Kitchen musings

Not an hour after writing this, I happened upon a TV programme called the The House the 50s built, involving installing a 50s kitchen and how the many new gadgets improved women’s lives, which was very interesting if you ever come across it!

Moving on from my last post, I got to considering kitchens. From the simple central hearth of the prehistoric roundhouses through the ages to the modern-day kitchen, this is certainly a very important room in a house. In fact, for a long time, it was really the only room in the house: with the only source of heat being that very fire, you not only cooked on it but socialised and slept around it, too, to keep warm – and the men probably did what men have always done and taken over the best of the heat to mess about with their tools! Still, I suppose they were providing most of the protein by hunting, so I dare say a spear and/or knife were necessary. All right.

While pondering kitchens, I began to think about how much they have altered, only in the past few generations. From being the “heart”, as well as the “hearth” of the home (etymology, there?!), the commoner’s kitchen went through a bit of an Orphan Annie phase mid-20th century. With the development of the Frankfurt kitchen in the 20s, interestingly by women (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurt_kitchen), the cooking was banned from it’s core role, shutting the women who provided for their families away from the rest of the house.

There was only really room for one person in a kitchen like this – what would you do with your children while you were cooking? Flats built here from the 50s-70s tend to have small “efficient” kitchens like this, closed off from the living areas and a total nuisance to work in if you have anybody else hanging around trying to have a chat (my MIL’s kitchen is one of these galley kitchens! She prefers it because she likes elegant entertaining and doesn’t want to see the kitchen from the dining table.). I know I was hugely relieved to move from a corridor of a kitchen – a door at each end and zero workspace in a 60s kitchen – to a more family-oriented space that had room for the corner bench set mentioned in the last post!

Ah, this was more like it – from early breakfasts to schoolmates for lunch, signing school papers, doing homework, crafting, baking and keeping an eye on the baby to entertaining neighbouring families and everyday evening meals with daddy, the kitchen was in use for almost all our waking hours, right down to the last cup of cocoa before bed… We had no TV in the kitchen and some vile orange tile splashbacks, but our L-shaped kitchen really worked for us with a young family. In our next house, the kitchen was less practical – although theoretically large enough for a table and chairs in the centre, movement was limited by two doors and a whole wall taken up by the old wood-burning cooking stove. Dominantly attractive and historical, but not really an everyday prospect! (I eventually got extremely tired of polishing the copper pots displayed above it and which got covered in soot, as well as tarnishing – theory and practice!) Our dining area was in a small room just next to the kitchen – fine as far as distance went, but still with a wall between which prevented me noticing when my toddler climbed onto the table and sat there, feeding herself and all the furniture on yoghurt… Really not a very viable design for a family kitchen!

Around this time, I noticed that the epitome of kitchen comfort seemd to be the huge farmhouse kitchen with room not only for a large, scrubbed table and chairs, but also armchairs and sofas – dining rooms were completely out and living rooms had become TV entertainment rooms (and of course, now most self-respecting kitchens feature their own flatscreen TV…). This arrangement still seems to be popular, with the kitchen having reverted to being the cute and cosy heart/hearth of the home – all the family congregate in one place for meals and otherwise, the children can be supervised, as is homework, and it’s the place where the clutter collects:

 Most of the action in the British series of “Outnumbered” takes place in the family kitchen! As it also did in Roseanne… and memorably, The Cosby Show – “Cliff – Kitchen – NOW!”… At least all of these shows featured family meals. As the dining room disappeared, often to enlarge the living area, and with not everybody having the large family eat-in kitchen, eating appears to have been reduced to a plate or tray in front of the living room TV for many people, and I know of more than one family who never ate together, either grabbing what they fancied when they fancied it or else the mother cooking something different for each child because it was too much trouble getting them to sit at the table at the same time and eat the same food. Hm. I suppose this went hand-in-hand with the increasing need for mothers to work outside the home to supplement the family income and to cover the rising costs and increasingly expensive needs of modern family members, so that it seemed there simply wasn’t time to cook meals from scratch (as they say now – meaning making proper food with real ingredients like vegetables, dairy produce, pieces of meat and such basics as flour, sugar or rice!). My daughter recently wandered into a British supermarket and was completely bemused that more than half of the items for sale were processed foods, requiring no more than opening a package or pressing a couple of buttons on a microwave – not to mention the added salt, sugar and other chemicals. How very sad.

