Food & Drink

'Microwave Cooking for One': The Surprisingly Joyful Story Behind the World’s Saddest Cookbook

microwave cooking
Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

Marie Smith’s magnum opus, Microwave Cooking for One exploded onto the internet meme-o-sphere as “world’s saddest cookbook” despite -- or maybe because of? -- its earnest cover. It features the silver-haired author herself standing before a table of assorted dishes of pancakes, corn, ice cream, and an anomalous dish of red gelatin. Every year, right around Valentine’s Day, you’ll see Smith’s book show up on Reddit or Twitter with just-about-clever captions like “me tonight” or “my plans every Friday.”

For most people, Microwave Cooking for One is nothing more than a gag gift -- something you’d never think twice about texting to a friend for a laugh. But I saw a legitimate cookbook obscured by years of cheap jokes and something inside me knew I had to learn more, try these recipes out, and find out who Marie Smith was. As I dug into this story, I found out this book was the result of ten years of pitching, writing, and testing, resulting in over 300 recipes. It was the passion-project by a woman devoted to helping empty nesters take care of themselves. In the end, the butt of decades of jokes ended up being the most joyful cookbook I’ve ever read.

With the microwave, Smith saw an opportunity.

Fun fact about microwave technology: it was discovered purely by accident. In 1945, an engineer at Raytheon named Percy Spencer was experimenting with high-powered radar when he noticed the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Imagine his surprise when he next experimented with popcorn. Shortly after, the first commercial microwave was produced. Standing at just about six feet tall and weighing more than 700 pounds, this massive predecessor to the modern microwave cost $3,000 to own. It would be another twenty years until microwaves became a fixture in the American household, ushering in the golden era of fast-ish food.

Microwave Cooking for One came out in 1986 -- a good time to be in the microwave game. By the mid-eighties, approximately 25% of U.S. households owned a microwave oven, and one could purchase the popular kitchen appliance for anywhere from $149 to $549. Back then, it was en vogue to write about microwave cooking -- even Betty Crocker had a cookbook -- and Smith recognized the inherent value in helping Americans navigate the relatively new technology. 

“She saw the microwave as this wonderful tool for cooking fast, healthy meals,” says Tracy Grant, Smith’s daughter, “so Mom spent 10 years creating…  getting all the recipes and making them for one.” Smith Smith possessed the ability to look at the world through a modern lens. Her formative years were spent in a time where a woman’s assumed role was in the kitchen, but when Smith looked at food, she saw power over passiveness. She knew there were millions of single women and men who felt trapped by the confines of 50s-era cooking practices. Not every woman wanted to spend hours preparing a roast for a man who’d spend 10 minutes listlessly chewing before switching on the television. With the microwave, Smith saw an opportunity. 

Grant reflects on the usefulness of the recipes her mother spent time researching and testing on her three kids. If there’s one word to describe Smith’s attitude towards cooking, it’s dedicated.

“We used to go crabbing all the time when we lived in Maryland and Mom would always make this delicious crab casserole. One day she says, ‘I have a surprise for you. I made you microwave crab casserole.’ I went over to the kitchen, sat down, took one bite, and I spit it out. She said she used canned crab. I was her guinea pig to find out if canned crab could be as good as fresh. It wasn’t.” 

Okay, admittedly there are some strange recipes here; recipes you wouldn’t immediately think could be made with a microwave: Liver and Bacon, Teriyaki Artichoke, Hot Spice Wine, and so much more. But Grant swears by the hot dog.

“There’s a trick to it,” says Grant, “you stick a hot dog in a bun and you wrap it in a paper towel, deli-style. Then you nuke it for 45 seconds and you have a hot dog.” Perhaps it came from the years she spent using her kids as guinea pigs, but something Smith excelled at was pinpointing the perfect cook time. 

Like all “too good to be true” appliances, a long-standing stigma has followed microwaves, leading people to say they cause cancer or ruin the taste of food. While some foods are far more difficult to nuke than others, multiple studies have found that there is “no evidence that microwaves alter the composition of food or have any other detrimental effects.” 

Intrigued, and assured, I spent a day trying out some of the recipes in Smith’s book.

BREAKFAST: Hot Cereal

This is simply cold breakfast cereal heated with milk and sugar. But what kind of monster does that? A clever one. While one would (and probably should) find the concept of consuming something designed to be eaten cold as bizarre, Smith’s piping hot cereal proved to be oddly delicious. Was I thrown off by the bubbling milk silently threatening to burn the first few layers of my tongue off? Yes, but that fear was instantly quelled upon taking my first bite. The tablespoon of sugar adds a transformative property to the cereal, making it into an anomalous -- albeit tasty -- bowl of melted breakfast ice cream. 

