Take Back the Basics: Kitchens – Designs, Layouts, and Appliances

Good morning, class. I hope you had a great summer and are prepared to learn this year.

For those who are new, I’m the Culinary Arts and History teacher, Ms. Young. A little backstory about myself – I’m a culinarian by trade (as in, “I actually was part of a vocational program – the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps program – in which culinary arts was one of the options”). I studied and worked in culinary arts in both Kentucky (as part of my basic culinary training) and California (as part of the advanced training). In Kentucky, I volunteered in a city soup kitchen and at my Job Corps center’s cafeteria. In California, I was a greeter and a server for two wine-tasting events, a server for the Mayor of San Francisco’s (Ed Lee’s) campaign dinner, did line-cooking work for several casual- and fine-dining events at Treasure Island Job Corps Center, and I was chosen for an externship with Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/organic food store in Berkeley.

Some of my most memorable teachers/figures I’ve worked with include a front-of-house teacher who looked like Larry David from Seinfeld if he were shorter and more of a nebbish, a garde manger teacher who was a former soccer player from Brazil, a baking teacher from Germany who fled to America to escape Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime (and will fly into a rage if anyone casually tosses that word around), a Chinese-Texan pastry/confections teacher whose work with cakes and centerpieces are the stuff of elaborate, star-studded events, an International Cuisine/Bistro teacher who hates The Food Network with a passion and first met me when I took the bus into San Francisco for a Friday-afternoon out (and knew I wasn’t exactly cut out for the kitchen, but had some potential to teach), a Russian fine-dining teacher who was surprised when I (an African-American woman) knew a little bit of his mother tongue, and a career counselor who turned the last few weeks of my stay into a modern-day career woman take on My Fair Lady.

Outside of my culinary studies, I’ve taught myself how to write fiction and nonfiction since I was at least eight years old. I even went to school to become a screenwriter (University of the Arts, Class of 2007). I’m with Philadelphia’s Screenwriting Club, and am currently compiling a portfolio so I can take my talents to either New York City (as I want to write for Saturday Night Live) or back to California (this time, in Los Angeles, but San Francisco is only six hours away by vehicle). My Television History teacher was an executive for The Family Channel (back before it was called FOX Family and then ABC Family) and the head of the Writing for Film and TV department worked on my sister’s favorite soap opera Guiding Light.

My favorite colors are blue, white, silver, and purple; I prefer Coke over Pepsi (though I’m weaning myself off soda for health reasons); I actually like anchovies on my pizza, and I am the oldest of my two sisters, but younger than my brother, who sadly died of a heart attack before I could meet him. I teach because I want to pass my knowledge onto others the same way most men pass their DNA to unsuspecting women, because passing knowledge to others doesn’t result in me ending up on those “Who’s My Baby’s Daddy?” episodes of The Maury Povich Show.

Just so you know, you don’t need to know my backstory for a pop quiz or a final exam. I just thought you’d like to know a little bit about me since I never really introduced myself when I first started this blog.

Anyway, that’s my story. I hope through the comments section either on this blog or on any of the social media sites I post this on, I can learn about you, but probably not.

With that, we can now start our lesson, as seen on the blackboard. I do allow you to take notes (whether on paper or electronically), but if you can’t or don’t want to, listen carefully and don’t come crying to me when test time comes and you can’t remember the essentials I’ve taught you.

Quantity cookery has been around for as long as there has been multiple food sources, a means to prepare it, and large groups of people to feed (quality cooking, on the other hand, had to wait awhile before people could discover and refine it. For those who want to hear about Boulanger, Escoffier, and Careme will have to wait until next time).

Ancient Greece had an atrium arranged around a central courtyard for women in which a covered but otherwise open patio served as the kitchen (I could picture a lot of upscale homes — in The United States and abroad – these days with a modified version of that design) and was usually next to a bathroom (so that both rooms could be heated by the kitchen fire, even though there’s that old adage of “Don’t shit where you eat”) and had a separate storage room in the back for food storage and kitchen utensils. If you were a commoner during the time of the Roman Empire, you had to do all of your cooking in a community kitchen (similar to what I did as an externship in Berkeley) which came equipped with bronze stoves. If you were wealthy around that time, you had a kitchen-type atrium in your house, similar to how it was in the days of ancient Greece.

