Microwaves Are Essential for Things We Don’t Need Them For

Our microwave at home makes a lonely, hollow-plastic sound when the door shuts, slamming closed on a mug of water for tea or two-day-old rice. I don’t love our microwave. The inside angles get this funny brown line that’s hard to clean, unless I take a skewer to it. The rotating glass platter comes out so I can wipe away the hard knots of melted rice that jump the bowl, but I’m always afraid what would happen if I dropped it. With no usable floor my microwave would be useless. Then again, the microwave has become less than necessary for a lot of American consumers.

A story by Roberto A. Ferdman on Quartz says we’re all buying fewer of them. “Microwave sales have fallen or remained flat every year for nearly a decade in the U.S. Unit sales have tumbled by 25 percent since 2000, and 40 percent since their peak, in 2004.” The story says we’re more interested in fresh foods now, not convenience.

Back in the '90s, my dad made a play for both. He cooked for my mom a couple of days per week, threw London broil or lamb chops on the propane grill on the back deck, and taught himself how to cook asparagus in the microwave. Wrap it in a damp sheath of Bountys, stuff it in a plastic bag he’d use a steak knife to pierce, zipper the top, and stab the buttons with his grocery-clerk fingers, temperature and time, beep-beep-ding. Now it seems as weird as performance art, using paper and polyvinyl chloride, engaging relays and switches to engage a magnetron tube to send out waves to make the water molecules in two dozen asparagus spears go crazy, the technical definition of “cooking.”

Microwaves come with kitchens—they have dedicated shelves or nooks you'd have to figure out what to do with, if you decided to unplug for good. My husband and I bought our microwave along with the house, nine years ago, same time microwave sales were peaking. You have to actively resist the microwave to live without it. Most of us are passive users: It’s already there, so why not use it to boil the tea water, even if tea made from the kettle seems to taste better, in some weird way you probably register, mentally, though it’s not important enough to actually mention.

It’s kitchen furniture, basically, the recliner that came with the apartment. It’s big and clunky and you’d probably never buy it yourself, but since it’s there you might as well use it. Ours we use as a shelf for the dog's bowls, a dog bowl shelf that heats cold rice. Oh, and as the kitchen clock, and kitchen timer. Every morning I set our microwave’s timer to four minutes, the exact time it takes for coffee extraction in the French press, beep-beep-ding. I used to use an automatic drip machine but everything tastes better if you're patient and make things by hand. Everybody knows that.

Photo by Flickr member Ewen Roberts under Creative Commons

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