You Take Back All the Mean Things You Said About Microwaves

Of course people hate the microwave: it's an old technology, which reminds us that the gadget we love today will be tomorrow's dated artifact.
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An illustration of a microwave from an early 1970s promotional film. (Prelinger Archive)

In a world of in which kitchen gadgets of all kinds are celebrated, the original high-tech kitchen appliance, the microwave, continues to take abuse.

Our colleagues at Quartz tried to prove the microwave was dying last week, and they did a pretty good job of it. Sales are down since their peak of 12 million units in 2004, and not microwaving things is a class distinction on par with not watching broadcast television shows. 

Our times are marked by the love of both technology and the old way of doing things. So, of course people hate the microwave. It's not so old to be timeless but not so new as to be exciting. The microwave is just an old technology, which reminds us that the gadget we love today will be tomorrow's lame, dated artifact.

A film made to promote microwaves explicitly connected the now-lowly gadget with landing on the moon. "Microwave cooking especially is part of the technological fallout, particularly in the field of radar, from the past two decades of research and development, which has culminated in 1969's landing on the moon," a narrator intones, as images of large radar arrays show on screen. "Developed as the basic power unit for all these radar tracking stations is an electron tube, the magnetron, and it was discovered that this magnetron could be used as the primary power unit in microwave ovens."

The microwave also gave us The Saddest Cookbook Ever.

Doesn't this gadget, developed out of the space race and once so sophisticated it was known as the electronic oven, deserve better?

And Addie Broyles, a columnist at the Austin-American, comes to its defense in a new article. She relates the story of Sam Beneski, a cooking instructor and microwave expert. Beneski was asked to "teach a six-week class to a room full of women who were, at best, dubious of what they could cook with a microwave. 'The first week, there were 10 people in the class, and by the end, it was standing room only... They were giving me thank you gifts. It was the highlight of all my classes I taught."

How could something that was once a miracle to cooks have turned into a kitchen pariah? Microwaves have become the processed food of kitchen gadgets. The very quality that once sold people on it—high-techness—has convinced a skeptical upper-middle class that putting cold pasta sauce on a stove instead of in a microwave is more like cooking would have been in mid-century France. More authentic. 

But how about the old saw that microwaves rob food of nutrients? Nope. That's a myth. Take it from the ultrarespected food science writer Harold McGee: "That rapid heating generally means that the food retains more of its vitamins than it does when it’s boiled, steamed or baked."

In short: The microwave has taken enough crap! It's a key component of a well-stocked kitchen—not perfect for all things, but just right for some. Swearing off the microwave is like swearing off all TV: you might feel righteous, but you're missing out, and for what? 

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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