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In 1987 my uncle gave my family a microwave for Christmas. It was a big microwave, and it was a big deal.
At the time, microwaves were not commonplace in every American home. They were just starting to be the pinnacle of convenience in the kitchen. Seeing them in the kitchens at my friends' houses were a novelty, a curiosity. When my friend Libby showed me how her family's worked, to make 1-minute nachos, I was floored (and honestly, a little scared).
But as I started to see more and more microwaves in my friends' homes, I knew that a microwave was something my family would not get. At the time, microwaves were expensive. That was one luxury I knew we would do without. However I accepted it, and was content to use Libby's and fantasize about what it would be like to make my own microwave nachos someday.
Then my uncle gave our family a microwave.
And it was a good one.
It was HUGE. Like, at the time, I think it might have weighed as much as six-year-old Louise. I'm not exaggerating. My mom lived in constant fear of me pulling it down off the counter and crushing myself.
But really, it was huge. It's still huge. It has a setting for a turkey.
Unlike the dorm microwaves and 20-dollar glorified Easy Bake Ovens that you can buy now, this microwave meant BUSINESS. It only took 30 seconds to take left-over pizza from frigid to burn-your-lips-off. I once watched my mom cook a small chicken in it.
It had a satisfying, industrial "Rrrrrrr-mmmmm" sound that meant that our food was going to be hot and that we might get a tan if we watched it getting hot. I have a mole on my neck that I'm pretty sure I owe to that microwave.
My family loved that microwave.
Suddenly the Hungs had stepped into the '80s. Suddenly, a small part of me felt like we were up-to-speed with Libby's family or my uncle's family or any of the other Seattle families I knew that didn't eat white rice, ground beef, and soy sauce for every meal. Suddenly, I felt like I could get my toe in the door to the "fancy" American foods I craved.
The year following the Christmas we got the microwave was also the year the Hungs discovered pizza. Previously, my mom never allowed us to get pizza from Little Caesar's or Domino's. We could get pizza at school or at that "best value" Seattle institution King's Table, but we couldn't bring it home. She wasn't quite sure how to reheat old pizza in an oven, and there was no way in hell she was going to let us eat cold pizza from the fridge. That could kill us. Because bacteria.
She was sure that unfinished pizza would go to waste, and there was no way she was going to pay for food that would get thrown away. So, in her all-or-nothing mindset, that meant no pizza.
On a side note, mom's fear of germ-ridden pizza, while not shared by me, has haunted me into adulthood. While I will happily eat cold pizza, a part of me does believe I'm taking my life into my hands every time.
But with the microwave, she could literally watch the killer bacteria sizzle and bubble away, rendering the dangerously hot pizza safe for human consumption. Suddenly leftover pizza, and leftovers in general became much more of a "thing" with us. (Of course we ate leftovers pre-microwave, but heating up big pots of rice and ground beef on the stove felt much more like an ordeal, cooking, something my mom loathed after coming home from work.)
The microwave also empowered me to learn how to feed myself.
Before the microwave, I'd come home from school while my parents were still at work, sometimes well past dark, and scrounge for something to eat that didn't require cooking. I wasn't allowed to use the stove or oven, so I ate a lot of peanuts and saltines and milk. Sometimes sour cream and onion chips.
Eventually I secretly taught myself to make scrambled eggs, but that got really old, really fast. I still turn my nose up a bit at scrambled eggs as eggs you eat when you have no better choice.
However, the microwave awakened my food creativity. The hours between 3:30pm and 6:30pm became my time to see what I could nuke to make delicious.
So basically I nuked EVERYTHING – bread, Kraft Singles, milk, whole eggs, syrup, noodles, tuna, peanuts, spoons. I really do think that the microwave is the reason why very few foods disgust me (but the ones that do are almost all cold foods like JELL-O PUDDING) and why burnt, chewy foods activate the "comfort" center in my brain. The microwave is also the reason why cheese-product melted over corn chips is all I ever really want from nachos.
