Fact or Fiction, Life in the Kitchen

THE background has become foreground. Today, the kitchen has come into its own. What, we think, could possibly be friendlier than eating and socializing right in the room where the food is being prepared? It isn't only gourmets and enthusiastic cooks who feel that the more time everyone spends in the kitchen the better. The kitchen in many homes has turned into the most loved and most populated room.

In grand houses of the past (and even in not-so-grand houses whose owners had pretensions), however, the kitchen was made as remote as possible. Describing the old Yorkshire rectory in which her parson husband and she were obliged to live even as recently as the 1930s, a Mrs. Lucy Burnett observed: "If you played a brass band in my kitchen I don't think you could hear it in the drawing-room."

Smells were the problem. Smells and servants. Both, it was apparently felt, should be kept as far from the polite part of the house as possible. Buried in cellars and basements, banished to wings, even housed in separate buildings connected by underground passages with plenty of twists and turns to baffle the too- easy flow of culinary aromas, kitchens were generally visited little, if at all, even by the mistress of the house.

Guests, certainly, should never be conscious of impending meals or of the hard labor that produced them. Servants should only be in evidence when performing necessary functions, and, in fact, the greasy, grubby, overworked kitchen staff stayed in their domain while the food was brought into the dining room by sprucer, more polished domestics.

Because of our growing affection for the kitchen, and much promotion of good and heartwarming design of this part of the house today, we undoubtedly have a tendency to romanticize the frequent gracelessness of this workroom in the past. It is refreshing, however, to find a seasoned connoisseur of food and kitchens like M. F. K. Fisher describing the first kitchen she knew as a child, in her parents' home in Whittier, Calif., as "the nastiest room I had ever seen in my life ... long, narrow, and dank ... the ugliest room in the house."

This is in a recent coffee-table volume called "The Cook's Room: A Celebration of the Heart of the Home," in which traditional kitchens from around the world are beautifully photographed and lovingly described. Fisher provides one of the few dissenting voices in the remarks quoted, but she was not turned off from cooking by this unappetizing kitchen: just the opposite. And, indeed, one thing is evident: that the quality of the cooking that issues from it has little or nothing to do with the quality of th e kitchen or its equipment.

On the other hand, Terence Conran has written (looking back to the Edwardian and Victorian eras): "I think that many of the qualities of ... below-stairs life should be studied again because ... they were simple, effective, and efficient. Kitchens and pantries were well-planned, cheerful places to work and often supported a contented work-force." Well, some of the kitchens were cheerful, maybe. They were definitely warm. But I can't help suspecting that there may be a social historian or two rather cutti ngly able to dispute Conran's generalized claim.

WORKING in the kitchen of large, wealthy houses was not all honey-and-roses. One of the 1.5 million pauper girls society had condemned to domestic service in 19th-century Britain was given the opportunity of explaining to a newspaper reporter why she had absconded. She said, "Well, missus always sat in the parlour, and I always sat in the kitchen, and I felt lonesome. Then missus used to go out at night and leave me all alone in the house, and I got scared, and runned away. I won't go back, no, not for n obody."

In houses with more servants, of course, such loneliness was less of a threat; but it is more likely to have been lack of alternative employment coupled with a stoical spirit, rather than pure enjoyment, which made the existence of the kitchen "slavey" seem at all bearable. Given the chance, many such girls opted for work in factories instead. A revealing preference.

Even architects might conspire to make the kitchen deliberately unpleasant for the people working in it. In his book "The English Parsonage," B. Anthony Bax noted: " windows were sometimes placed high in the wall to prevent the domestic staff being seduced from their work by the sight of a gardener." But then the kitchen has never been high on the priority list of architects.

On my shelf, I have a book about Le Corbusier, the 20th-century architect who declared that a house is "a machine for living in." Not one photograph of his private-house work shows a kitchen - and yet this room more than any other in our century has been the context for replacing hand labor by machines. Even today's modest kitchens are technological to an extent unimaginable 50 years ago. Yet studies of modern house architecture are illustrated by stairwells and pool terraces, dining areas and garden pav ilions, but almost never by kitchens.

In earlier periods, though, the kitchen happens to be about the only domestic part of a house that might be recorded in photographs. Not because its architecture was of much interest, but because of pride in this workroom's equipment - a sign of status or wealth or invention. One Victorian described such contemporary kitchens as "having the character of a complicated laboratory." And this was not only a century before microwaves appeared, but well before washing machines.

