The microwave is having a renaissance

The ubiquitous kitchen appliance is a symbol of modern laziness and makes most food worse, so why is it having a renaissance?

Apparently, the microwave is having a moment, a bona fide renaissance of consumerist dumbness, writes this columnist.

Some thought the microwave was going to die in the mid-2010s — when sales were in free fall, dropping 25% compared to a decade earlier. But no, the infernal machine bounced back.

Most Americans love microwaves for reasons that escape yours truly. To me, microwaves are the distillation of convenience, laziness, and iwantitnowness into the most useless-per-cubic-inch kitchen appliance this side of the Juicero

Microwavers argue that the appliance is very useful. They speak of quickly heating food, nuking potatoes, steaming vegetables, popping popcorn, defrosting ready-to-eat meals, boiling water, melting butter, or even sterilizing baby bottles and sponges.

Even famed chef David Chang is now shilling some absurd microwave cookware you really don’t need. No matter how many recipes he includes in his 2021 cookbook, Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave); and no matter how hard the cookbook’s coauthor and NYT food writer Priya Krishna tries to convince us that it’s okay to cook rice in the microwave, let’s all just agree that this microwave moment should end before it really begins.

The reality is that you can’t decently cook anything in a microwave. What you can do is all the things listed above using a simple pot or pan that easily stows away in a cabinet.

A pan is a simple cooking tool that lasts decades; it’s one you can quickly clean under a faucet or by putting it in the dishwasher, along with those dirty sponges and the feeding bottles.

Sure, it might take a few more seconds to heat up your soup or melt that chocolate, but is taking some time away from cell phones, work, or family really so terrible that you are willing to live with something so ugly sitting on your kitchen counter or mounted on a wall?

At sizes that can reach up to 30 by 22 by 25 inches, these contraptions can occupy anything from the volume of a carry-on luggage to a fully-grown Labrador Retriever while being far less useful than both of those things. But at least, luggage can get you to a tropical beach and a Lab just makes you happy.

A microwave oven is the opposite of that — a bleak and permanent reminder of our inescapable obsession with productivity and efficiency.

Despite microwaves packing in new features, research from the University of Manchester has found that “microwave ovens spend more than 90% of their lifetime being idle.”

This research also says that these devices are not as good for the environment as its defenders claim. While it is true that they consume a tenth of the energy of an induction stove, the reality is that they are almost considered disposable, with consumers in the US replacing them every four years on average for prices as low as $50.

Since 90% of U.S. households own a microwave, units sold have comfortably beat the 10 million mark every year since 2015. In Europe alone, all the microwave ovens in homes generate the same CO2 as 6.8 million cars per year when you take into account manufacturing, power consumption, and disposal emissions. 

Despite these damning facts, I find the microwave’s continued existence as fascinating as its origin story, which goes a little something like this: In 1945, a physicist at the Raytheon Company named Percy Spencer invented and patented the microwave after he noticed a Hershey chocolate bar melting in his pocket while playing with a magnetron during a Pentagon radar experiment. Spencer figured that the microwaves made the water in the candy bar vibrate, heating it up and melting it.

The first microwave models were 6-foot, 750-pound machines that could heat anything you put inside.

Initially, it was “dismissed as expensive gimmickry” and many were concerned about getting killed by radiation, so Spencer had to wait until 1976 to see his invention boom, which in turn caused the Big Bang of the microwavable TV dinner — itself another iconic piece of modern Americana.

In the US, 77.83 million people consumed shelf-to-microwave non-refrigerated dinners, entrees, and soups in 2020, which is the final coup de grâce against these machines: They are weapons of health destruction.

But no amount of ranting and damning information will stop these terminators of more civilized times from thriving. Many believe they are just too useful to give up even if they use them only for a few minutes a week to heat up a pizza slice.

With 1.7 billion units sold since their commercialisation started, analysts now believe that microwave oven sales will keep growing for the foreseeable future, increasing from $11.4-billion globally in 2018 to a projected $22.4billion by 2030.

This, I’m afraid, is a lost battle….


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