The microwave is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, but even that can’t redeem the innumerable copies of microwave cookbooks you’ll find discarded at thrift shops. Recently, while scanning the musty smelling shelves for vintage copies from Julia Child and James Beard, I finally gave into my curiosity and purchased a small corpus of five microwave cookbooks from the 1970s and 1980s. While by no means a large enough sample to chart the history of microwave cooking, I wondered what stories these cookbooks might tell about the history of science and technology in home kitchens, as well as the rise of convenience food and its attending transformations of food’s flavor, texture, and appearance.
Available for industrial use starting in 1947, the first countertop microwave oven was released by Amana in 1967. Advertisements for the “Radarange” promised a 75% reduction in cooking time and proclaimed the microwave oven “the greatest cooking discovery since fire.”1 Although less expensive than in previous years, the Radarange cost $495, the equivalent of $3,600 today.2 In the 1970s, a bit more than 10% of homes had a microwave.3 As prices dropped further in the 1980s, microwave ownership grew to 25% in 1986. By 2009 that number would reach 96% of homes.4
Microwave manufacturers often included cookbooks with the purchase of the appliance, but specialized microwave cookbooks began to emerge in the early 1970s. The cookbooks in my tiny collection were published between 1976 and 1985, a time when only a quarter of American homes had a microwave. As a result, most of the books begin with attempts to demystify the technology of the microwave. While Amana’s first consumer appliance included radar in the name, these cookbooks don’t name it explicitly, instead speaking of “short energy waves with big cooking power” and “invisible light waves.”
The cookbooks associate the microwave with technologies consumers were already acquainted with, like radio and television. Such efforts to gently familiarize readers and assure them of microwaves’ safety were likely due to the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s 1970 report, which found that microwaves sold before then leaked radiation at levels potentially harmful to human health.5
At the same time, these cookbooks describe in some detail the science and mechanics of how microwaves work. They write of the appliance’s novel parts, like its “magnetron vacuum tube.” These cookbooks also recount the processes by which energy is reflected, absorbed, and passed through microwaved foods and materials. With straightforward descriptions, these cookbooks discuss topics not unfamiliar in middle school science courses: molecules vibrating, the creation of friction, and how microwaves cook the inside of foods through conduction.
Microwave Cooking and Micro-Chefs
Microwave cookbooks also had to teach consumers how to use this new appliance. Kenmore Microwave Cooking (I have copies from 1981 and 1985 that bear the Sears logo) includes an introductory section with three cooking lessons. They guide the microwave oven student from 1) heating a mug of water to 2) preparing a “simple continental breakfast” of orange juice (defrosted from concentrate), a sweet roll (heated at 20% power for 30 seconds to ensure it’s “just warm to the touch”), and instant coffee. In the third lesson, one learns to heat soup and cook a hotdog (the trick is to score the hotdog, so it doesn’t explode and appears as if grilled), pausing near the end to add in the bun for a quick zap.
These cookbooks often endorsed quick cooking times and convenience as the greatest benefits of microwave cooking — though Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s seminal text, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, written in the early years of microwaves in 1983, questioned whether that was truly the case.6
Whirlpool’s Micro Menus Cookbook from 1976 (created by the Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen and promising to teach the reader to be “a master micro-chef”) served up “meals that beat the clock.” The cookbook imagined a host of such micro-chefs: “a busy mother, swinging single, or harried husband.” Betty Crocker’s Microwave Cookbook, from General Mills in 1981, further extolled the virtues of microwaves: “In this era of microwaves, home cooking has been transformed. Clean, cool, safe, convenient and time-and-work saving — microwaving is an established part of today’s lifestyle.”
Promoted as saving time and labor, microwave cookbooks also tackled the breadth of cuisine. Their tables of contents matched those of conventional cookbooks, offering recipes for meats and main dishes, vegetables and sauces, breads and grains, desserts, and appetizers and snacks. Kenmore provided recipes for BBQ Baby Back Ribs (cooked in the microwave for 26 ½ to 27 minutes), Chicken Breasts a la Suisse (cooked on high at intervals, but taking only 4 ½ to 5 minutes total), and Vegetarian Lasagna (prepared from uncooked noodles and ready in 35 minutes). Food writer Sarah Lohman recently tested out the recipe for roasting a whole chicken (yes, you read that right) from Pat Jester’s 1982 The Microwave Cook: The Complete Guide.
After nuking it for a total of 42 minutes, Lohman judged the result a thoroughly cooked and very moist bird, but one wholly lacking in flavor. Indeed, some of these recipes combined cooking technologies, partnering the microwave’s quick cooking power with the conventional oven or grill for browning and crisping. Admittedly, even with recipes, microwave cooking required (and still requires) some amount of trial and error, experimenting with wattage, moisture composition, cooking time, and “standing time” afterward.