Actually, even in the most opulent houses, there was entrenched resistence to such technological advances as closed-in cooking stoves (due to a fear, perhaps, of explosion), even though they cut down radically on the "smells" that people then found so offensive and we, today, like so much. Most cooking was still done over open fires for decades after such stoves were available. Presumably technology would have pushed forward faster if the kitchen hadn't been run exclusively by servants and at a distance . Who cared about the cook?

In fact, cooks were valued, of that there is no doubt. As "The Economical Housewife" put it in 1882: "... a good cook is not only a veritable household treasure but often times the pivot whereon turns much of the master's and mistress's connubial felicity." The same admirable book advises that a mistress might, therefore, in the case of a treasurable cook, have to relax her usual demands for good manners and neat appearance in her servants just a little. She might have to take on a cook who was "bluff" a nd "coarse." Oh, dear.

Such gruesome snippets from the past may help to balance our tendency for unreal nostalgia about the kitchen. And we are prone, it seems, to such back-looking longing. We have come through the kitchen revolution to a degree by now, and while we still want everything at the touch of a button, every function performed with robotic spontaneity by electronic wizardry, there is also a strongish conservatism holding its own in the kitchen, the call of the old.

Something deeply rooted wants to see living flames and feel their heat on the face, to breathe real smoke again; we don't so easily relinquish the primitive aspects of cooking and eating, persuaded (and not without reason) that cookery is an art that requires the intervention of human fingers, human sensitivity. In the end, coolly programmed mechanisms can never replace these.

So we are clearly beginning to think that our kitchens somehow ought to reflect this archaism. After all, in many parts of the world not even low-tech has invaded the practices of ordinary people cooking in ordinary kitchens. One thing is quite apparent: Electronics may take away much of the slog of cooking, but at the same time they take away most of its delight and satisfaction.

Terence Conran's relish of everything to do with the kitchen prompts him to say: "... now, thank goodness, we are returning to an almost medieval situation, where the kitchen is, once again, the hub of the house. It is not only the place where we cook, eat, and entertain, it is also the place where we do our laundry and other household chores, and it is certainly the place where the children gather and play."

His word "medieval" is intriguing. In the middle ages, really, the kitchens in the giant households at the top of the social scale were already away down passageways from the main hall where the banquets were held. The food, cooling fast after its journey from the kitchens, was part of astonishingly theatrical display and ritual.

It could even be brought in preceded by a man on horseback, and literally trumpeted from the gallery.

But in poor people's housing there were scarcely cooking facilities at all. Ghastly cook-shops outside the home were the resort of peasants fortunate enough to have enough food.

So today's designer kitchens are "medieval" only in a certain limited sense - as communal places of warmth and sharing. The cooking and eating are as casual in such modern kitchens as they have ever been - beautifully casual - because the formality and ritual of the dining room has been at last dispensed with. This is no great loss. Class leveling has allowed us to revive a kind of kitchen that was probably only covered by a veneer of pretentious dignity anyway: Today's dream kitchen is really a folk kit chen ... with timers.

Come to think of it, perhaps most kitchens - even those in the lower regions of wealthy old mansions - were at root "folk kitchens," made what they were because of the kind of people who ran them. It is sometimes pointed out that the children in upper- class houses often had more to do with the servants than with their own parents. If the cook happened to be a kindly soul, they would sneak down to her kitchen and she would give them left-overs and talk and warmth.

I wonder if Kenneth Grahame might, as a child, have had some such experience. In "The Wind in the Willows" he celebrates many things he loves simply because he loves them. The Badger's "large fire-lit kitchen," for instance, is described through the eyes of the visiting Mole and Ratty as if it were an indoor paradise. This book is ostensibly a book for children. It is also - though the characters are animals - a book about children, and about childhood in an adult world.

The kindly Badger's kitchen, a place of "comfort and contentment," is down numerous shabby passageways, "mysterious and without apparent end." He flings open the kitchen door onto it suddenly. It's a marvelous surprise. "It seemed," Grahame writes, "a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about ... eat ... and talk in comfor t and contentment."

In other words, this kitchen is the Badger's idea of home. To Mole and Ratty, who had lost their way in the snow and terror of the Wild Wood, Mr. Badger's room with its log fire and "high-backed settles" and "hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs" is a safe and wonderful haven.

I think Grahame was affectionately remembering such a place from childhood, with the Badger in the role of cook. But fact or fiction, here is a kitchen that is everything a kitchen ought to be.

Fifth in an occasional series. Previous essays ran Sept. 30, Oct. 21, Nov. 12, and Dec. 2.

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