An inconvenient blessing in disguise…
Whenever I tell people I grew up without a microwave, I’m met with blank stares and a slew of questions ranging from “did you grow up on a farm?” to “does that mean you never ate leftover Chinese food?” And my personal favorite — “are you Amish?”
After explaining that no, we didn’t spend our days tilling the soil or depriving ourselves of electricity (or dumplings), it still doesn’t seem to sink in. Why, in their right minds, would my parents deprive me and my siblings of the modern wonder of the microwave? They might as well have not brought us to Disney World. Or let us eat candy on Halloween.
But the thing is — at the time, I didn’t mind it.
I thought everyone’s Chinese food took 50 minutes to lose the chill it acquired after a night in the fridge and get piping hot again. If I wanted to re-heat soup, I ladled it into a pot and waited patiently until it reached a ferocious boil, as one does. Homemade popcorn was the stovetop kind, obviously. And oatmeal? Never even crossed my mind that there was another way to cook it.
But then I went to college and my mind was blown.
You can heat up water for tea in 45 seconds? 45 SECONDS?! And can someone please explain to me how you can literally poach an egg in there, too? And cook rice? And make enchiladas? And heat up Chinese food in the amount of time it takes me to break down and recycle those white take-out boxes?
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN’T NUKE IN THE MICROWAVE?
Over time, my sheer amazement with this modern gadget has subsided. And now that I’m living in my own apartment, I’ve come to realize how my years sans microwave have affected my relationship with food.
1. It made me more patient
Without the instant gratification that a microwave provides, I wasn’t able to immediate satiate my hunger. Food took time to cook, and even longer for flavors to develop, and I learned how to become okay with that — how to slow down, cultivate an appetite, and wait.
2. It made me understand the importance of real food
Whenever my mom tried out a new recipe, we always had to rate it, 1-10: 1 being a horribly offensive, borderline inedible excuse for sustenance and 10 being a knock-your-socks-off, definitely-going-to-make-this-again kind of dish.
“Sooooo?,” my mom would say at the end of the meal, drawing out the “o’s” into an upward intonation while gazing imploringly at the well-fed four of us.
Besides the one time she made pasta puttanesca which my 8-year-old self determined tasted “like poop” and thus deserved a rating in the negatives, I thought every culinary experiment merited a 6.25 or more. (I have since developed a liking for olives but have yet to give this humble pasta dish a second chance.)
We gave her lemon chicken a solid 7.95, while the hearty Tuscan ribollita came it hot at 9.2. There was even one time she concocted her own mango, avocado, lime, and cilantro salsa that, at a 9.8, transformed my opinion of the salmon it was spooned on top of.
Although we weren’t immune to the occasional boxed mac ‘n cheese, pizza, or Chinese food night, the norm was home-cooked, real food. Creativity was no stranger to our kitchen which, if anything, was bolstered by the fact that we did not have a microwave on hand.
3. It made me value dinnertime as an experience
Meals were never a means to an end; they were the main event — which meant the TV was never on and the phone was never picked up. We didn’t rush to scarf down our food and escape the kitchen. We lingered, letting the conversation veer in different directions. We told jokes, related stories from our day, and discussed what was happening in the world.
Eventually, the first brave soul would make a move to start clearing the dishes. And although we weren’t a rare breed of children who actually enjoy stacking the dishwasher, we stayed to help — because if there was one rule that was strictly enforced in our household, it was that no one could leave the kitchen until it was clean.
Sometimes, this meant turning on music and dancing around the kitchen while putting away pots and pans. Other times, we continued the conversation from dinner. And on some nights, a pleasant silence.
But from cooking to eating to cleaning, it was always an experience, and some of my fondest memories from childhood take place in the kitchen.
Could this all have happened with a microwave on hand? Maybe. But there was something special about the patience, flavor, and experiences that came without one. So while I may have a microwave at my disposal now (and, I’ll admit, use it from time to time), I’m okay busting out a pot or pan.
I can wait.
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