The kitchen remained largely unaffected by architectural advances throughout the Middle Ages. Open fire remained the only method of heating food. European medieval kitchens were dark, smoky, and sooty places, whence their name “smoke kitchen.” Early medieval Europe and the Iroquois Indian tribe of America had longhouses in which an open fire was under the highest point of the building and the “kitchen area” was between the entrance and the fireplace. In place of a chimney, these early buildings had a hole in the roof through which some of the smoke could escape. Wealthier homes had upwards of three kitchens and were divided based on the types of food prepared in them. If you were a European noble back then, the kitchen was in a separate sunken floor building to keep the main building. For social and official purposes, it was free from indoor smoke. Leonardo da Vinci invented an automated system for a rotating spit for spit-roasting: a propeller in the chimney made the spit turn all by itself. This kind of system was widely used in wealthier homes. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, kitchens in Europe lost their home-heating function even more and were increasingly moved from the living area into a separate room. This (along with Japan inventing the first known stoves around the time of the Middle Ages) was the point when the kitchen as we know it today would evolve.

The evolution of the kitchen is linked to the invention of the cooking range (“stove”) and the development of water infrastructure capable of supplying water to private homes. Until the 18th century, food was cooked over an open fire or in some kind of area were fire was allowed to burn in a closed space (similar to the Indian tandoor or a brick oven seen in many a pizzeria that touts itself as bringing an authentic Italian style to the masses). Technical advances in heating food in the 18th and 19th centuries, changed the architecture of the kitchen. Before the advent of modern pipes, water was brought from an outdoor source such as wells, pumps or springs.

Technological advances during the era of industrialization brought major changes. Iron stoves, which enclosed the fire completely and made it safer to work in the kitchen, appeared. Benjamin Franklin’s “Franklin stove” appeared around 1740, though that was for heating, not cooking. Over in England, Benjamin Thompson designed the Rumford stove 60 years after the Franklin stove. This stove was more energy-efficient than earlier stoves. It utilized one fire to heat several pots, which were hung into holes on top of the stove and were thus heated from all sides instead of just from the bottom. A lot of kitchens, particularly the commercial ones seen in restaurants and some culinary classrooms still have sections where pots are hung over the stove. Now you know that it’s not just for design.

However, Thompson’s stove was designed for large kitchens and was too big for domestic use. The Oberlin stove was a refinement of the technique that resulted in a size reduction. This one was patented in the U.S. in 1834 and became a commercial success with some 90,000 units sold over the next 30 years. These stoves were still fired with wood or coal. Although the first gas street lamps were installed in Paris, London, and Berlin at the beginning of the 1820s and the first U.S. patent on a gas stove was granted in 1825, it wouldn’t be until the late 19th century when gas stoves would be commonplace (mostly in urban areas, because if American and world history has taught me anything, it’s that urban areas are always the first to introduce something to mainstream society, whether it’s gas cooking or any type of music or fad originated from ethnic or sexual minority groups that have often been marginalized, overworked, or screwed over by the white, heterosexual majority).

Urbanization in the second half of the 19th century induced other significant changes that would ultimately change the kitchen. Out of sheer necessity, cities began planning and building water distribution pipes into homes, and built sewers to deal with the waste water. Gas was used first for lighting purposes, but once the network had grown sufficiently, it also became available for heating and cooking on gas stoves. At the turn of the 20th century, electricity had been mastered well enough to become a commercially viable alternative to gas and slowly started replacing the latter. Like the gas stove, however, the electric stove had a slow start. The first electrical stove had been presented in 1893, but the technology wouldn’t be stable enough for commercial use until the 1930s.

Dry storage space in early 19th and 20th century kitchens was also a concern at that time. In the 1920s, The Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of Indiana adapted an existing furniture piece, the baker’s cabinet, which had a similar structure of a table top with some cabinets above it (and frequently flour bins beneath) to solve the storage problem. By rearranging the parts and taking advantage of modern-at-the-time metal working, they were able to produce a well-organized, compact cabinet which answered the home cook’s needs for storage and working space. This is what it looked like:

 

Looking at this should bring back memories of those life-sized toy kitchen playsets that a lot of us at one point in our lives had as children. It does for me, anyway.