Score: A+

LUNCH: Batter-Fried Fish

Can you smell it? Not just the smell of microwaved fish, but the smell of microwaved fish that was once frozen? What would have been social suicide in a social setting turned into a reasonably light lunch that satisfied my craving for fish, but almost drove my wife to divorce me from the smell. 

Score: B-

DINNER: Steak

Realistically, this recipe calls for a heaping dose of red flags. Browning skillet? An indeterminate teaspoon measurement? Finger tongs? My foodie father would be spinning in his grave if he wasn’t still alive. Steak is a divisive slab of meat: some people swear by eating it bloody, other people with questionable palates enjoy it burnt to a crisp. But baby, just wait until you eat it microwaved. First off, in lieu of a browning skillet, I used a microwave-safe plate and watched it with glee for two minutes.

Knowing I couldn’t sway my mouth into consuming a hot, grey piece of meat, I heated up my cast iron and seared each side of the cooled steak for about 30 seconds. 

What surprised me most was the consistency: soft, evenly done—albeit a tad too much—and devoid of the magma-like qualities some food take on during their trip to the metal box of magic. Here’s a sentence you never thought you’d read: microwave your steak. I guess that was a sentence fragment. 

Score: A

“Oh, I know people think of it as a gag.”

“Mom said that living so many places because of Dad’s military career allowed us to live a different lifestyle in each place,” says Grant. After Smith’s husband retired from the Army, the Smiths built a house with a well-equipped kitchen for the lifestyle they had wanted to live.

But Smith never got to see how far the fruits of her labor impacted the world. She died about a year after Microwave Cooking for One came out.

“Well, unfortunately, the house was built on an old phosphate mine,” says Grant. “Mom developed lung cancer from it. The book came out in ‘86. She died on November 5th, 1987. After my Mom was diagnosed, my Dad had the house tested and it was loaded with Radon. Other than that, I don't want to think about it. But she got to see her book go to print and she's still… you know, she's still helping people.”

“I took Dad over to see [the house] in 2018 and we met the current owners. When Dad died, I brought them over a copy of Mom's book as a thank you for their kindness.”

As of 2020,  34 years after the book came out, over 10,000 copies of Microwave Cooking for One have sold, Grant estimates. 

“Oh, I know people think of it as a gag,” adds Grant. And yes, she’s seen it on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’s Do Not Read List, Good Morning America, Reddit, and other blogs. “I understand the humor and think it’s great because every time, there have been people who responded, defending the book, saying that they have a copy and what a great book it is.”

Like chain restaurants, plastic straws, and malls, the microwave has suffered a slow burnout followed by fluctuating sales. As of 2017, the average American spent well over 100 dollars per year on small appliances, but overall microwave sales dropped from 13.9 million to 9.2 million per year between the years of 2007 to 2013. Interestingly, they rose again in 2019 to just under 13.5 million. 

Still, all these years later, Grant swears by her mother’s recipes. To date, her favorite microwavable meal is stuffed shrimp -- another relic from her mother -- and she still marvels at how far this innocuous kitchen appliance took her family. She now runs the aptly-named site Microwavecookingforone.com, handling online orders and PR for her mother’s book. The website averages between 8,000 to 10,000 page views a day. 

Microwave cooking isn’t held in the same high regard as it was in 1986. People seem the microwave as a cheap trick; something you use to heat up butter or fry bacon when you’re not feeling up to using a skillet. Yet some 90% of households in America own a microwave anyway -- every apartment I’ve ever rented has had one placed innocuously above a stove. But up until I read this book, I barely touched used it, save for the occasional warmed-up tortilla or microwave mug cake that people seem to love so much. 

Aside from creating hundreds upon hundreds of recipes for any occasion, Smith and Grant reframed the microwave in a different light. Ironically, Microwave Cooking for One achieves the opposite effect most assume; it brings people together -- admittedly, sometimes for the wrong reasons, but sometimes in solidarity. Like the kitchen appliance, it’s named after, Microwave Cooking for One is too quickly dismissed as a joke. If you go beneath the surface and crack the cover, you’ll find a book with a heart that was written by a passionate woman who simply loved making food.

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Jeremy Glass is a Thrillist contributor.