A couple days ago I decided to cook a whole chicken in the slow cooker. Being inordinately pleased with myself, I posted my mundane accomplishment on Facebook. And then posed a question. What did my friends think was the better kitchen appliance – the slow cooker or the microwave? Results at the end of this blog.
My focus was on convenience. As a primary food cooker, the microwave is lacking. Almost any other method of cooking produces a tastier product. At the same time, the microwave is fast, and it can “cook” anything – from convenience foods to meals from scratch. It is most useful for heating leftovers. In bygone days, these were generally heated in the oven or on top of the stove. For food that was already cooked, it took quite a long time.
On the other hand, the slow cooker is astonishingly convenient – provided you remember to put the food in it and turn it on in a timely manner. Six o’clock in the evening isn’t a good time to start dinner in the slow cooker. But it’s a marvelous time to walk in the door and inhale the aroma of cooked food – especially if it’s a cold evening. Soups, stews, and all manner of dishes that benefit from hours on the stove at a low heat enjoy the slow cooked experience.
Today’s featured image of Van Gogh’s peasant woman, minding her pan on the fire, demonstrates why cooking, although necessary, was once a dangerous activity. Women’s skirts often caught fire in the open flame. Large fireplaces accommodated spits for roasting meats and cauldrons for stewing and boiling. The wood-burning kitchen stove was a huge innovation when Benjamin Thompson came up with the prototype in the 1790s. It had a flat top with round holes open to the fire below. The cook merely had to put the pots above the holes. Personally, I’m not that keen on open flames.
But I digress. We’re here to talk about slow cookers and microwaves. Surprisingly, they were both developed about the same time.
The microwave has a rather eclectic history on its way to kitchen counters. In 1939 Percy Spencer was in charge of the Power Tube Division of Raytheon, the company that won the contract to produce combat radar equipment for the MIT Radiation Lab.
One day Spencer put a candy bar in his pocket. It was still there as he stood in front of an active radar set. (Guess they didn’t know much about radar waves then.) Anyway, he noticed the candy bar in his pocket had melted. He thought that was interesting. So, Spencer and a few colleagues began trying to heat other food objects, and produced the first microwave popcorn. Yum!
Next experiment – Spencer cut a hole in a kettle, put an egg inside, and directed microwaves into the hole. One of his friends was peering through the hole when the egg exploded. Oops.
In 1945, Raytheon filed for the first microwave patent. The new oven stood six feet tall, weighed about 750 pounds, and cost $5000. Ten years later, Raytheon’s Amana division sold the first domestic commercial microwave, known as the Radarange. The price dropped during the 1970s, and the rest is kitchen history. Even I had a Radarange – and a full complement of microwave cooking containers.
The slow cooker story is less dramatic but worthy of thought. Once upon a time in Lithuania, Tamara Nachumsohn figured out a great way to have a hot meal on the Sabbath. She dropped an uncooked stew off at the bakery on Friday. The oven wasn’t used on the Sabbath, but as it cooled it was hot enough to cook food.
Time passed. During World War II, Tamara’s son Irving Naxon, helped design an aircraft oxygen flow indicator. After the war, Naxon used the concept to create a product that could cook food unattended. He came up with the Naxon Beanery All-Purpose Cooker. In 1970, Rival Company bought Naxon Utilities Corp., and re-introduced Naxon’s cooker as the Crock Pot. In 1981, the Crock Pot had $30 million in sales. No muss, no fuss, no explosions.
So, what were the results of my small, unscientific poll? On the question of whether people prefer the slow cooker or the microwave, seven people swore by the slow cooker; one person voted for the microwave (though I’m not sure she had used a slow cooker). Priscilla said the choice depended on whether you preferred a “quickie” or an “afternoon delight.” This comment gave me a whole new world of cooking to contemplate. There was a write-in vote from Sharon who favored the toaster oven – with its duality as both a horizontal toaster and an energy efficient oven. Max avoided all kitchen appliances in favor of “eating out.”
Featured Image: Vincent van Gogh, “Peasant Woman Cooking by a Fireplace,” US Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Gregory Sidor, “Serving up History-Slow Cooker Story,” http://spoonful.com/recipes/serving-up-history-slow-cooker-story
C. Jeanne Heida, “History of Slow Cooking and the Crock Pot,” http://voices.yahoo.com/history-slow-cooking-crock-pot-549680.html
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.