In all of this talk about kitchens and stoves and evolving social and scientific trends, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything about the refrigerator or refrigeration in general. While it is true that refrigeration has been around for as long as quantity (and quality) cooking has, the refrigerator had a long ways to go before it’d be a kitchen staple. Artificial refrigeration’s history began when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine in 1755. Cullen used a pump to create a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, which then boiled, absorbing heat from the surrounding air. The experiment even created a small amount of ice, but it had no practical application at that time. The first practical vapor compression refrigeration system was built by James Harrison in the 1850s when he emigrated from Great Britain to Victoria, Australia.

The first gas absorption refrigeration system using gaseous ammonia dissolved in water was developed by Ferdinand Carré of France in 1859 and patented in 1860. Carl von Linde, an engineering professor at the Technological University Munich in Germany, patented an improved method of liquefying gases in 1876. His new process made possible the use of gases such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide (SO2), and methyl chloride (CH3Cl) as refrigerants and they were widely used for that purpose until the late 1920s, though wouldn’t be until 1913 when refrigerators (referred to back then as “ice boxes”) would become a staple in the American home kitchen. If you know anything about early 20th century history (whether through media consumption or family history), then you’ve probably seen this contraption:

The icebox was a compact non-mechanical refrigerator-type kitchen appliance. Before the development of safe powered refrigeration devices, this device was considered common. Iceboxes had hollow walls lined with tin or zinc and packed with various insulating materials. Most common materials used were cork, sawdust, straw, and seaweed. A large block of ice was held in a tray or compartment near the top of the box. Cold air circulated down and around storage compartments in the lower section. The exteriors of iceboxes were made of wood for ease of construction, insulation, and aesthetics. Many were handsome pieces of furniture back in the day and, for those who love and collect antique furniture, still are.

Finer models had spigots for draining ice water from a catch pan or holding tank. In cheaper models a drip pan was placed under the box and had to be emptied at least daily. The user had to replenish the melted ice, normally by obtaining new ice from a deliveryman who brought ice for the icebox. The horse-drawn ice wagon and the daily occupation of the iceman who made regular door-to-door deliveries of block ice, was as much a social institution as the milkman, right down to the claims that the housewife often found sexual comfort in him instead of her husband (if she was still married).

Sadly, all things (good and bad) must come to an end. With widespread electrification and safer refrigerants, mechanical refrigeration in the home became possible. With the development of the CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), along with the succeeding hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), that came to replace the use of toxic ammonia gas that cooled a lot of early home refrigeration appliances, the refrigerator replaced the icebox. However, because of the prevalence of the icebox in recent human history, “icebox” is still used (mostly by older people) to mean “refrigerator” in some American English dialects. The iceman’s job isn’t as prevalent now as it was back then, but the job still has a niche market in Amish communities, where modern technology is considered taboo by their religion and simplicity is a virtue.

It wouldn’t be until during and after World War II that the kitchen would really transform into how we have it now (or at least what we think of when we think of the word, “kitchen”). The idea of the standardized kitchen was first introduced locally with the “Svensk köksstandard” (translated: Swedish kitchen standard), formerly “The Frankfurt Standard.” The equipment used remained a standard for years to come: hot and cold water on tap, a kitchen sink, and an electrical or gas stove and oven (as I mentioned before, the icebox/refrigerator would be added later). This concept was refined again using unit furniture with wooden fronts for the kitchen cabinets. The concept was amended again by the use of smooth synthetic door and drawer fronts – first in white, recalling a sense of cleanliness and alluding to sterile lab or hospital settings, but soon after in more lively colors, because, hey, if you’re going to be at home cooking for your husband and kids, you might as well make the kitchen less depressing. The 1930s and 1940s America saw electrified small and large kitchen appliances such as blenders, toasters, and, later, the microwave oven.