I’m rather glad I don’t have to clean these flashy kitchen-living rooms!!Flick through a current home-decorating magazine and you will see the consequences of much of this development in our society. High gloss kitchens which have likely never had a dusting of flour or a spattering of roast juices, fully equipped with microwaves, self-cleaning ovens, booster cooktops, ginormous American fridges (I wonder what they keep in those “produce” (=vegetable) drawers?!) with ice and water on tap, built-in espresso machines and so on, every gadget you could think of – and yet how many people actually cook in a space like this that you’d be scared of dirtying?! These are people who no longer know how to wash and chop/tear a lettuce or peel carrots – it all comes in cellophane bags! – and who don’t know if food is still good or not unless they have a date-marked sticker to consult… and yet, curiously, the kitchen is THE room to show off with!

Interestingly, the trend seems to be transitioning to the open kitchen-diner with room for some smart seating and even the prospect of entertaining, as well as access to the outdoors, our new dining rooms. See what a recession can do. So perhaps we are reverting to the “common” room – how many families keep their computer in the kitchen, or at least have a charging station for the many, many gadgets that we accumulate?! I don’t know about Big Brother, but supervision does seem to be back!

The kitchen I inherited in our current (and hopefully, last!) house is now 23 years old. Installed between the 250 year old beams in the late 80s, it was probably custom-made, in the old Swiss size (cupboards 55cm wide rather than the European standard 60cm), but made to last: the doors, facings and trim are all solid oak. It’s a classic style, no longer popular, and the practical granite worktops whisper “1980s” with their pinkish inclusions. The appliances were replaced with stainless steel before I arrived (which is now the popular choice, I believe!) and everything is well-planned, serviceable and in good nick. Six years ago, the estate agent assumed I would be wanting a new kitchen, which surprised me considering its good condition, though now and again I’ve wondered about painting it white to give it a new lease of life, as the magazines like to say, but it would be a shame not to show off the oak, and there’s really nothing wrong with the kitchen at all, so…

One day, we may decide to give the kitchen a revamp. There’s not an awful lot I would change, to be honest, perhaps make this half-dividing wall half-height, not have any top cupboards (I’m really not very tall!), have a smaller dishwasher and stovetop, install a small window on the east wall, go for something a little bit more modern that is still sensitive to the house, I guess, but for now and the foreseeable future, I’m quite happy to stick with my practical little kitchen, it’s attractively low window and most of all, its easy access to my enormously long table where everybody congregates and my more-than-a-little intimate living area where furniture is shuffled around to suit the number of family or friends present and their inclinations for sitting or lounging! Home sweet home.

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5 thoughts on “Kitchen musings

  1. The pics of your house look much more attractive than the fancy magazine ones – CARPET in a kitchen?? – and I do like your shelves, very practical and grown-up! But I prefer to be able to shut myself away when I’m cooking, and not expose all my disasters to the waiting guests. They don’t need to see the mess, and it spoils my appetite! So I’m happy with my little galley kitchen!

  2. I love your kitchen – Oak cabinets are a “bloody” fortune and I would never change them! But that’s me with kitchen cabinets painted white because the wood is not nice enough for exposure :) I think there is some comfort in a few things remaining the same. Love your dinning room too. You have a charming place and it is easy to see how one would wish to linger over a second glass of wine.

  3. What an interesting way of considering how family life has evolved in the 20th century… by looking at the kitchens we use and the way they’ve become multi-purpose gathering spaces, rather than a location purely for the preparation of food.

    My current (cozy) house has no dining room per se. Frankly, we didn’t use the dining room in the old house where we had one – we were always in the kitchen. It seems like the hub for many of us, and more fitting to a less formal way of life.

    By the way – I love the look of the minimalist and high tech kitchens, but I could never live with them.

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