It’s not that my mother didn’t want to prepare meals, but meal prep required time she didn’t have. She was a single mom who worked on the other side of town as a speech pathologist. She left early in the morning to avoid traffic and returned home late, exhausted from teaching stroke victims how to swallow and communicate. Aside from Sunday dinners, when she’d make salmon loaf or pot roast, we subsisted on macaroni and cheese, bologna, Velveeta, Wonder Bread, and the Little Debby snacks she bought for us at the Sara Lee outlet.
That all changed when she bought a microwave. This was an exciting purchase in the early eighties because microwaves were still relatively new, and they were so remarkably fast that they seemed magical. My mother had wanted one as much as I’d wanted a mini-bake oven when I was six years old, but we were stretched incredibly thin. It took her more than two years to set aside enough loose change to make what was, for her, a major purchase.
At the time, the microwave’s possibilities in the kitchen seemed to be limitless. My mom was optimistic that she was on the edge of a bold culinary frontier, that the appliance had the potential to change cooking, and maybe even change her life. She took microwave cooking classes at the local technical college, and by the time the appliance arrived, she was armed with a stash of mimeographed recipes and specialty cookbooks, the covers adorned with images of a microwave surrounded by a spread of deviled eggs, rack of lamb, and a Jell-O mold.
It was so big that it required its own cabinet, dominating our tiny kitchen, with preset "cookmatic" levels that took the guesswork out of timing the food. When we turned the machine on, it sounded like a jet taking off. The whole cabinet shook, and air blew out of the vents at the top. I’d run out of the room, convinced that the radioactive air would give me cancer.
My mom was really excited about her meals, especially the peanut brittle that got stuck in our molars for days, and the bacon that she made between paper towels on a special microwave-safe tray. My sisters and I were less than thrilled. The eggs were rubbery, the chicken was tough, the pizza was doughy, and the steamy odor of zapped meat was particularly unappetizing. Despite our complaints, she never stopped trying to strike upon that perfect recipe, and covets her microwave to this day. She’s one of the few holdouts who still believe that microwaves are good for something other than warming up leftovers.
That microwave may be the reason I’m not much of a cook now. Like my mom, I see cooking as a time suck, something to be endured rather than enjoyed, and the results of my efforts always seem to fall short of my expectations. But I can understand why, for her, a microwave was more than an appliance–it was a symbol of her optimism that technology could offer up a magical solution, making single parenting and domestic life easy, or at least a little less challenging.
Christi Clancy is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin.
Chicken in Wine Sauce
(My mom told me she made this dish for my in-laws when they first, met so she was really trying to impress them.)
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
1 c. dry white wine
1 T. instant chicken bouillon
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 t. salt
1/8 t. pepper
6 drops hot pepper sauce
2 - 3 lb. broiler-fryer chicken pieces
1 large onion, sliced and separated into rings
1/2 c. chopped black or green pitted olives
In 3 - 5 quart casserole, microwave butter at High for 30 - 45 seconds.
Stir in flour.
Blend in wine.
Add remaining ingredients.
Arrange chicken in casserole bony side up and meatiest portions to outside of dish.
Spoon sauce over chicken.
Add onions and olives.
Cover with wax paper.
Microwave at High for 10 minutes.
Turn over and rearrange chicken, spooning sauce over each piece.
Microwave for 10 - 15 minutes, or until chicken is fork-tender and meat near bone is no longer pink.
Serves 4 - 6.