Microwave Hamburger Soup and the dawn of a brave new era in cooking

Two women remove a roast from a microwave oven
“It’s a miracle!”
Photo: John Preito (Getty Images)

Back in the early 1980s, the microwave promised to bring us all into a brave new era of convenience cooking. “Use your microwave for the foods it cooks best! And it will become your best friend,” home economist and cookbook writer Barbara Harris told the food editor of the Chicago Tribune in 1976. Even then, in the earliest days of the home microwave, Harris’ microwave cookbook was already in the sixth printing of its second edition.

The Tribune, my family’s local paper, was fully devoted to the microwave. Throughout the decade, it filled its food pages with recipes, cookbooks reviews, and advice about converting your favorite recipes to the microwave, all liberally sprinkled with the word “microcook.”

The microwave was extolled as the savior of working mothers and an agent of multitasking: “In no time, frozen foods are thawed and cooked,” reported one woman named Joanne who had received a microwave as a Christmas present from her husband. “I put frozen barbecued or italian [sic] beef in the oven while putting groceries away and have hot sandwiches for everyone by the time I’m through.” She went on in this vein for several paragraphs before revealing her secret for browned meat: dry brown gravy mix.

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There were doubts. One reader wrote to the health columnist to ask whether the microwave did indeed produce healthier food, as a department store salesman claimed. (Answer: vegetables could be microcooked without water, which preserved their vitamin C content, but meat cooked unevenly and bacteria could grow in the cold spots.) Even Joanne, the microwave evangelist, had these words of warning: “You have to use it a lot. Otherwise it’s just an expensive toy.” Joanne’s friend, however, said she would “almost trade her husband for it.”

My family succumbed to the propaganda, and around 1986 or so, my mother received a microwave for her birthday. (Oh, the stuff of dreams!) It was a major event. The microwave was large; it took up most of the countertop next to the fridge, and I could stare at it from my place at the dinner table. Since my mother deserved only the best, she got the model with the glass turntable, and every time we cooked something, my sister and I would stand and watch it spin around and around and sing “Sailing, sailing, around the microwave!” which we thought was terribly clever.

The first thing we microwaved was a slice of Kraft American cheese. We kept it wrapped in its little cellophane packet and my dad set the timer for 30 seconds. (The only food my dad knew how to prepare at the time was triple-decker peanut butter-and-butter sandwiches and Nesquik, but he was the man of the family, which made him the expert on electronics until he got bored with them or they failed to work as advertised.) When the microwave beeped, he opened the door and pulled out a little cellophane packet full of molten cheese. The cheese had melted, but the wrapping had not. And it took just 30 seconds! The future had arrived in our kitchen, truly as amazing as the Tribune had promised.

For my mother, the microwave must have felt like a salvation from one of her least favorite chores. She didn’t enjoy cooking to begin with, and having to do it every night for my father, my sister, and me must have been hellish. She had a regular rotation of serviceable, reasonably nutritious meals (spaghetti with meat sauce, tacos, hamburgers, meatloaf, stir fry) but there were very few that at least one of us did not detest and have to be bribed to eat. Broiled chicken had the special distinction of being known as The Chicken That Everybody Likes. At least with the microwave, she wouldn’t have to waste extra time and energy making dinners that we would complain about.

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That was what the microwave promised anyway. Like most cooking appliances, it came with a cookbook, and my mother began working her way through it. Meanwhile, my father raided the frozen food section of the grocery store and brought home microwaveable White Castles and milkshakes. (Yes, there were microwave milkshakes. They were frozen solid, and microwaving made them less solid. They had odd warm spots, which may be why we stopped buying them, but according to at least one source, they could be found in Kroger as late as 2013.) It was a thrilling time.

And then came the Night of the Hamburger Soup.

Hamburger Soup was apparently a relatively common dish—think chili without beans or spices—but it was not something my mother ever cooked on the stove. All the Tribune’s microwave coverage encouraged adapting familiar recipes. But my mother’s chief concern was not experimentation for experimentation’s shake but convenience. And Hamburger Soup was nothing if not convenient. I don’t have the recipe that she used (that cookbook disappeared a long time ago and, shockingly, Google Books didn’t consider it worthy of archiving), but I dug one up online that was probably very similar. To make microwaved Hamburger Soup, you defrost ground beef in the microwave. Then you mix it with chopped onions, canned tomatoes, beef broth, frozen vegetables, salt, and pepper and nuke it for 15 minutes. It is a recipe that requires almost no effort or attention at all, so I can see its appeal, especially on a night when dinner had to be in shifts because I had Hebrew school and my father had to go back to work.

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Unfortunately, this Hamburger Soup was not good. It looked like vomit. By the time my Hebrew school carpool dropped me off, my father and sister had already flat-out refused to eat it. I probably should have given it a try to be kind, but picky eaters aren’t known for their kindness.

My mother was crushed. It took years before she could bear to hear anyone mention Hamburger Soup and even longer before it had fully defused into a joke. I get it now. She wanted to feed us something that wasn’t crap and didn’t cost five bucks a portion. She also wanted to be able to dump a bunch of ingredients into a casserole dish, push a few buttons, and then forget about it. This was the glorious future the microwave had promised, and it was all a terrible lie.

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It didn’t take long before we realized that the microwave served a few very specific purposes: reheating food, warming butter, popping popcorn, and melting the filling of peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches. (I learned about that one from my own microwave cookbook, Kids Cook Microwave.) It did all these things very well, and I didn’t realize how dependent upon it I had become until after college when I found myself living in an apartment with no microwave and I had to melt butter in a pot on the stove—which then had to be cleaned—and wait close to an hour for TV dinners to heat up in the oven.

But when it came to cooking a full dinner, it was back to the stove and years and years of uninspired dinners that no one enjoyed, despite the rise of foodie culture and the expectation that shopping and cooking should be an absolute joy. Which I now also realize is a terrible insult to people who really just hate to cook.

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The dream of an appliance that will do all the cooking for you has not died, of course. It lived on in the George Foreman Grill and continues still in the air fryer. My mom has an air fryer now, by the way. She still hates to cook, but she likes her air fryer a lot.


The Chicken That Everybody Likes

  • 1 chicken, cut into pieces, or assorted chicken parts
  • oil (canola or vegetable)
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Put chicken in broiling pan and brush on all sides with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil chicken until brown and juicy. Now stress out about which sides to serve with it so your family won’t die of malnutrition.

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Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

My Eastern European grandmother used to make actual hamburger soup, no microwave. It was hamburger, cabbage, canned tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, a bay leaf, salt & pepper. She didn’t brown the meat, but rather she’d bring the pot full of water and chopped vegetables to a boil, then break off bite sized pieces of ground beef into the broth. When it was done she added home made dumplings.

She was a pretty good Grammy.