Introduction: In this article – to help celebrate today being National Microwave Oven Day – Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn more about a once-new “space age” cooking invention that is now commonplace in almost all homes: the microwave oven. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
What’s one piece of technology that anyone born after about 1990 has not had to live without? While there are several answers, including the cell phone, one popular piece of kitchen technology is the microwave oven. My family bought their first microwave sometime in the early 1980s and I would guess that by the 1990s, most U.S. households had one. To help celebrate National Microwave Oven Day, let’s learn more about microwaves by searching historical newspapers.
Cooking in the Space Age
One place we can find microwave ovens in newspapers is in advertisements. Microwave oven newspaper advertisements give us a sense of not only what those early appliances looked like, but their features and price.
For example, look at this 1970 advertisement for the Amana “Radarange” microwave oven, “the greatest cooking discovery since fire.” The benefits of cooking with the faster microwave oven are hyped over cooking in a regular oven:
“A totally new way to cook, defrost or reheat food – the Amana Radarange Oven. Cooks a 5-pound roast in 37½ minutes and cuts most cooking times 75%.”
One of the other benefits of the new microwave ovens was that “the oven and your kitchen stay cool.” The price of this new luxury? This 1970 model cost $495. In today’s dollars that same microwave would cost about $3,133.
As time marched on and microwaves were more commonplace, a whole language evolved around their use – and we found new ways to use them that made our lives more convenient. For example, we no longer just cooked, we “zapped” and “nuked” foods. We used microwaves to reheat leftovers, defrost meats, steam veggies, warm hot drinks, and melt butter and cheese.
Some foods even adapted to the microwave, like the advent of microwave popcorn in 1991.* The microwave evolved from a “space age” way to cook entrées into something that could be used to do smaller tasks. And of course, microwaves became less bulky and their “look” changed to accommodate new features. Today, your microwave may provide a surface light or fan over your stove top, or give you the ability to set a timer that’s not related to what’s cooking in the microwave.
Now, you can even buy a microwave that has an automatic sensor to turn off when food is cooked. No longer do you have to take up counter space or have a separate microwave stand; you can mount the microwave over your stove top or counter. And of course, as technology becomes commonplace, the price goes down as well. In 1990 a much-smaller microwave with two power levels could be purchased for $99.98, which amounts to about $183 in today’s money.
One cookbook that has not aged well is the microwave cookbook. Unlike general cookbooks that provide recipes that can be cooked on the stove top or the oven, microwave cookbooks focus strictly on using the microwave. My guess is that today, there are not many people cooking large roasts or turkeys in their microwave – but microwave cookbooks extolled the fact that these ovens were more convenient than your conventional oven which took time to pre-heat and cook.
This 1990 newspaper article has a few microwave recipes, including one for a Pot Roast Cooked in Beer. The overall cooking time for this roast is 1 hour and 22 minutes. I have to admit that when I saw this recipe my first thought was, “When do people microwave anything for more than about 10 minutes?”
Do you typically use your microwave to reheat leftovers? Maybe those leftovers are stored in plastic Tupperware containers? It’s no surprise that as people found new uses for microwaves, cooking accessories made all kinds of microwave cooking more convenient – including cooking bacon.
But one innovation actually involved a different type of Tupperware microwave container. Reading this newspaper article from 1990 reminded me of a time years ago when I did a short stint selling Tupperware, and one of the products was this stackable cooker that was basically a three-level plastic container with a lid that allowed you to cook a vegetable, entrée, and dessert all at once. The benefit of this piece, according to our local Tupperware distributor, was that you could use it in small spaces like an RV kitchen, to cook a complete meal. And yes, you can still buy the stack cooker from Tupperware.
I questioned my Facebook friends about their microwave use. It seems that while few use it to actually cook meat, eggs, or casseroles, the majority use it strictly for reheating. So, has the promise of “space age cooking” gone away? I think that the microwave, like so many cooking appliances, has evolved – and because today we have so many more choices in how we can cook a meal (like using a crock pot, convection oven, or even one of the new Instant Pots), the original vision of how to use a microwave is no longer what most people need.
And while some people are not fans of the microwave oven, I still use mine to reheat cold pizza and other leftovers. Whatever your feelings about the microwave are, today’s commemoration of National Microwave Oven Day is one that might bring up some memories of your family kitchen.
Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history – including more recent events and trends. Do you remember when a microwave oven was something new in your family’s life? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
* “A History of Popcorn,” History (http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/a-history-of-popcorn: accessed 29 November 2017).