A meditation on the microwave

A meditation on the microwave – how convenience foods are changing society; includes related article

Margaret Visser

a meditation on the microwave

When the members of a family, or of a college fraternity, regularly eat meals together, they are not only nourishing themselves, they are also creating and reinforcing personal and cultural attitudes and expectations. If they decide to eat irregularly and apart – each consuming a different dish, for example, or dining in silence or in different rooms of the house – they just as infallibly enact and symbolize a different series of values and preferences.

The way we treat food and the manner in which we consume it are expressions of our goals and values. Eating choices and rituals help to shape and control daily life and human relationships. These are matters of particular relevance today, because in just two decades a new and astonishingly efficient technology has arisen that promises (or threatens) radical change in our relationship to cooking, to dining and hence to each other.

Today more than 70% of U.S. households have microwave ovens in their kitchens, and a vast industry has grown up to provide these customers with microwaveable meals. Fast foods are hardly new, of course, but these are the first designed to create the illusion of home-cooked food and intended to take the place of traditional family meals. Beyond that, the speed with which they can be prepared – perhaps seven minutes, as compared to 45 minutes for regular frozen food – eliminates the necessity for family members to eat at the same time, or even the same food. This unmatched efficiency is transforming the way we eat. But before we can begin to appreciate how these changes may be affecting us, it is necessary to understand the traditions it is supplanting.

Finishing School: What We Learn

in the Dining Room

The most widespread and important of these is probably the family meal, which in some ways has defined the family for nearly three centuries. This communal eating ritual has never been associated with any particular country or cuisine. But it is virtually synonymous with a piece of furniture: The dining-room table has been a potent symbol of Western attitudes towards living together since the 18th century. (Before that, most people drew up benches to the hearth and sat down in relays to eat. The rich used rough planks to set up temporary trestle tables.) The dining-room table stands, solid and immobile, in a room of its own. Its size is the size of the family group; when anyone leaves home or is away, the table provides a mute but constant reminder of the absentee, of the space no longer filled. Even a silent, deserted dining-room table seems haunted by memories of numberless family dramas that once took place around it.

In our culture the dining-room table also represents a distinctive view of the family as a close-knit, independent and extremely disciplined entity. Viewed historically and cross-culturally, to insist on everyone in the family being present round the table daily is highly unusual behavior. To sit, in a chair, in a special room for eating, with the edge of a table-top close to your midriff, with your arms close to your sides, and to agree to touch food only by means of specialized metal instruments, is to undergo a degree of physical constraint that is quite rare in the history of human mealtimes.

At table, people wait until everyone is ready to begin, and never leave until everyone has finished. They are served, or serve themselves, pass condiments to those who request them, and refrain from taking more than their share. Children learn at table “how to behave,” to express themselves, to listen, to catch conversational nuances. The table also provides a controlled setting where family relations, in all their ambiguity, can safely be played out. Indeed, social researchers have long studied the ubiquitous, revealing dinner-table drama in order to explore the dynamics of group interaction.

Cooking vs. Zapping

The traditional meal, then, is time-consuming, intricate, openly hierarchical and communal – its rituals hallowed by tradition and respect for tradition. By contrast, nothing could more perfectly symbolize the aims as well as the stresses of modernity than the vast proliferation of fast foods: their “anti-hierarchical” uniformity, not only of foods but of venues to eat them in; their sweet and bland flavors (nothing strong enough to displease anyone); the obsessive concern with wrapping and packaging (suggesting technological control, and the atmosphere of a children’s party with presents); the relaxed and egalitarian way in which they are eaten (while walking along, using plastic cutlery or one’s hands). Above all, fast foods embody cleanliness, a modern Western version of the ancient concept of ritual purity. Most frozen microwaveable meals for the home look hygienic, carrying the message that what is inside is protected, controlled, clean and safe.