And yet, it seems few microwave owners rose to the status of micro-chefs. Even microwave cookbooks published recently, like Beth Hensperger’s Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook from 2010, lament the fact that “Almost everyone has a microwave oven — but hardly anyone knows how to get the most out of this ubiquitous appliance.”7 Mark Bittman echoed such sentiments in the New York Times in 2008, though he surprised himself as he concluded, “For any vegetable you would parboil or steam, the microwave works as well or better, and is faster.”
Beyond perfectly nuked veggies, the world of microwave-centric cookery, imagined by manufactures and cookbook contributors, does not match up with the way that folks seem to actually use these devices. Instead, microwaves have been used almost exclusively for reheating foods, popping popcorn, and nuking microwaveable convenience food products, which the food industry engineered in earnest in the 1980s.
Microwaves, Making a Comeback?
After decades of supposedly limited use, might the microwave be the center of newfound culinary attention? Maybe, and even in the fanciest of modern cookery books. For example, Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook, published in 2011, featured a recipe for pistachio spongecake prepared, you guessed it, in the microwave.8 You’ll also find a section on microwave cooking in Modernist Cuisine at Home, published in 2012.9
The early 2010s also brought the rise of “mug meals.” The popular food website Kitchn included mug cake as one of the key dessert trends of 2013, questioning it as “genius, or kinda gross?” According to Google’s 2016 Food Trends report, searches for mug cake grew steadily throughout 2015 and grew 82% from December 2015 to January 2016. A plethora of mug meals cookbooks and food blog posts, pinned and re-pinned on Pinterest, have also emerged. This style of cooking has even launched new kitchen implements. Corningware sells 20-oz “meal mugs” with vented lids designed to minimize mess and the risk of burns from hot steam.
Despite their newfound popularity, mug meals aren’t new. Barbara Methven’s 101 Microwave Secrets, published in 1982 as one of a dozen texts in the Microwave Cooking Library series, included a full-page layout of a day’s worth of mug meals. Methven provided recipes for scrambled eggs for “breakfast in a mug,” creamy vegetable rice soup for “lunch in a mug,” meat loaf in a mug for dinner (ready to eat, from scratch, in under 8 minutes), followed by a chocolate pudding, “dessert in a mug.” Whirlpool’s Micro Menus Cookbook also included a recipe for making one or two cupcakes, that is, a proto-mug-cake.
While the technology and recipes of today’s mug meal trend aren’t new, the social context in which people eat mug meals today might be. One striking feature of mug meals is that they make it possible to quickly and easily cook a single helping of foods whose recipes typically make many servings: think lasagna, macaroni and cheese, pizza, a whole cake, or a dozen muffins. There’s greater urgency for “recipes for one” now, as many people eat by themselves.
A 2015 report from the market research firm, Hartman Group, reported that 46% of meals and snacks are eaten alone, further broken down into 24% of dinners, 53% of breakfasts, and 45% of lunches.10 It makes logical sense that many mug meal recipes are for comfort foods — a joy to eat with others, but a salve, perhaps, when dining alone, even if the microwaveable results are a bit rubbery.
Whirlpool’s Micro Menus Cookbook catered to these needs in a section titled, “When 1 or 2 Is a Crowd,” cheerfully declaring, “When you think in terms of small servings, think microwave!” The single-serving recipes, like “Lemony Deviled Lamb Chop” and “Plum-Good Cornish Hen,” are gathered under the tactful heading, “All for One,” rather than “Just for One.” As this handful of cookbooks demonstrates, whether preparing a whole chicken or a single-serving mug cake, in the 1980s or today, microwave cooking tells a story of household technology, industrialized convenience, and changing consumer needs. Microwave cookbooks also further highlight the social power of food, no matter how it’s prepared or eaten, whether dining alone, around the family table, or in a crowd.
- Susan Strasser, “What’s in Your Microwave Oven?,” The New York Times, April 14, 2017, sec. Opinion. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Andrew F. Smith, Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine (Columbia University Press, 2009), 207. Return to text.
- Strasser, “What’s in Your Microwave Oven?”Return to text.
- Smith, Eating History, 207. Return to text.
- Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1985). Return to text.
- Beth Hensperger, Not Your Mother’s Microwave Cookbook: Fresh, Delicious, and Wholesome Main Dishes, Snacks, Sides, Desserts, and More (Boston, MA: Harvard Common Press, 2010). Return to text.
- Sophie Brickman, “Microwave Cooking Is More Than Just Reheating Your Coffee,” The New York Times, January 7, 2013, sec. Dining & Wine. Return to text.
- Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine at Home, (Bellevue, WA: The Cooking Lab, 2012). Return to text.
- Allison Aubrey and Godoy Maria, “Party Of 1: We Are Eating A Lot Of Meals Alone,” NPR.org, August 13, 2015. Return to text.