“Is it safe to use?”
“Will the food reach the right temperature?”
“Does the turntable stir the food?”
“Microwaves are complicated – The conventional oven is simple isn’t it: you either cook on a low heat, medium heat, or high heat.”
I’m a child of the 1970s. During the 70s, in our household, cooking meant having an actual cooker. Our cooker was the Cannon 152: it ran off gas, had four cooking hobs, an oven, and of those head-height toasters. When we cooked food, it was not just cooked, it was cooked properly: those poor carrot strips were severely boiled until limp. When it came to cooking beef steaks, rare or medium was never ever considered – well-done was the only option. As a general rule, if the cooking instructions stated cook for 10 minutes, we’d add five minutes on top, then another minute for an extra bit of reassurance. Even though our food at home was textually not the best, no one ever had food poisoning.
Our starting point was to cook, and then cook some more until overcooked, then we knew our food was safe. Our trusted overcooking process was always done on a gas cooker – blazing flames on the bottom of pots and pans, or cooking in the conventional oven, was the only way we knew, until…
It was around 1984 when rumours about the microwave began to circulate: It can do this, it can do that, it’s convenient, it cooks fast, it can save you time in the kitchen, it runs off electricity so you just plug it in, it can defrost foods, it can quickly reheat an earlier prepared meal.
Scepticism was rife… many people were untrusting of claims and boastings on what the microwave could do. My dear dad probably summarised the thoughts of many: “You’re telling me, that something that has taken 30 minutes to cook on a stove, can take two minutes to cook in a microwave? I don’t trust those things, and I don’t want the food I eat going into one!” His statement, in a strong Jamaican accent, was firm and clear.
There were lots of questions surrounding microwave cooker, and the public wanted answers. Who could answer these questions? Who could reassure us that there was nothing sinister about microwave cooking? Who could reassure my dad that the microwave can speedily cook without compromising food safety? To the rescue came Jenny Webb.
Jenny Webb: Chief Home Economist for the Electricity Council, and expert advisor on kitchen electrical appliances. Jenny answered questions on television and radio, reassuring us that microwave cooking was in safe… she was factual, likeable, and most importantly, genuine. Jenny has been described as the UK microwave cooking pioneer (quite rightly so!), and has written numerous cookery books. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with her and took the opportunity of conducting a quick Q&A…
You were the Electricity Council Home Economist giving advice on appliances such as food processors, what challenges were thrown up for you when microwaves came onto the domestic scene?
Good question! There were numerous early challenges, including having to learn all about these new ovens – from how they worked through to the best ways to ensure food was always properly cooked – as well as writing user guides and recipe books.
But the biggest challenge in my career was having to deal with concerns that grew over the safety of using microwave ovens. So when a TV current affairs show and a spate of newspaper headlines made a number of safety claims – it fell to me to speak on the behalf of all the Electricity Boards across the UK.
As I’d been heavily involved with testing ovens, it was my job to dispel some of the myths and scare stories which evolved – and some of them were a little ‘extreme’ to say the least.
You were very influential on TV and radio – you were seen as the reassuring voice of microwave cooking, what was your most memorable media appearance?
That would have to be travelling to Aberdeen to appear on ‘Pennywise’ made for ITV by Grampian TV.
Each week series hosts Muriel Clark and Anne Brand advised viewers on how to save cash. So I was invited to share the wonders of microwave cooking and to explain the ways in which the ovens can save you money.
As you can see on my retro YouTube channel – my bright pink frock certainly stands out in the rather dull 1980s kitchen set. And, apart from a slight slip over a glass of water, it was fun way to share the microwave message.
But, I can’t think why on earth people associate the series with Victoria Wood’s spoof ‘McConomy’ for the BBC! 😊
Whilst out reassuring the nation about microwaves, did you have any doubts about microwaves becoming a bit like the Betamax video recorder, not really making it big and becoming desolate?
Well I had a Betamax recorder, so I guess I got that wrong! But I never had any doubt that the microwave oven would not succeed with the public – providing it was explained in a simple way as to how the microwave energy could cook food and how the energy was on the same frequency spectrum of radio and TV waves.
Thus, I wrote the only UK book covering the whole concept as to the construction, use and benefits of the appliance entitled Microwave: the Cooking Revolution. This came out some time before home economists began writing their own recipe books.
And as I reveal in my new e-book memoirs, A Jenny Job, I was lucky enough to have one of the earliest microwave ovens in my home kitchen. So when neighbours, trades people, and friends of friends were all clamouring to come round for a demonstration, I knew it was a winner.
Figures show that in 1980, only 1% of homes had a microwave, but by 1988 this had risen to 36%.
In one of your media appearances, you mentioned that we might know at least one person who owns a microwave, how things have changed! Are you surprised that the scepticism has disappeared, and we now know more than one person who owns a microwave?
No I’m not really surprised. From the outset, the Electricity Council and all the home economists working for the manufacturers ensured that they gave plenty of public education on the benefits via newspaper and magazine articles, recipe books, and radio and TV.
In your book, Microwave Cooking, published in 1983, in collaboration with Marks and Spencer, the intro states the following about sitting the microwave cooker: It can be placed in almost any position and in any room (excluding the bathroom) – Where is the strangest place you’ve seen or heard of a microwave being placed?
Well the strangest place surely has to be the occasion back in 2017, when a rather unwise young gentleman decided to cement a microwave oven on his head! In all my years working in the electricity industry, it never occurred to me to cement myself into an electrical appliance. Of course the fire service had to come out to rescue this so-called YouTube prankster, when he couldn’t get it off! Perhaps he should have watched my YouTube channel first…
Looking back, it’s funny how microwaves have become a standard kitchen appliance. Scepticism has been buried and replaced with the view of being a safe, normal, pretty easy to operate, essential cooking appliance.
The microwave is a bit like a magic box: put your food inside, slam the door, switch it on, and your meal will be ready in minutes. To enhance the magical atmosphere, no harm in putting on a magicians hat, turning the lights off, then staring into the luminous microwave as the plate inside turns around – rotate your hands with outstretched fingers as if transmitting magical powers… and don’t forget to talk some gibberish during the cooking process!
Consider these three microwave to the rescue examples…
Microwave to the rescue 1 – Saves you dosh: you’ve just moved into your new home and have a two week wait for the cooker delivery – you can start blowing the home improvement budget by having expensive meals out every evening, but it makes sense buying a microwave and cooking hot meals at home whilst not making a dent in your home improvement money.
Microwave to the rescue 2 – The speedy curry: the Curry Club at Wetherspoon’s takes full advantage of the microwave. You won’t see the kitchen staff sprinkling spices into a gigantic cooking pot – instead you’ll see a pre-made frozen curry swiftly being put into the microwave – your delicious, fully cooked curry will be ready well before you can finish your pint!
Microwave to the rescue 3 – A must in the workplace: there’s an expectation that the kitchen or canteen at work will have a microwave – that can of soup or last night’s leftovers has to be heated somewhere! Staff will consider it strange if there’s no microwave. No microwave… expect an outcry followed by a demand that the company coughs up for one!
And finally… my dear dad changed his mind about the microwave: we purchased one in 1987, but he still demanded that his food was cooked or reheated in the conventional way on the gas cooker… until one day he got home from work totally famished. He rushed into the kitchen and said “I’m starving… put my dinner in the microwave quick!”
Jenny Webb’s memoirs, A Jenny Job, is available on Amazon Kindle
Main photo features Jenny Webb
The 1983 book, Microwave Cooking, is published by Hennerwood Publication Limited.