Fast foods are in fact a new version of one other extremely ancient phenomenon. Ever since people began living in cities, most of them have had to depend on food vendors to feed themselves. In ancient Rome, for example, ordinary people lived in apartment buildings called insulae and were prevented by safety regulations from building fires for cooking. Instead, they went out into the streets to buy ready-cooked food. Anyone lucky enough to be asked to dinner in a wealthy household with its own kitchen would return home afterwards with parcels of food as a treat for the family.

Thus, if microwaved fast foods do become our daily home fare, we shall be turning the clock back, not forward. But history never repeats itself exactly, and here the peculiar impersonality of microwave technology is important. The future, as seen by microwave and microwaveable-food producers, contains refrigerators but no stoves, plenty of shelves and more than one microwave per family. The warm stove, our last connection to the sustaining hearth fire, would disappear, as would the slow, sweet smells of cooking that we associate with it. Those qualities of the family meal, the ones that imparted feelings of security and well-being, might be lost forever in a world where food is “zapped” or “nuked” instead of cooked.

Accepting ready-cooked microwaveable foods for daily family meals also spells freedom, of course – not only from having to cook, but from regular mealtimes and having to share. The scarcest commodity of all in modern life is time. Though we like to imagine that our society is devoted to providing us all with leisure, Americans work longer hours, with shorter holidays, than almost any people on earth. But with the microwave, there is no waiting at all, let alone waiting your turn. This allows women – on the assumption that kitchen work is ineluctably female work, and invariably distasteful – finally finally to escape from the kitchen. This liberation has much to recommend it, but it has been estimated that by the year 2000, the great majority of adults will have become so dependent on prepared microwaveable meals that they will no longer know how to cook a meal for themselves.

The Age of Instant Gratification

Microwave meal containers already have plastic strips that turn blue when the food is hot, and we are promised still better strips to relieve all remaining necessity for thought by transmitting cooking instructions directly to the oven. With cooking reduced to pushing a button, the kitchen may wind up as a sort of filling station. Family members will pull in, push a few buttons, fill up and leave. To clean up, all we need do is throw away the plastic plates. We would receive freedom from social complexity, and the fulfillment of the primitive longing to have everything magically available at the flick of a switch, an electronic cornucopia.

Beyond this continuing, infantile desire for instant gratification, market researchers say they have detected in us the equally childlike wish to buy food that looks good before we heat it and eat it. For instance, we don’t like food that looks raw, so many best-selling microwave products are coated in pre-yellowed crumbs. Coatings are very big in the microwave business – they provide protection and cover a multitude of sins. They emphasize the self-sufficiency of each little object. Microwaves happen to prefer food in smallish pieces, but that “clear, clean, separate” appearance potently symbolizes the image we entertain of ourselves. We are individuals, if all comfortingly alike: We do not cling, stick or mingle. We do not need to share, to talk, to interrelate.

Many of our attitudes toward food, however, are not babyish at all, and mass acceptance of microwaveable food depends in part on a highly culture-specific puritanical streak. This is the reason that microwave-food producers have made much of the preordained low-fat, low-cholesterol status of many of their offerings. Thus, they wed our extreme physical discipline and knowledge about health and diet to our longing for somebody else’s control, by offering us portion management. This means that when you buy precut pieces, say of apple pie in its plastic cover, the slice is severely limited in size so that you can’t eat too much of it.

The old dining-room table required each individual to give up some personal autonomy and bow to the dictates of the group and the social system. If we stop eating together, we shall save time for ourselves and achieve mealtime self-sufficiency. But being free inevitably entails deciding from what and for what we wish to be free. In the case of food, we should perhaps first consider whether, in saving time and effort by accepting microwaved fast foods as our daily fare, we would in fact be more healthy, more content, better adjusted. The communal meal is our primary ritual for encouraging the family to gather together every day. If it is lost to us, we shall have to invent new ways to be a family. It is worth considering whether the shared joy that food can provide is worth giving up.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group