By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
If you ask anyone you know what they use their microwave for, the answer is almost always the same: defrosting and reheating leftovers.
If you think about it, microwaves are the epitome of convenience. You put cold food into a box above your stove or on your counter, that you didn’t pre-heat, hit a couple buttons, and voila, your food comes out hot.
And the entire unit itself has nothing too hot to touch. It’s not far off from a star trek replicator. But where did it all begin? This is my underlying question surrounding microwaves.
World war II was coming to a close and coincidingly magnetron tubes—used for short range radar—suddenly had no further purpose. Major manufacturers were searching for future uses for this still relatively new technology.
It had already been established that radio waves could heat insulated material with no conduction. Companies like Radio Corporation of America, General Electric, and Bell were all competing for where they could go next with these likely, harmless radio waves.
The next part isn’t fully corroborated or confirmed, but as the lore goes, several men were in a lab where they were testing alternative uses for these magnetron waves. One of them was standing close and not long after they fired up their equipment, he felt heat in his pocket. It turned out, the candy bar in his pocket began to cook as a result of the magnetron waves.
As the story goes, he filed for patents for using microwaves to cook food. Enter the first microwave or Radarange—which is a direct reference to its military origins—as it was first referred to. The first microwave was sold in 1946.
Initially microwave cooking technology was used in restaurants and airplanes to reheat food. For restaurants, it meant heating, or reheating foods quickly and without the use of hot, cumbersome ovens. For airlines, what could be better than to have the ability to heat food quickly and with simple electricity for what became the post war jet set crowd?
Fast forward to the late 1960’s early 1970’s: microwave ovens were about to be more than a pricy, unique method of heating food for the rich and elite.
More and more manufacturers began mass producing this technology and here’s where my chef and history brain come together to piece together a culinary storybook that may or may not end well. That depends on your point of view.
The creation and mass consumption of processed foods directly coincides with the advent of high fructose corn syrup. But I would make a case that this unhealthy, convenient way of eating is the culmination of a one-two punch. The other punch being the accessibility of easily cooking and reheating foods in a microwave. Microwaves, the growing use of high fructose corn syrup, and ready to eat processed foods all converged in the early to mid 1970’s.
Suddenly, Americans found themselves in need of two incomes, rather than one. As households wondered who was going to cook dinner, what could be easier than utilizing the revolutionary grocery store items that married the stability of what would later be called processed foods with the ability to heat them in a fraction of the time in an oven that took up a third of the space of a conventional oven?
We could now hold a dual income household together, while spending little time in the kitchen. Which left more time for watching Walter Cronkite, Good Times, Adam 12, or whatever show you were into at the time.
I’ll delve more into the advent of processed foods and how we’ve been directed to eat in the near future.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.