According to Susan Strasser of the New York Times, it is the 50th anniversary of the first popular home microwave oven, the Amana Radarange, introduced in 1967 for $ 495, or about $ 3,600 in today’s dollars. (Commercial units are much older than that) Like the ad above showed, they were marketed as a replacement for conventional ovens, to be used for everything from roasts to big birds.
We used to write about them a lot on TreeHugger, because they are in fact big energy savers. Sami wrote about how with certain foods, it could reduce electricity consumption by up to 50 percent. But in fact, most people didn’t end up using microwaves to cook roasts or big birds; they are mostly used as reheating machines. Strasser writes:
But roasts were not the microwaved foods of the future. We may use the device to reheat homemade soup, but its ubiquity is based on the convenience of factory-made food.
We got our microwave as a present 30 years ago and it is still working, but is rarely used other than for a bit of defrosting or reheating. They do seem to go on forever, which has hurt sales; according to Roberto Ferdman in Quartz, they are plugging away in 90 percent of American households. “That broad market penetration is likely one reason that sales have tailed off. Why buy a new microwave if your old one still works? “ He also suggests that peoples’ eating habits have changed.
A bigger factor behind the decline in sales of microwaves is likely that Americans just aren’t using them as much anymore. A shift in eating habits—which favors freshness and quality over speed and convenience—has left a growing number of microwaves dormant on kitchen counters.
People are also buying fancier combo toaster/ convection ovens that heat pretty quickly and don’t short out when you put the aluminum containers that so much of the grocery store takeout food comes in.
Quartz also suggests that the battle for counter space is heating up; “A heightened interest in haute cuisine has boosted the popularity of alternative kitchen gear, like slow cookers, crock pots, griddles, and rice makers. The small appliance category, which includes those and others, has grown by more than 50% since 2000.”
Strasser points out that the history of the microwave involves so much that is much bigger than just the machine; it evolved out of war related research, took off as more women went to work, and perhaps is falling out of favour because of changing attitudes to food and public health. But they may be due for a resurgence; if you are concerned about food waste, there is nothing better for reheating. I suspect also that the prepared food market is in for a boom with commercial kitchens in grocery stores expanding market share.
Katherine and Margaret tell us to forget the microwave in their epistolary exchange, but when we surveyed our readers in 2009 asking "do you use a microwave oven?", close to 80% declared them invaluable. I wonder what the breakdown would be today; vote here: