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Food + Cooking

Kitchens Through the Ages

Published in Gourmet Live 04.18.12
Food historian Andrew F. Smith details the rise of the American designer kitchen from the ashes of the prehistoric fire pit

An ancient kitchen in Thessaly, Greece

It’s the dawn of the 21st century, and the designer kitchen is all the rage. “Foodies,” ambitious home cooks, and status seekers demand spacious, well-lighted kitchens outfitted with the latest professional-grade appliances and fixtures: a brawny range as masterful at simmering as it is at full-on flame grilling, or a cast-iron heat-storage cooker; an oven lined with ceramic brick for baking; a highly engineered refrigerator and freezer; a super-quiet Euro-styled dishwasher; and a temperature-stabilized espresso maker. The appliances are equipped with display screens and touch pads. Built-in controlled-temperature wine storage is a must. Granite countertops are fitted with deep sinks formed of slate or other natural stone. Hardwood cabinets line the room, housing storage units tailored to the owner’s collections of cookware and tableware. These accoutrements are not just for cooking; they are also for show, as the kitchen is now a laboratory for culinary experiments, a setting for lavish parties, and, quite literally, a place of conspicuous consumption.

The high-status, high-tech kitchen is just the latest reinvention of the way humans have prepared food. Prehistoric peoples caught and gathered food and brought it back to a central location—where the fire was—to be cooked and eaten. When humans around the world began constructing permanent living structures, the kitchen and its hearth became the dwelling’s focal point, where the family spent most of its time. Over the centuries, kitchens were small, with a heat source at their core—whether a fire pit, brazier, grill, or fireplace—and they were furnished with cooking equipment (pots, pans, turnspits, knives, ladles) and a flat surface for preparing food. The main tasks, then as now, were to skin, bone, peel, chop, slice, boil, broil, or fry the meal’s ingredients. Throughout most of history, home kitchens were small, dark, and poorly ventilated—smoky, uncomfortable rooms generally populated by slaves, servants, and menial laborers, usually women. The kitchen was initially a multiuse space: Since it was naturally the warmest room in the house, many a family worked and slept there in cold weather.

In well-to-do ancient households, kitchens were larger and more complicated. Various culinary functions were separated and new rooms were dedicated to them. Larders, pantries, root cellars, smokehouses, and icehouses were built for specific kinds of food storage and processing. Rooftop and courtyard dining areas were popular in ancient Egypt; formal dining rooms reserved solely for social meals first appeared in Rome. Completely new facilities emerged for specific food-preparation tasks, such as making cheese or brewing beer.

Despite the separation of these functions, kitchen size continued to increase, especially in affluent households. Roman villas maintained large staffs of slaves. But kitchen size reached its zenith in mid-15th-century China, where the imperial kitchen employed 7,874 cooks and served an estimated 15,000 people daily. Although the facilities were larger, conditions usually remained the same—as did the relatively low status of those who worked in kitchens, slaving away at arduous and painstaking tasks.

Cooks and kitchens first achieved some respect as cookbooks began to be published in Europe in the late 15th century. Extensive descriptions and detailed illustrations of kitchens and their equipment appeared in Italian and, later, French culinary works. These now vast cooking halls were largely built around fireplaces, which provided plenty of heat for cooking while venting away a lot of the smoke and soot.

When Europeans began settling in North America, their kitchens evolved to suit their circumstances. On the hilly farms of colonial New England, frugality ruled: Kitchens were generally small, and the task of cooking fell to the women and girls of the household, sometimes assisted by a humble “hired girl” from a nearby farm. In the antebellum South, the kitchen could be a large, factory-like operation, situated in a cellar or outbuilding to keep the heat of cooking away from the main dwelling. Plantation kitchens were run almost exclusively by slaves, who provided lavish meals for family and guests. In both eras and regions, kitchens were centered on cooking hearths where meat was roasted, bread was baked, and soups were simmered.

In the late 18th century, Americans began supplementing and then replacing hearth cooking with cast-iron wood-fired stoves. These small, squat stoves were commonly adorned with Biblical scenes molded in bas-relief. The decorations shifted to patriotic images of eagles and flags to celebrate America’s newly won independence, and these in turn gave way to motifs from the natural world, such as birds and flowers.

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, www.AndrewFSmith.com.

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