Kitchens Through the Ages

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The Civil War brought an end to the institution of the plantation kitchen. In the years after Abolition, both former slaves and recent immigrants found employment in restaurant kitchens, which were largely patterned after the French model, with apprentices operating alongside professional chefs. The coal-fired stove became the core of the kitchen, followed by the gas range. By 1900, indoor plumbing was common, dramatically improving food sanitation. Kitchens emerged out of the gloom of the basement onto the well-illuminated first floor. “Scientific” cooking, using thermometers, standard measures, quantitative recipes, and a fantastic array of novel utensils and gadgets, dominated America’s kitchens by the early 20th century.

Electrical appliances—ranges, refrigerators, mixers, toasters, can openers, waffle irons, coffeepots—were the next wave of innovations, and they revolutionized kitchens beginning in the 1920s. The refrigerator made it possible to stock up on produce, meats, and dairy products, eliminating the need for daily shopping. After World War II, the freezer handled longer-term storage. Freezers decreased waste and also created a market for frozen processed foods—store-bought ice cream, orange juice, and TV dinners. Electric dishwashers eliminated one of the least appealing kitchen chores. Major appliances were no longer strictly functional but sported coordinated colors and decorative designs. Microwave ovens, which became common in the 1970s, were the ultimate time- and labor-savers.

As kitchens evolved, so did the lives of those who spent time in them. Food preparation in colonial times required hard, tedious physical labor. Come the 20th century, appliances decreased the drudgery and also hastened the rise of processed foods. Cooking became less of a necessity and more of a leisure activity or hobby. The kitchen was no longer just a place to cook meals; it was becoming a showcase for the homeowner’s style, taste, wealth, and status.

Sound familiar? Yes, here we stand in the new millennium, and thoroughly immersed in “foodie” culture, our diet rich in cooking shows, lavishly illustrated cookbooks (e- and otherwise), food magazines, blogs, Web sites, and mobile apps. And when we can afford it, we indulge our love affair with professional-grade gear—both essentials and accessories—whether for show or use. The American “trophy kitchen” of today comes in multiple flavors, from sleek to retro-chic, and mirrors myriad aspirations. But whether it’s a cozy place where the family sits down to supper or a glossy, gleaming work space used for nothing more than reheating Chinese takeout, the kitchen remains the most important room in the home.

Andrew F. Smith teaches culinary history at the New School in Manhattan, and is the author or editor of 23 books, including his soon to be released, American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food. For more about him, visit his Web site,

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