If you can't stand the heat ...
If necessity is the mother of invention, the kitchen is surely one of the great arenas of technological change. The pace was slow through the first two-thirds of the millennium, but the impetus behind 1,000 years of kitchen developments has remained the same: to move food from larder to table efficiently.Skip to next paragraph
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From the large, open fireplace of a medieval shopkeeper's house, to the grandiose layout of a 15th-century nobleman's kitchen, these rooms were indicators of wealth - and often a virtual slave quarters for the women and servants who worked in such torrid environments. Not until the stove appeared in the 17th century did the kitchen as we know it begin to take shape.
The first innovations dealt with regulating cooking temperature. In wealthier homes, servants used hooks, suspension chains, and pulleys to raise or lower cauldrons, controlling the amount of heat supplied. Such a system seems to have been the major improvement of the late Middle Ages.
As European explorers brought back foods and spices from far-off lands, wealthy citizens had greater access to exotic ingredients, but cooking techniques remained almost unchanged, with two exceptions:
In the mid-17th century, an anonymous cook discovered that cooked meats would keep longer sealed in a layer of fat thick enough to keep air out.
The second innovation occurred in 1679 when French-born physicist Denis Papin invented the pressure cooker. Called Papin's Digester, this airtight cooker produced a hot steam that cooked food more quickly while preserving nutrients.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, common people began to use the plate, usually made of wood or, for those who could afford it, metal.
"You had only one and you carried it with you," explains Andrew F. Smith, culinary history professor at New York's New School. Guests also brought their own knives, and later, their own forks.
Although the fork dates back to Roman times, for centuries it was used only in the kitchen to hold down large pieces of meat for carving. By the year 1000, Byzantine nobility had begun using small gilt forks for sweetmeats. From there, the fork traveled to Greece and by the 14th century was used by some Italians. But it was not until the 17th century that northern Europeans adopted the fork, and not uniformly.
Colonial Americans built kitchens remarkably similar to those of their medieval European ancestors. The housewife cooked in the fireplace with iron skillets and pots called kettles. She also had a few other iron tools such as gridirons for roasting meat, a waffle iron, a Dutch oven for baking rolls, and a wire frame for toasting bread. The open hearth demanded the woman's constant attention. She had to keep the fire going and prevent her small children from getting burned by flying cinders. In Southern plantations, the kitchen was often a separate building, which protected the owners from the oppressive heat the slaves endured.
But with the Industrial Revolution, the kitchen began to change.
One of the more important developments was canning. "The canning revolution made it possible to have large modern urban cities," Prof. Smith says.
In the 1700s, European housewives began preserving fruits in boiled-sugar syrups. In 1809, after 14 years of experimentation, French confectioner Nicholas Appert developed canning, by hermetically sealing fruits, vegetables, meats, and milk in glass bottles, and then processing the bottles in boiling water. Napoleon had offered a large prize to anyone who could develop a new method of preserving food so that he could more easily feed his troops.
Home canning didn't become popular in the United States until the early 1900s. By then, machine-made jars replaced hand-blown glass bottles.
For home cooks, the improvement of the stove was perhaps the most important advance of the past 1,000 years. The earliest stoves were designed for heating rather than cooking. In the late 1700s, American-born physicist Benjamin Thompson, later known as Count Rumford, invented the Rumford fireplace, one of the first cast-iron cookstoves.
"Rumford is an exemplar of the application of science to food," says Smith. A refinement of the open hearth with cubbyholes, Rumford's metal cookstove - which could be put anywhere, regardless of where the chimney was located - reduced coal smoke, burned hotter and faster, and yet the heat could also be adjusted.
Swedish engineer Nils Gustav Dalen designed a better stove while recovering from an accident. While convalescing at home, he noticed how much time his wife spent caring for their wood-burning stove. This practical man decided to invent a more efficient and cost-effective stove.
In 1922, Dalen's Amalgamated Gas Accumulator Co. patented his design and put the first AGA stoves into production. These stoves produced a radiant heat that kept the kitchen warm. The AGA remains popular today, especially in drafty English country houses.