Microwaves "Ignored"? Not So Fast, WSJ


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Three times in my professional life I have felt that I was dead or invisible. Once was when I won the James Beard lifetime achievement award—was life over? Once was when my dear once-upon-a-time assistant Christopher Styler wrote a piece about me, and my husband said I could now die as I had had my best obituary. The most recent was Wednesday, when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about microwaves and cooking.

It did—in the online version—mention the original appearance of my book Microwave Gourmet, but the entire piece negated what I understood and felt had happened in the years before and after I wrote the book, when the microwave oven became a standard appliance in everyone's kitchen. The article said that it was time for microwave ovens to get some respect and that they were now being used for cooking. Who the hundreds of thousands of people were and what they thought they were doing when they bought my book and wrote me queries and compliments I could not have said from this article.

First of all, it indicated that microwave ovens were now—at last!—important, as there are expensive ones being sold that are combinations with steam ovens. The writer did not seem to understand and certainly did not make clear that the two functions have nothing to do with each other. In fact, if the container for cooking food in the microwave oven is covered, it acts a steamer: the oven cooks by agitating water molecules in food and steaming it under pressure, rapidly.

Secondly, the article equated cooking in the microwave oven with heating or defrosting prepared, packaged food. Yes, the microwave oven can do that. But it can cook too, and people use it to cook. In today's odd world they may not call it "cooking," but if asked if they never make vegetables in the microwave, people respond: "Sure, almost every day." Ask if they ever stick a piece of fish in the oven to prepare it, and they often say: "Yes, I don't like the smell in the house when I put it on top of the stove." The list could go on and on. The point is that the verb to cook has become reserved for "I cooked dinner on Saturday night for eight people."

Additionally, there was a very good study at Cornell University that showed that vegetables retained more vitamins when cooked in the microwave than any other way.

The most serious problems with microwave ovens have to do with a lack of consistency about wattage, as the article pointed out in confusion over directions on packaged products. If the manufacturers would restrict themselves to 700- and 1100-watt ovens, life would be simpler: two sets of timings could be standard on packages and in cookbooks. Also, very cheap and inferior ovens that cook unevenly are pouring into this country from China. At the same time, the proliferation of controls and settings is—to my mind—just a way of charging more for exactly the kind of gimmicky ovens the article promotes. People are not idiots if supplied with simple, solid ovens and good instructions—of which I of course include in the two books I wrote about cooking in the microwave.

Today, everyone wants a microwave oven in their kitchen, with good reason. That is respect. Would that the author had given microwave ovens enough respect enough to get the facts right and not from P.R. people.

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Barbara Kafka is the author of several award-winning cookbooks, including the New York Times bestseller Microwave Gourmet. She was recently honored with the James Beard Foundation lifetime achievement award. More

Barbara Kafka's most recent book, Vegetable Love, with 750 imaginative yet easy vegetable dishes, was honored as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and the 2006 IACP award for Best Single Subject Cookbook. Her previous book, Soup: A Way of Life, was on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. Her Roasting: A Simple Art, won the Julia Child Cookbook Award and was a Book-of-the-Month-Club main selection, as was her preceding book, Party Food.

Her other books include the New York Times bestseller Microwave Gourmet and the Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook. Both were Book-of-the-Month-Club main selections and sold out in mass paperback in America and England. Both were also winners of The Tastemaker Award (IACP).

In the past, Ms. Kafka was active as a consultant to restaurants and industry, and as a product designer. For many years she taught with James Beard as well as around the country on her own. The winner of the James Beard Foundation lifetime achievement award, Ms. Kafka has served on the boards of culinary and educational organizations. Current projects including writing and developing recipes for several magazines and websites, including Sololady.com, Cookthink.com, and Videojug.com.

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