Friday, April 16, 2010

Ode to the Microwave

It was 1980. My parents had just moved from Virginia Beach, VA, to Arlington, VA. and I was a freshman in college at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. I was an only child so when I left for school, my parents were empty nesters. How did they cope? My mom got a microwave oven, which back then seemed to be just a really big, really expensive popcorn popper. The early years of microwave ovens were marked by overheated bread that at best could be used as a rock in your garden d├ęcor, scrambled eggs that would bounce higher than any super ball, and meat that when cooked swam flowingly in a bowl of fat. How did this piece of machinery ever survive? People had no choice but to learn how to cook effectively in them because they took up so much room on the kitchen counter that there wasn’t any room left in the kitchen to cook.* (*Cook here refers to the 1980’s meaning of the word cook. A time when preparing a meal meant gathering ingredients, perhaps perusing recipes, engaging measuring devices, knives, spices, and an oven – the kind that was attached to the stove where other parts of the meal were prepared. Wow! Thirty years later, the 1980’s sound only one step removed from when dinner was prepared by roasting pigs over an open fire.

I got my first microwave oven in 1983. By then it had progressed from being a really big, really expensive popcorn popper to a really big, not quite as expensive way to heat leftovers. Keep in mind that to have left avers, one still had to cook. I was in graduate school from 1983-1989. During that time, the microwave oven revolutionized the American cooking experience. Suddenly everything came with microwave cooking instructions that cut cooking times by as much as 90%. Frozen dinners no longer came in aluminum trays and they were transformed from TV dinners to microwave entrees. Despite the more refined sounding name, microwave entrees were no more nutritional or tasty than their predecessor. Now manufacturers think that anything can be prepared in a microwave oven. They are wrong! Despite the numerous varieties of cakes that are designed to be cooked in a microwave, cake cannot be cooked in a microwave. Microwaved cake is awful. Cakes have to be baked in a real cake pan in a real oven and preferably having not spent their formative years in a box on the shelf in your pantry.

So why all this reminiscing about microwave ovens? We are looking at appliances as we begin the home renovation extravaganza. It has been ten years since I bought my current microwave. Boy have things changed! They are definitely smaller and more powerful. It is clear by the dedicated buttons on nearly every brand of microwave oven that popcorn must still be its most frequently prepared food. Most makers also have a dedicated button for dinner plate. Leftovers, or at least some food product that didn’t come in a plastic container, must then still be popular with some segment of the population. I personally am prone to rely on the microwave to heat my cup of coffee that I poured and forgot to drink. There is no button for that. You just have to know that to get a room temperature cup of coffee hot enough but not too hot that it must be cooked for a minute. And FYI, nachos take 44 seconds in a standard microwave. Smart Ones breakfast sandwiches take one minute with just the egg white and another two minutes to heat the muffin and meat all the way through. It is not hard to remember these important numbers. And for the most part, any food item that requires heating or cooking comes with microwave cooking instructions on that packaging. I am not crazy about the microwave oven being the preferred vehicle for food preparation, but I am learning to live with it.

I do, however, have a problem with the “features” of the newest microwave ovens. They are catering to the lowest common intellectual and culinary denominator. It is not even necessary to read the cooking instructions on the boxes anymore. Microwave ovens now have specific buttons for cooking popcorn as well as macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets. Who cooks chicken nuggets in the microwave? Done this way they taste like sponges. If you are going to eat chicken nuggets, admit that they are a nutritional void and eat the totally bad for you deep fried ones from a fast food restaurant. Microwaving chicken nuggets does not count as a home cooked meal! Even if you serve them with microwaved macaroni and cheese!

These specific buttons on microwaves causes me to ask two particular questions:

Is this really what home cookin’ is coming to? And, who is the target demographic for microwaves? Is it adults or children?

I think I know the answers to both of these questions and that scares me. We are raising a generation of children who don’t know what a sifter is much less how or why you would use one. They don’t know how to separate eggs or that cookies require baking soda to rise.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not willing to give up my microwave oven. But on the other hand, neither am I willing to give up my double wall ovens, Kitchen Aide mixer, pantry stocked with baking goods, and more shelves than I care to admit that are double stacked with cookbooks. I will continue to rely on the ability of the microwave to quickly defrost the hamburger that I forgot to set out to thaw earlier in the day, to warm the leftovers from last night, and to reheat my coffee.

And for the record, I will never eat a microwaved chicken nugget!