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Micro Raves : To gain its current stature in the home, the appliance had to overcome consumer fears and unflattering urban legends.

September 20, 1997|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wayne Small has been selling appliances in Orange County since the '70s, and he still remembers the fear and sometimes loathing that greeted a newfangled cooking contraption called the microwave.

"Microwaves had no visible heat source. People were afraid the doors wouldn't close properly and that they'd become brain-dead or sterile," he says.

Thirty years ago, Amana Home Appliances introduced the first microwave oven intended for home use. The fact that the company called it the Radarange only added to homemakers' anxieties.

"The word 'radar' reminded them of radiation. They figured, 'Oh, this is going to radiate me,' " says Small, owner of Renwes Sales in Lake Forest.

Many of the early brands were prone to failure. One year in the late '70s, Small went to work the day after Christmas only to find six unhappy customers awaiting his arrival.

Five of them had microwaves in their cars and had some un-merry things to say about the new ovens. Small has closed shop the day after Christmas ever since, even though microwaves are now "the most reliable product in the store."

Microwaves have gained greatly in consumer confidence since '67, when they were greeted as both marvels of convenience and the nemesis of fine cooking.

"The first microwaves for use in the homes were similar in size to an air conditioner," says Dixie Trout, spokeswoman for Amana in Amana, Iowa, where the oldest microwave is on display at the Amana museum.

Amana knew consumers would be skeptical and even fearful of the new ovens and launched a media blitz to sell them on the microwave. The company conducted a whistle-stop tour through Chicago with home economists visiting kitchens and showing homemakers how to cook with the ovens, then carried those demonstrations into stores.

For a time, every new microwave owner got a free in-home cooking demonstration.

"The ovens sounded like black magic," Trout says.

Homemakers learned some lessons about microwaves the hard way. They quickly found that if you cooked certain foods such as potatoes without slitting their skins first, "they do their own piercing," Trout says.

In other words, the spuds explode. Such microwave mishaps spawned all kinds of urban legends.

Rumors persist about a woman who dried her poodle in a microwave ("I've never seen it documented," Trout says). Exploding cats and dogs aside, people also worried that the microwave beams would leak from the oven into their bodies.

"We didn't get a microwave until the '80s," says Irene Barron, owner of the Crafty Kitchen in Westminster. "My dad thought if we stood in front of it for a long time, we'd get radiated."

Eventually those anxieties faded.

The ovens, pronounced safe by the Food and Drug Administration if they adhere to performance standards, are basically metal boxes that contain waves "about the shape and size of a ballpoint pen," Trout says.

The FDA, which regulates electronic products that emit radiation, allows microwaves to leak 1 milliwatt per square centimeter prior to purchase. This factors in that with wear-and-tear the ovens will not exceed leakage of 5 milliwatts per square centimeter, which is still safe.

Manufacturers test units for leakage in the factory.

If you're concerned about leakage, contact a service repair shop that handles your brand and ask for a technician to check the levels. Bill Bishop of Amana Factory Service in Cerritos says he's never seen any unit test higher than the safe levels.

In the '70s and '80s more people bought microwaves and bragged to their neighbors about the quick-cooking devices. The number of American households owning a microwave grew from 10% in 1977 to 90% today.

"My oldest son is 30, and he's grown up with a microwave. It's his primary appliance," Trout says. "He eats a lot of microwave-prepared food."

The microwave itself has improved with age. Early models featured a single dial control, one power level and 650 watts of power. They cost about $500--an entire month's wages for many customers in those days, Small says.

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Today's microwaves are cheaper; top-of-the-line models can be had for $250. They have 1,000 watts of power, up to 10 power levels, and they're loaded with computerized touch-pad features.

Many have special buttons for defrosting, cooking baked potatoes and popping popcorn--among the most popular uses of the machines.

The ovens resurrected the need for wax paper, and in the late '70s, the food industry began producing ready-made microwave meals that enhanced the ovens' usefulness.

"The product was perfect for its time," Trout says. "More women were going to work" and needed meals in a hurry.

Still, the microwave has yet to live up to manufacturers' hype that it would replace the convection oven as a chef's primary cooking appliance.

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