After years of being relegated to the back of the house, post-World War II housing often placed the kitchen front and center. The U-shaped kitchen (seen to your left), with its sink-range-fridge work triangle and the cook at center stage, blossomed, as did kitchen islands, double ovens, and separate cooktops, which are still around in a lot of modern kitchen models (and what I want in my dream kitchen, as I’m used to working with double ovens, kitchen islands, and oven ranges that aren’t relegated to the stove), as seen below:

 

The kitchen hit an aesthetic low point in the late 1960s and all throughout the 1970s. The appliances and fixtures were there, but…the colors, man:

These don’t apply to all kitchens, but the color schemes and sizes are accurate for most suburban homes. Lots of bright, clashing colors, the room was smaller (at least compared to places like the living room, which did get an upgrade when TV became a bigger deal), and everything seemed very Barbie Dreamhouse. James Lileks’ website and book Interior Desecrations takes a funnier, more informative look at how kitchens (and other rooms in the house) looked awful during the 1970s. I recommend that for a laugh and a look back at a truly ugly era.

The 1980s and 1990s were when kitchens not only started to become beautiful again, but also something out of a high-class restaurant kitchen, while at the same time, staying true to its 1950s roots. However, 1980s and 1990s kitchens were also home to a lot of pretentious and unnecessary-unless-you-have-the-money-and/or-skills-for-it additions, such as wine racks, cookbook shelves, water coolers like the ones you see and chat around in most offices, granite countertops, and cabinets that cost more than you spend on food and/or necessary kitchen repairs (a lot of which are either empty or serve as hiding spots for appliances you’ve only used once). There’s nothing wrong with wanting a kitchen that looks like the one you saw on a TV show, but most houses aren’t equipped for that (similar to how women – and men – strive for the perfect body and will often resort to unhealthy and dangerous means to get it, from eating disorders disguised as crash diets to low-rent plastic surgery).

So, now we’re in the 21st century. We have come a long way from the days of underground rooms covered in soot from the makeshift open-fire stove. Kitchens these days range from the small and simple to the sleek and professional-grade. These days, cooking calls for you to coax the Brussels sprouts out of their climate-controlled produce drawer, mince celery in a high-speed food processor (or with professional-grade knives), and upload a cranberry relish recipe on your laptop or tablet computer. You don’t have to worry about losing family recipes these days as long as they’re in your hard drive or saved on the cloud (whatever that means), and I’m sure Grandma or Great-Grandma would have loved to have had that in her time, but the low-tech kitchens of her day have their charm, too – and had a lot of values that still live on today. The 1920s kitchens taught us the importance of cleanliness while preparing food; the 1930s kitchens introduced us to electric appliances, such as toasters and blenders; the 1940s kitchens taught us the importance of homecooked and homegrown meals (as well as canning and preserving foods); the 1950s and early 1960s kitchens made cooking a family affair and a social event; the late 1960s into the 1970s gave us cheap and convenient ways out of cooking, such as microwave meals and take-out; and kitchens from the 1980s to now show us that we can look like we’re skilled in cooking, even if we’re not.

That’s the lesson today. Next time, we’ll get into food and food trends. Good night, and happy eating!

Take Back the Basics: Intro

Depending on where you are, it’s that time of year again when people are either back in school or preparing to go back, usually by going on one last summer vacation and/or going “back to school” shopping. After a long vacation here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” I’d like to announce that the blog is back again – or will be on September 2nd, when I start my “Take Back the Basics” series.

“Take Back the Basics” is my take on the Cooking 101 course. I haven’t done much of it (it’s been sprinkled here and there, usually under some culinary history/trivia), and, since this is the time of year when high schoolers and college kids move on to the real world, I figure, “Hey, why don’t you make it a semi-regular segment?”

So this is where I am: every Tuesday (or depending on whether outside obligations don’t distract me), I’ll be teaching you the basics of cooking, from learning what kind of kitchen supplies and ingredients you need to how to make your own sauces to learning proper nutrition. Think of it as the culinary arts/home economics (or “home and life skills,” if you want to be politically correct. I know some schools do refer to the home ec class as such, but that could be hearsay) class you wish you had: one where the teacher doesn’t bore you, the lesson plan is up-to-date, you learn a lot because it has a goodly amount of visuals (both in pictures and the way I write), and, most importantly, I allow critical thinking and asking questions in case I misinform you or omit something that’s vital.

So, enjoy your last week of summer (and Labor Day), and I’ll see you in class on September 2nd!

–Canais “PhillyFoodie85” Young