By the time I left the 5th grade, the microwave had given me confidence in how to care for myself: if you could heat it, you could eat it.
But the microwave changed all of the Hungs. Our food game changed, we felt empowered to expand our diets. My mom didn't have to work all day then come home and work some more over the stove. My dad was more apt to feed himself if he had to. I preferred to feed myself. While we still ate together in those early days, some of the pressure got lifted off of my mom's shoulders.
For the first time, we were starting to feel modern.
The giant microwave made our lives easier all through my childhood. It moved with us from Seattle to Texas, from apartment to rental house to owned house. It was always better than the crappy built-in microwaves we encountered.
My parents gave me a gift when I was 20. I had moved into my very first apartment in St. Louis, and they drove the microwave to me, all the way from Texas. It took up most of the back seat of their Honda Civic.
The microwave sat in my first apartment for two years, perched on the too-narrow counter in my kitchen, threatening to tip over and crush my cat (it did not). In those college days it cooked macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, nachos (doy), and lots and lots and lots of Cup Noodles. The sound of the "Rrrrrrr-mmmmm" made me feel cozy and safe.
The microwave moved with me to my second apartment in St. Louis, then across the country to Los Angeles for graduate school. Yes, I moved a 20-year-old, nearly 60-pound microwave across America. It was worth it.
When I got to Los Angeles the microwave couldn't fit in my tiny kitchen, so it sat in the living room where it doubled as a side table. I used it less, but for big jobs (big plates of nachos), it still got to strut its stuff.
When it came to leave my graduate school apartment, I was faced with a conundrum: what to do with my microwave?
There was no room for the beast in my boyfriend's apartment, but the thought of THROWING IT AWAY or donating it to the Salvation Army so someone else could throw it away, made me cry. Yes, really, it made me cry.
But things happen for a reason, and at around the same time, my friend Efrain mentioned that he needed a microwave. This was perfect!
Efrain was, and is, in many ways just as sensitive and sentimental as I am. If ANYBODY in the whole world was going to give my microwave a good home, it would be him. So to Efrain's little West Hollywood apartment my microwave went.
He gave me a detailed description of how he threw out his back shoving the microwave onto a shelf. I knew it was right.
At Efrain's, the microwave carried on the tradition of giving folks a hot meal and making not-so-fancy stuff taste better because it's burnt.
Years passed and I left the US mainland, then the country. Efrain and I have remained close, and he and my microwave have since moved to a bigger place on the west side of Los Angeles. I have visited it a few times, and he gives me updates. The microwave continues to "Rrrrrr-mmmmm" to this day.
This past Thanksgiving, my friend Joy, who is also friends with Efrain posted this on Facebook:
And then in the comments:
Actually, the microwave is about to celebrate its 29th birthday.
I have so much affection for this microwave. It is a "living", functional piece of my childhood that continues to soldier on. It's not some artifact kept behind glass, it's been working hard for nearly 30 years. I wouldn't be surprised if it works for another 30.
I love that it changed the way my family ate, that it freed up my mom and dad a bit, that it gave me confidence in how I approach food, that it gave me independence, comfort, a fully belly. I love that it helped feed my friend back in those lean, graduate and post-graduate school days, and that it continues to help feed people I love.
Looking at that picture of my microwave in Efrain's house, I am taken back to when I was six, looking up at that shiny button panel, as my mom taught me to press "TIME COOK", then "30", then "START". I was so excited back then, so excited to see what I could do with the microwave.
There's a lot of love in that microwave; love, relief, excitement, friendship, and family. It may just be a relic of General Electric's engineering ingenuity, longevity being built into its heating coils, but amidst the tough times this year has brought, the microwave still summons warm, rosy feelings deep in my gut. Could it be hope? A little awe?
I know Joy was kidding, but gazing at my microwave, heating up a Thanksgiving feast for my chosen family, I really do think that the microwave has a hand in making all things possible.