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Microwave Chicken

By Brooke Williams


When your mother is a therapist, your actions always have deeper meaning. Apparently, the fact that I never liked microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers or self-help books was my way of rebelling against her.


We were the first family in Decatur, Illinois to own a microwave oven.

The massive appliance took over the kitchen counter, emasculating the toaster oven the day my mother brought it home in 1975. The entire family gathered around it the first time she set the timer for 10 minutes to cook a hot dog. While I marveled at the charred remains from the explosion at four minutes, my mother saw a bigger picture, immediately recognizing the power and the potential of the microwave. It was not just an appliance; it was the key to freedom and equality of the sexes.

My mother had worked part-time since I started kindergarten, a near deviant act in our small town where women were supposed to stay home and have dinner ready for their husbands at 5:30. Always rushing from work to school pick-up to home, my mother served dinner late, European style, but we weren’t cool, it just took hours for her chicken casserole to bake.

After the microwave arrived, dinner could be on the table in minutes. Every woman and man should own one so they could “get out of their kitchens and on with their lives,” my mother proclaimed.

Using her job at the community college as a platform, she coordinated “Men Do the Cooking” a microwave cooking class. My reluctant attorney father attended and as soon as he learned how to nuke peas, my mother announced she was going to graduate school. For the next three years, my father cooked frozen peas and grilled steak for dinner every evening while my mother got a Masters Degree in Psychology.

The microwave even served as a parenting tool to keep my brother and me from fighting on long car trips. Speaking softly, just above the hum of the engine, my mother would lead us in a series of guided imagery exercises as the car sped down the interstate.

“Now I want you to take all the tension from your body and pour it into a pyrex bowl and put it in the microwave on high for five minutes.”

“Ding, ding, ding,” her voice mimicked the cadence of the timer.

My favorite part came after the last ding, when she whispered: “When you open up the microwave, you see that your tension has melted into a boiling hot liquid that you pour down, down, down the drain.”

As a college graduation present, my mother tried to buy me a microwave. My refusal shocked her, initiating a comprehensive campaign to change my mind that spanned the next two decades.

“How can you call yourself a modern woman?” she always asked. Wonder turned into resentment during my first pregnancy. “Brooke Ninette, you aren’t single anymore. It is downright irresponsible for a mother not to own a microwave.”

When your mother is a therapist, your actions always have deeper meaning. Apparently, the fact that I never liked microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers or self-help books was my way of rebelling against her.

It got harder to tune out my mother when she teamed up with my mother-in-law. During the seventies, Louise taught college history, held women’s rights meetings in her kitchen, raised three kids and still managed to bottle her own ketchup.

The two old feminists ambushed me at 41 weeks when they were camped out at my house waiting for the baby to arrive. During a trip to Target, they took over my cart, piling it with Clorox wipes, thank you notes and a 12-pack of yellow rubber gloves before wheeling into the appliance aisle.

“You simply can’t have a baby without a microwave,” Louise asserted as though it was a car seat.

“What’s the big deal?” my mother demanded.

The truth was I wanted to feed my baby homemade chicken soup that had simmered on the stove all day and vegetables from the farm stand down the road from our house in Maine where we had moved for the bucolic lifestyle.

The first year of my son’s life I stayed home and tried to be the perfect mother. In the process of stirring my soup, wiping my babies’ nose and bottom, washing and folding onesies, I discovered that I liked and needed to work. In the dark of the night, I wrote in my journal, wondering if this made me a bad or good mom, and whether I was more like my own mother than I cared to admit.

Getting a part-time job improved my sanity, but now I was the one rushing from work to preschool to home. Being pregnant again made me rethink the microwave. Maybe it could make my life easier? It didn’t have to be a lifestyle—just a tool.

Admitting this to my mother, I could feel her pumping her fist in triumph all the way down in her Florida condo. She and Louise immediately offered to co-sponsor the microwave and then the phone calls started.

“You need a carpenter to build the microwave over your oven so you don’t waste valuable counter space,” said my mother.

Louise called next. “The microwave simply must have a hood so your house doesn’t smell like hamburgers.

The carpenter told me I also needed an electrician.  “This microwave is going to end up costing us over $1,000,” my husband ranted, halting construction. “When exactly is it going to start making our life easier?”

The appliance sat in its box for months. I almost sold it, but in my nesting fervor, installing the microwave was the last thing I checked off my list before our daughter was born.

Returning from the hospital, it was also the first thing I noticed. To accommodate its girth the Whirlpool Hood Combo 2000 had to be attached directly to the soffit and it now hung over the stove like a sky box at a football stadium. Starving, I decided not to judge the appliance until after it made me lunch.

My soup was boiling in three minutes, but it took another four and a stepladder to not spill scalding chicken broth on my head. Balanced on the ladder, like I was doing the sun salutation with a soup bowl, I heard Louise and my mother in the next room remark:

“Why on earth would anyone put a microwave up that high?”

I wanted to scream: “This was your idea!” But it was useless. The microwave may have freed my feminist mothers but it enslaved me.

After I finished my soup, I checked on my newborn daughter. Starring into her pure face, I wondered if she was going to like microwaves, pantyhose, bed skirts, careers and self-help books. The only thing I knew for certain was that my daughter would rebel against me, and good for her.

Brooke Williams is a writer from Maine whose essays have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Christian Science Monitor and on NPR. You can read more of her work at


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