Robert Schiffmann, creator of caramel microwave popcorn and sprinkle-on carpet freshener, ex-ballet dancer and People Magazine's anointed "Maven of Microwaves," got a call the other day from a would-be tycoon.
This one had a sure-fire idea for a microwave water heater.
"You're asking the microwave to do something it can't normally do," Schiffmann said with all the patience of his 56 years. It sounded like another lame-brained idea, but you never know.
He invited the caller to send whatever material he had. Then they would talk. "I've been wrong before," he said.
An inventor with a passion for microwave ovens and their potential is difficult to find these days. Schiffmann fills that bill.
Though they've been around since the late 1940s, microwave ovens finally found a place on the kitchen counter--and the factory and office cafeteria--in the mid-1980s. That was about the time working people and latchkey children everywhere discovered the machine that could cut meal-making to a twinkling.
Here was the high-tech future in a box. Emitting waves that never heat the oven but are powerful enough to vaporize a potato and melt glass, it inspired grim jokes about fatally wet cats and murderously stupid baby-sitters.
The mystery of a device that never gets hot but can set things on fire frightened some people. In the early days, consumers were skittish about leaking radiation, or fearful the ovens might cause cataracts or even sterility.
Schiffmann shrugs this off as nonsense. "Someone said it was like worrying about getting burned by the light of the moon," he says.
Consumers came around. In 1975, 5% of U.S. households had microwave ovens. Today more than 80% of homes, or 85 million households, own them; 15% have more than one microwave oven. They also can be found in 75% of workplaces, Schiffmann reckons.
If the microwave is ubiquitous, it's also still limited. Now that the excitement has settled down, the microwave oven turns out to be best for reheating leftovers and making popcorn.
"The real use of microwave ovens is ditzy things," Schiffmann readily acknowledges. He uses the one in his kitchen downstairs only to warm the milk in his cereal, to make nachos, to pop popcorn, or to reheat casseroles his wife leaves while off on business trips.
But for Schiffmann this is just the start. An independent researcher and consultant on the domestic and industrial refinement of the microwave and foods prepared in them, he belongs to a cadre of perhaps a dozen people trying to expand the microwave's range.
This ambition has its detractors. "My attitude would be: forget it," says Barbara Kafka, author of "Microwave Gourmet" and "Microwave Gourmet Healthstyle Cookbook."
The simpler the machine, the less can go wrong, she contends. As it is, the microwave does plenty, especially when it comes to steaming food, an objective of cooks for millennia, she says.
"It has been an error in the industry almost from the beginning to promise the public that this could be the only piece of cooking equipment that they need," Kafka says. "I don't care how fancy they make them, they can't do your cooking for you."
This opinion isn't shared by food manufacturers who hire Schiffmann to try out and improve their products at his laboratory here and his test kitchen in New Jersey.
"He's probably the most sought-after consultant in the microwave area; that would include not only applications in the home, but also industrial applications of microwave energy," says Bob Morris, vice president of technical affairs for Continental Baking Co., a Schiffmann client.
Food manufacturers ignore microwaves at their peril.
"At the rate microwave ovens are penetrating the marketplace, there's no question that microwave preparation and foods is going to be a major part of putting together a family's diet," Morris says.
Food manufacturer must consider the effect of microwave cooking and heating on their products, even unintended uses. "You've got to start taking conventional products and making them in such a way that a microwave oven will not destroy their quality," Morris says.
Schiffmann's task is just that: Finding ways to make food suitable to the microwave and the microwave suitable for food, the kind people will actually want to eat. The secret this scientist is trying to unlock is how to use microwaves to make food brown and crispy, and cook it evenly.
The laboratory for R. F. Schiffmann Associates is the fourth (top) floor of the home in which Schiffmann was raised as a teen-ager. The size of a large kitchen, it looks like a chemist took over and moved in a secondhand appliance store. About half of Schiffmann's 25 microwave ovens of varying sizes and brands line the counters.
Schiffmann also lectures and writes widely. Creative and artistic--for 10 years he juggled research with being a professional dancer until it became impractical--his particular gift is mental agility. He moves with ease between the complex abstractions of science and the real-life needs of the consumer. What's more, he's really interested in both.
So if you have an idea about a microwave water heater--feasible but inefficient and too expensive, it turns out--whom are you going to call?
Might as well try Schiffmann at his stylish Manhattan brownstone--Susan Sarandon was making a film down the street recently--as good a place as any for the intersection of science and the art of modern life.
Schiffmann's 18 U.S. patents reflect inspiration beyond microwaves. At heart, Schiffmann is a tinkerer, a pharmacist and chemist who parlayed a research job in a doughnut company into a career puzzling over the mundane.
Like the time he and a former consulting partner decided to find a new use for the vacuum cleaner and came up with sprinkle-on rug freshener.
He encountered his first microwave oven in 1962 at the doughnut company, where a colleague used it to heat sandwiches. From there he went on to invent a way to fry doughnuts in a microwave on a large scale, to develop microwave deli sandwiches, microwave cookware, microwave jelly doughnuts, a brand of yogurt, microwave sausage processing and, of course, the caramel microwave popcorn.
He's also the co-inventor of a method of storing produce that lets it hibernate, so that the best vegetables last longer.
He has a solution, he thinks, for the problem of getting food to brown in a microwave. With a colleague, he has invented a microwave cooker that looks like a round pot, plastic on the outside, aluminum on the inside, with a fan on top to move the heat around. This one, he said, browns and crisps food.
Schiffmann says new and improved future microwave ovens will feature automatic cooking, with a device to monitor cooking by measuring the food's temperature and weight and the moisture released. He also says to expect to see them in cars someday.
Much of his research entails walking around supermarkets and attending parties where he meets people who inevitably talk about their microwave ovens once they find out what he does for a living. In this way he discovers problems and offers companies his services in solving them.
One nettlesome problem is the hurry people are in.
"People are impatient with microwaves, wanting it to work faster and faster yet," Schiffmann says. "But the faster it cooks, the harder it is to get it to cook evenly. It used to be convenient to throw frozen breaded chicken into the oven for 35 minutes. Now that's an eternity."