goodbar in his pocket. (This could not have been good for his reproductive system.)

The Speedy Weeny vending machine, installed in Grand Central Station, used microwaves to cook hot dogs as early as January 1947.

Seven years later, the aptly named Radarange was unveiled as the first microwave for widespread use, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, "Hedonic Quality Adjustment Methods for Microwave Ovens in the U.S Consumer Price Index." (Yes, such a publication exists, and it strips the appliance of all sex appeal.)

As tall as an average man, the Radarange weighed as much as an Angus calf—750 pounds—and sold for about $2,500, the equivalent of $22,000 today.

Unaware of the microwave's vast culinary potential and its future marriage to the new, shiny gadget in the room—the TV—people largely ignored it.

Finally, in 1967, Raytheon unleashed the new and improved Radarange. At $495, it cost about the same as three months' rent, but consumers warmed to the appliance. Prices dropped, women began working outside of the home and the microwave's buttons could be operated by the tiny fingers of latchkey kids.

My parents purchased a brown Kenmore microwave in 1972, the same year that they bought our first color TV. We were fascinated, and a bit timid, like cavemen who had just discovered fire.

Around that time we began hearing tales of exploding marshmallows, convulsing eggs, flaming forks—all the result of risky microwave behavior, my parents warned. How we learned of these incidents, I don't know, since Facebook, Twitter and Instagram did not exist.

(Disclosure: Twenty years ago, a friend did cook a live cockroach in my microwave. I was appalled because of the suffering of the cockroach, and, as I told him, "Hey man, I have to put food in there.")

My mom, who worked inside the home, still preferred the old-school stove and conventional oven for cooking real food. The 1972 microwave didn't have a turntable, which meant the middle of the lasagna was cold and dead, while the edge cauterized your lips. Plus, unlike moms, microwaves don't brown, fry or bake.

We rarely used any of the presets and power settings—just "High"—and for a while, the oven had more utility as a fancy digital clock.

But over time, the microwave became indispensable. I'm not the cook that my mother is, so since 1990 I've always had one, even when I didn't have a TV. (Before 1990, I subsisted on carry-out and granola bars.)

An estimated 94 percent of U.S. households have a microwave. Until recently my husband and I were among them. But we have since joined the microwaveless minority, the contrarians, paranoids, Luddites or, in our case, those-who-live-in-houses-without-grounded-plugs.

Microwaves have a life expectancy of at least 15 years, which I consider a long time for a well-used appliance. Nonetheless, our oven, purchased in 2006, died last week just five seconds into heating a cup of water. The oven's three-prong adapter had melted, welded, actually, to the plug, demoting the appliance to a sauce-encrusted diorama.

Without a microwave, I can't reheat food any better than I can operate a butter churn.

Tea? I don't have a kettle. Oh yes, a saucepan can also heat water—thanks for reminding me.

Spaghetti? Hmm, I wonder if our neighbor would let us use his microwave.

Last night we reheated salmon in the conventional oven. Tonight around 6 we'll cook on the stovetop. Maybe at 7 we'll sit and watch a show, like an old episode of 30 Rock, on our new high-definition TV: "We're G.E., dammit," Jack Donaghy says. "We're making a giant, shoddy microwave."

This article appeared in print with the headline "She's a beauty."

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