Microwave Cookery
June 19, 2007 12:15 PM   Subscribe

The cavity magnetron is the secret weapon that saved Britain in World War II. In 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer stood too close to a magneton and invented the microwave oven.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is a little off topic, but one of my favorite bits out of a very early Heinlein novel was where the characters cheerily argued about housework. One of them, you see, had 'cooked', by pressing a button on a stove. The other, therefore, had to 'clean' by throwing everything into the recycler. I think the specific method he had in mind wasn't microwaves, but it was eerie how accurate it was, on the whole.

It's odd, but science fiction is going to be a very good historical resource. SF shows what the most visionary people in the culture were imagining, which shows a lot about their preconceptions, how they modeled the world, and what they found exciting. In the 1950s, pressing one button to cook was sufficiently novel to put into a book about the future... which implies that cooking was a major chore.

It was fun to read when it was the future, and it'll still be fun to read as it recedes into the distant past.

Anyway, sorry for the derail in such an early reply. Back to the magnetron. :)
posted by Malor at 12:25 PM on June 19, 2007

(even more off-topic: That Heinlein novel is Stranger in a Strange Land which isn't really "very early". OTOH, I read somewhere that he started writing it pretty early but put it aside for a while, so that scene may indeed have been early.)

I remember our family won an early microwave in a raffle or something in like 1979. There were all these recipes and information on how to cook stuff like roasts. AFAIK, the only things people use it for now is thawing and popcorn. Even reheating doesn't work very well.
posted by DU at 12:43 PM on June 19, 2007

Cool post. Reminded me I was going to try home smelting. --Might not be such a good idea however--
posted by acro at 12:45 PM on June 19, 2007

Smithers! To the Cavity Magnetron! </Mr. Burns>
posted by LordSludge at 1:03 PM on June 19, 2007

Microwaving is the quick and easy way to prepare meatloaf. Also the quick and easy way of cooking frozen veggies, melting butter or chocolate. But to have popcorn ready in case of a burgeoning flame war is the real convenience. Not a single snark need be missed.
posted by Cranberry at 1:13 PM on June 19, 2007

My dad worked as a radar technician on the old Nike-Hercules missile sites in the 60's. According to him, part of the job entailed cleaning up all the cooked dead pigeons that had the misfortune to land in front of the arrays.

Now, dad was always a bit of a tale-teller, but this one has the ring of truth to it.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:35 PM on June 19, 2007

From the American Heritage site:
Amana did not start putting Japanese tubes in its ovens until the 1970s, but even before that, the company modified its own tube designs to resemble the Japanese version.
I look at that and wonder... Would Amana/Raytheon get their asses sued off for violating IP rights? Did they have to pay to modify the tubes to resemble Japanese products?
posted by symbioid at 2:34 PM on June 19, 2007

DU wrote "AFAIK, the only things people use it for now is thawing and popcorn. Even reheating doesn't work very well."

I use it for microwave meals (I can cook, but I'm lazy) and reheating stuff, which works fine if you know how long to do it for, and stir the food every minute or so.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:57 PM on June 19, 2007

Malor: Heinlein had a bit of an obsession about this sort of thing. Probably obsession is too strong a word.. but he did built a house for himself integrating all sorts of new fangled things for the time. It had no rugs and 'no need for them because of custom cork floor'. Its windows could not be opened at all because A/C was running continuously and he estimated that it's cheaper than stopping and starting it, and factoring in savings on no escaped heat. Also things like lamps and furniture were installed in a way that made it unnecessary to sweep under anything. I saw photos.. looked very 70s. (It was really done in early 60s I think). Kitchen was automated to a large degree, for that time. However, it seems like he lost his fondness for the house and moved in about five years. I found this fascinating because I'd like to design a house that would be easy to clean (I was thinking about recessed storage area along 3 walls with sliding doors with the rooms themselves always being empty except for a low table in the center and maybe a neat plant on it.) It's a little disturbing though that you couldn't open windows in that house.
posted by rainy at 3:58 PM on June 19, 2007

AFAIK, the only things people use it for now is thawing and popcorn.

I realize that, like George H.W. Bush, you may not get to a supermarket very often. But these days there are entire aisles of "microwavable" foods, from pizza pockets to soup-in-a-minute to french fries and whatnot.

