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Vintage Kitchen: Revisiting the Microwave Meal

Microwave ovens, both in their cooking ability and people’s attitudes towards them, have come a long way over the last four decades. Once a modern marvel of convenience—a technology promising to revolutionize home cooking—the microwave has now kept its vow, and as with many things, is taken for granted. People scoff at TV dinners, and relegate the microwave to the menial task of reheating leftovers or making last-minute meals.

Microwaves remain popular because of their speed and convenience, but they initially promised so much more. It was expected to practically replace the conventional oven. They were faster, smaller. “The greatest cooking discovery since fire,” Amana proclaimed in an ad for its Radarange line.

They were also quite different from the countertop cookers we know and love today. Some had heating coils for broiling and browning. Some monitored food’s internal temperature and adjusted cook time accordingly. They truly seemed like the (micro)wave of the future.
But over time, its potential as a centerpiece for the modern kitchen dissipated. 

But let’s take a moment to remember how we used to approach them: with hope, excitement, and cookbooks.

While there are some contemporary microwave cookbooks on the market, they tend to be more specialized—a surprising number of them focus specifically on cooking inside a mug. The glut of microwave cookbooks in the late 70s and early 80s tended to focus on cooking everything—appetizers, side dishes, whole chickens, seafood, even cakes and pies.

Did the idea of making multi-course meal in the microwave fizzle because the quality of the cooking was lower than we cared to admit in the swinging seventies and go-go eighties, or because our priorities and attitudes changed in the decades that followed?

I tested this out using Richard Deacon’s 1977 cookbook Microwave Cookery, which I picked up from an estate sale a few months ago on a lark.

Fun fact: not only did Richard Deacon write multiple books and host a Canadian television program on microwave cooking, he was also a prolific actor, most notably as Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Fred Rutherford on Leave It to Beaver

I think we owe it to Mr. Rutherford to find out what all the fuss was about.

Honestly, I selected the recipe for microwave lasagna due to a mixed memory. When my mother worked in the evenings, she would assemble meals ahead of time so any of her four kids could easily put them together and cook them after school. One of those meals was lasagna, which she would lay out in a 9” x 13” glass Pyrex pan. I vividly remember being instructed to cook it in the microwave and watching that glass dish rotate on the automatic turntable.

My mother and my sister both claim this is not the case.

I have my doubts, but let’s just say they’re right. You know, to spare their feelings.

So I attempted Deacon’s microwave lasagna recipe to see if it’s as good as the one I thought my mother made, even though she “didn’t.”

Deacon’s “Lasagna Internationale” is under the category of “one dish meals” though the instructions clearly having us using at least two, not including whatever utensils we’ll deem necessary.

You just can’t trust anyone these days, can you? Not mom. Not Mr. Rutherford. No one.

The recipe veers quickly away from what I was expecting to have to do to prepare a meaty microwave meal, as we’re instructed to brown a pound of spicy Italian sausage in the microwave. I thought this would be more of a multimedia event, with meat being cooked in a skillet first.

Nope—microwave. 

Honestly, I was going to include a picture here, but there’s nothing pretty about cooking raw italian sausage in a microwave. And at this point, I had my doubts about this recipe. I’d just learned my mom’s delicious lasagna was not actually a microwave meal, and now I had to brown sausage in a microwave, which we’ve already determined has become the Shemp of kitchen appliances. Wouldn’t the sausage turn to rubber? And the noodles? What were the chances that this would be edible?

After cooking the sausage for three minutes and draining the grease, we added a 16-ounce can of tomatoes, a six-ounce can of tomato paste, and a dash of basil and garlic salt.


The aesthetic improved slightly at that point.

We cooked the concoction in the microwave for ten minutes, breaking twice to mix it up. With each stir, the contents of the bowl became more and more unified, and started to look like a legitimate sauce.

As the sauce bubbled, and 12 lasagna noodles boiled on the stovetop (the recipe called for an eight ounce package of precooked noodles, so I had to improvise), I mixed together 16 ounces of ricotta cheese, an egg, ¼ cup of parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and a good dose of parsley. 

Then, the layering began, almost identical to any traditional lasagna recipe—after spreading a small amount of sauce on the bottom of the pan, we layered noodles, half the ricotta cheese, four ounces of mozzarella cheese, sauce, and then repeated the layering process again.

At first I considered adding a third layer of cheese, but then I realized once it was covered in Saran wrap and cooked in the microwave, a topcoat of mozzarella would be destroyed, victim of cling wrap and moisture.

But look at that. Even without a topping of mozzarella cheese waiting to get brown and gooey in the cooking process, the lasagna looks delicious.

After ten minutes in the microwave and ten minutes at rest we were ready for an “internationale” feast. And unlike previous vintage recipes, which were completely rejected on sight, or met with some tepid reviews, this recipe was loved by all. The microwave kept the exposed noodles from getting crunchy, and there was never a question of whether the dish was cooked through.

I should never have doubted you, Richard Deacon.

I rarely make lasagna for my family because it’s often inconsistent or undercooked. But this microwave recipe has changed my mind. I’ll make a few adjustments—most notably I will cook the sausage and sauce in a skillet. Not because of any previously-predicted rubberiness—the sausage was delicious. But the stop-and-stir process the microwave required was much more time consuming than the stovetop would be. So since the microwave didn’t, in fact, completely replace the modern stove as predicted, I still have that option. 

But I am completely sold on the microwave as the best method for baking the dish. And if you’re feeling really reckless, you can then add another layer of mozzarella and throw it under the broiler for a few minutes.

My desk at EstateSales.NET is covered with cookbooks I’ve picked up from local sales. And some, like my first edition Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, I have no doubt will yield delicious results. But it’s the fad cooking I love the most—those with ingredients no longer readily available, or cooking methods that have fallen out of fashion. While the microwave is, indeed, a kitchen staple, its primary use is not to prepare entire home-cooked meals, as Deacon, and microwave manufacturers, had clearly hoped.  

I initially scoffed at the recipes as I flipped through Deacon’s book, but now I feel obligated to go back again—perhaps the “Thermatronic Fudge” which sounds more like a Daft Punk cover band than a dessert, will not be the hard and plasticy mess I initially predicted. So many surprises are hidden in the pages of those books, which are usually priced so low at estate sales, it seems silly not to give them a chance.

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