How To Start A Fire In A Microwave

This isn’t a how-to guide… but it kind of is

Time To Read: 6 mins | April 20, 2017

Pro tip: research whether the region you’re traveling to is prone to earthquakes. Otherwise, you may wake up at 2:00am thinking that King Kong’s using your building as a Shake Weight, or that you farted so powerfully you’ve changed your mattress from a solid to liquid.

It’s not that I’ve never lived through one before. I spent 6 years in Los Angeles, where quakes are as common as traffic jams and botox. But while I knew Chile sat on a fault line, I hadn’t mentally prepared for the planet shaking while I was passed out, and as such attributed the tremors to my Where the Wild Things Are-themed dream. Or, like I mentioned, gastrointestinal distress.

This earthquake wasn’t huge, but it was enough to shake me out of bed to use the restroom, after which I couldn’t doze off again. I’d arrived from California four nights ago, and due to having entirely too much fun during that US stint, my sleep schedule was completely backwards. So the time didn’t matter; I was awake, and I was hungry.

Now, when you’re tooling around in cheap South American kitchens, you learn pretty quickly to have an open flame on you at all times. Propane stoves are the norm, but the appliances don’t come with a functioning ‘Ignite’ setting. So you simply hold some other fire next to the burner you want, and say a prayer you don’t lose your eyebrows.

I ran into this situation before in Panama. On that occasion, I didn’t manage to light the stove. The toilet paper I shoved into the toaster sparked up well enough, but then I burned my hand twice and nearly suffocated from smoke inhalation.

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Some humans shouldn’t be allowed around flammable objects. I am one of those humans.

Not wanting to repeat that experience, I wrote myself a reminder — ‘FIRE’, in size 72 font on my left hand — before going to the Asian market that morning. Now you’re asking yourself, why was I at an Asian market in Chile? It’s because I rented an apartment smack in the middle of Santiago’s Chinatown. At least I think it’s Chinatown. Could be Korea or Thai, I suppose. All the chicken scratch looks the same to me.

To avoid more of the casual racism above, I tried Facetiming an Asian ex-girlfriend of mine and having her clarify, but given how our last conversation went (“Lose my number,” I believe was her line), she unsurprisingly didn’t answer. So for the purposes of this anecdote, we’re going with the nice, broad, politically-correct ‘Asian market’.

I obviously couldn’t read a single thing in the grocery store, but fortunately, frozen dumplings look the same in any language. I also scooped up a bottle of sesame oil and the biggest sushi roll you’ve ever imagined. It was closer in size to a Chipotle double meat burrito than a salmon roll.

An American man speaking poor Spanish to an elderly Asian woman speaking worse Spanish is not the recipe for witty repartee, so I handed her a stack of Chilean money, she handed me an arbitrary amount back, and I went home. I ate my monster roll, put the dumplings in the freezer, watched Skyfall and fell asleep.

Then some tectonic plates got into a fist-fight in the wee hours of the morning, so I woke up and wanted more food. And it was only then, at 2 in the morning, that I realized I’d forgotten the matches.

My record with shitty kitchen firemaking is 0-1. Which is the same record as Dak Prescott in the playoffs, which is unacceptable. It was time to even the score.

This test was going to be even more challenging than the first: there was no toaster. No open, superheated metal wire than I could simply jam a bunch of 2-ply against. That’s good for the neighborhood’s safety, but not my stomach.

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I had three advantages: a basic understanding of scientific principles, a fifth of rum, and a microwave.

First off, as all lovers of Hot Pockets know, microwaves make things hot. That’s why they put the word in the pastry’s name. But this is not due to sorcery (womp womp), it’s science. Specifically, it’s the agitation of water molecules in the food. The little H2Os in your soon-to-be-Hot Pocket get all hot and bothered, then start grinding up on the other H2Os, and this creates heat.

You can try this yourself: put a perfectly dry paper towel in the microwave for a minute, then repeat with a wet towel. It’ll be obvious which got hotter – speaking of, you should also make sure someone else is home for your experiment, so you can blame your small kitchen fire on them.

At least, that’s what I’d hoped happen. But my wet paper towel simply got warm. Good for a refreshing wipe of the face, not for igniting a stovetop. I needed more heat.

A few swallows of rum and more scientific thought gave me the answer: force lightning.

— at this juncture, if you haven’t seen Star Wars, please stop reading. Seriously. Lose my website. If you didn’t understand the reference above, I’ve no interest in you patronage.

I’m no Sith, but I did love doing exactly what my mother told me to never do growing up, and one of those things was putting forks in the microwave. As anyone with a mischievous or idiotic side knows, that causes all sorts of fun blue lightning bolts to shoot everywhere.

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And lightning makes stuff catch fire all the time.

The new plan involved a wet paper towel loosely wrapped around a fork, and me hiding one room over with a clear pot lid (potential facemask) in one hand, the rum in the other.

I left it in for a minute – lots of little blue bolts, even a bit of steam, but no flame. The answer was obvious, once I thought it through: fire needs oxygen. Microwaves don’t let in much air, which makes starting a conflagration difficult.

The smoke started just a few seconds after my fork torch was out of the device. I blew on it steadily to push things along, and maybe thirty seconds later, poof. Fire. I felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway.

Moving quickly, I shuffled over to the stove and turned on the front left burner. I held the fork torch centimeters from the gas — nothing. Assuming there was a problem with that quadrant of the stove top, I tried another. Still nothing.

Opened the pantries under the stove top. Pulled out the obviously full propane tank and realize the tap is closed. Twisted it open, replaced the tank, stood over the first stove top again.

The fork torch had burned out.

Come sunrise, the dumpling bag was still full. The rum, meanwhile, was empty.

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photo: the hippie paint job gets a pass since they strapped a motorcycle to the front. bocas del toro, panama

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.
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