Adventures of a cook in microwaveland Home: Bells, whistles and a nifty screen lure a skeptic into the modern world of user-friendly appliances -- for a while, anyway.

January 18, 1998|By Fran Silverman | Fran Silverman,HARTFORD COURANT

You've heard of the smart bomb? Meet the smart appliance. It's a microwave that can tell you when to walk the dog, how to make apple crisp and how many cups are in a pint.

Sounds great, right? I was a bit skeptical, even fretful. I'm not an appliance person. I'm not a technology person.

On top of my refrigerator sits a juice extractor, given to me years ago but never used. Next to it is a fondue set, also a gift, and a sandwich maker, each gathering dust. The cappuccino machine desperately wanted sits underneath the sink, its steamer never getting the chance to froth any milk.

Who has the time or the energy to figure out how to use all these gadgets?

But here I was, getting a microwave oven equipped with all sorts of the latest gizmos. The microwave, manufactured by Sharp, features an interactive liquid crystal display screen, which looks like the same type of screen that appears on computers. Using the screen, you can call up all sorts of information, including recipes, measurement equivalents and nutritional information.

I do know my way around computers. I use Windows 95 at work and Macintosh Performa at home. But usually, if there is some kind of glitch, even slight, I call for help. And this goes for appliances, too. When my portable phone went on the fritz, I didn't bother to check the owner's manual for help. I just shipped it back to the manufacturer.

But there I was facing this microwave that could cook meals, supply kids' recipes and tell you about the food pyramid, all by pushing a few buttons. I have never used my 9-year-old #i microwave, which doesn't even have a popcorn key, for anything but reheating leftovers and melting butter.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to resent the Multiple Choice Microwave, and I hadn't even opened the box.

For three days, it sat on its stand unused. I hadn't had time to read the owner's manual. I just did not feel like hassling with learning how to use it after a long day at work.

But then one day I needed to heat up spaghetti sauce. I could either pour it into a pot and watch it spit out all over my stove top as it came to a boil or I could put it in the microwave. I stared at it. It stared at me, its clock blinking the wrong time. If there is one thing I hate, it is clocks on appliances. I've yet to set the clock on my VCR or my beeper.

I took out the owner's manual, flipped through the pages and decided I could handle this. I quickly, to my surprise, figured out how to set the clock. And with that done, I pushed the reheat button on the liquid crystal display terminal.

The microwave's heating sensor, which detects humidity in food, decides how long to reheat each food. There's no guessing at time intervals or power levels.

The sauce came out perfect. In fact, the microwave even reminds you to stir the reheated food and will keep signaling until you take the food out of the microwave (a nice feature, especially for people like me who have forgotten they warmed anything up or defrosted meat and found it days later, moldy and indistinguishable).

Automatic answers

Sharp's Multiple Choice microwave has a bunch of neat functions programmed into the machine, and its friendly visuals help perk up the preparation aspect.

It has a resource center that includes 100 recipes, 82 serving ideas and easy snack foods to make with or for your children. It lists measurements and equivalents, nutritional information and cooking shortcuts. The microwave is programmed to cook any of the recipes without the user having to figure out any time or power level. If you press a remind key, the microwave will jingle and let you know it's time to walk the dog or make a phone call.

Sharp's spokesman, Mark Yonskie, says the company created the microwave because busy consumers are expecting more from their appliances. They want their appliances to do much of the work for them.

One microwave industry representative said technology is being developed that will allow you to call your microwave and tell it when to start cooking the roast you left in it earlier in the day.

With this on the horizon, the world of the Jetsons can't be too far behind. Industry experts say you will someday be able to walk into your kitchen and tell your toaster to lightly toast your wheat bread or voice-activate your VCR.

"Appliances are doing things for you. They are thinking like a person, not a machine," said Alane Mackay, a spokeswoman for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. "With everybody working, manufacturers are trying to make things convenient for the consumer."

Appliances do have to keep up with the pace of the approaching millennium. Who's got time to cook? Who's got the energy?

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