There was a period where the vendors were trying to get everyone to convert their home recipes to microwave use ("microwave steak"), but they found it easier to get the food packagers to change.

Anyway, the bit about the candy bar always bugs me. What, they never noticed they were getting cooked too? Shades of the Curies.
posted by dhartung at 4:05 PM on June 19, 2007

Cool post. I'm reminded of all the books I used to see in the '70s "Gourmet Cooking with Microwaves." I suppose you can do it, but I ain't never seen it done. Good for popcorn.
posted by MarshallPoe at 4:39 PM on June 19, 2007

I still don't have the courage to try this.
posted by MtDewd at 4:43 PM on June 19, 2007

But these days there are entire aisles of "microwavable" foods

I think you have the quotes on the wrong word. But point taken, this is exactly the stuff I'd be eating if I didn't have to cook for N other people anyway.
posted by DU at 4:45 PM on June 19, 2007

Maybe Heinlein was just a lazy son of a bitch. Cooking doesn't have to be a wearying chore. Granted I enjoy cooking, but if you're making something that you don't find interesting, exciting or enjoyable in some way, I'd humbly suggesting you're doing it wrong.
posted by Talanvor at 7:34 PM on June 19, 2007

DU, he used that scene more than once, actually. I'm sure it was in Stranger, but it was also in a much older novel as well, one of his first. I wish I could remember which one, though.

I use my microwave constantly for all sorts of things. I use it and my crockpot about as much as my stovetop. It's very good for almost anything that's mostly water. Stuff like roasts... well, not so much. :) Basically, any food that cooks by boiling is microwaveable, and it's a lot faster that way than on a stovetop.

rainy: that's very interesting! I'll have to look that up. Hadn't heard about that house at all. Wonder how much resale value it had?

Chinese Jet Pilot: despite the relatively low number of comments, this was an excellent post. Thank you very much.
posted by Malor at 8:10 PM on June 19, 2007

Hear hear, Talanvor.

I was under the assumption that the idea that microwaves could be used to heat food was from the radar stations in the arctic akin to mr_crash_davis' dad's anecdotes (albeit the anecdotes that I've heard were of people standing in front of the radars and "hey, I feel waaarm...).

Early microwave ovens were sold as "radar ranges," no?

Microwaves are great for defrosting frozen raw foods, reheating refridgerated foods (hint; the rotating tray is important since the distribution of energy isn't even), and one can buy enclosed plastic cases that hold in moisture so that onions/potatoes (and various frozen Chinese pork buns!) can be cooked/reheated very efficiently.

DU - I remember reading a "science in the future" book written in the 60's (?) when I was in elementary school that foretold of ovens that would heat metals and metals only so one could put their hands into them ("so long as you remember to take off your wedding ring!") while it was cooking food. This same book also foretold of using wormholes (when the book is open, the points on the two pages in front of you are far apart, when the book is closed, the points are touching!) for interstellar transportation).

Like most tools, knowing how they work and their limitations allows one to use them more effectively.
posted by porpoise at 8:17 PM on June 19, 2007

I still don't have the courage to try this.

Meh, there are better materials available; carbon fiber veil.

Note; this is a self-link, but a relevant one.
posted by Tube at 8:30 PM on June 19, 2007

Dude. Clean your microwave, Tube!
posted by katillathehun at 8:34 PM on June 19, 2007

Thanks for giving Percy Spencer some coverage. You say that name to the average American, and you get a blank look. Sad.
posted by metasonix at 11:09 PM on June 19, 2007

So this means that Percy Spencer is Dr Manhattan?
posted by klaatu at 1:02 AM on June 20, 2007

Radar, magnetrons... When I was an undergrad in the 60s at (an unnamed state U) - in electrical engineering- we had a surplus radar trailer, an SCR-584, out by the engineering building. A few of us hams took it on and actually got it partially working- then during Engineers Week cranked it up, pointed it across the campus lawn in front of Old Main- about a block square- and ran across waving brightly-lit fluorescent tubes in our hands. At least some of us had kids later on........
oh, the folly of youth.
posted by drhydro at 8:39 AM on June 20, 2007

This is why Amana chose the name Radarange for their line of microwave ovens.
posted by pax digita at 11:44 AM on June 21, 2007

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