Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kitchen Improvement

Summer is here and you know what that means. Labor Day weekend traditionally kicks it off, and last Sunday in my neighborhood was a sensation extravaganza comprised of the sounds of people partying, pool water splashing, the slight heat of 80-degree temps, and most of all the smell of fire-grilled meat. They say that barbecuing is one of the last few primal traits leftover from our caveman days, that of charring the kill over fire and sharing it with the tribe over much fanfare. No wonder a lot of men like to do it so much.

When I read about and think about the history and evolution of cooking and kitchens,  I can't help but notice that it all began with the men doing the cooking. The world was lit by fire, and even at the dawn of the 20th century, kitchens were nonexistent. Cooking was an outdoor affair, done on an open hearth where sparks tended to fly. Then the men realized that they had much better things to do, and along with further civilization and settlement, kitchen outbuildings were put up. They were kept at some distance from the house because the cooking would sometimes end up in flames and burn the main house down. Cooking then was a hot, flaming endeavor that took hours as every single ingredient had to be made from scratch. If you did not render the fat, mill the flour, dress the chicken and smoke the pork leg ahead of time, you're cooked.

Fast forward to the present time. Let me first state that designers and architects often are asked to create elaborate, state-of-the-art, often-enormous kitchens for clients who didn't cook! This says a lot about the leap and change that kitchens have made over the years in terms of function and cultural significance. Nowadays, cooking can be a breezy affair, consisting of opening packages (or takeout boxes) and pressing buttons, with absolutely no flames involved. In Colonial America during the 17th century, a kitchen contained a trestle table or bench, a storage chest, a cupboard and had wooden floors sprinkled with sand, which helped absorb odors (Source: NKBA). Today, the kitchen is easily the most appointed room in the house. Even if all you have to do in a day is make coffee, smoothie and heat frozen food, that's three appliances already, not including the refrigerator.

The social dynamics of the kitchen has also greatly changed. From mere outhouses, kitchens slowly moved into the interior of the home with the invention of coal and gas stoves sometime during the mid-19th century. They were mostly moderately-sized rooms separated from the rest of the house, sometimes with no windows and used primarily for cooking. All eating and socializing happened in the living and dining room (those rooms that come in handy during the holidays). By the end of the 20th century, the kitchen had evolved into a complex area, where mostly all the daily family home activities happen and where now guests are free to hang out. The kitchen is the place to be--to cook, eat, watch TV (got AT&T U-verse?), do homework, pay bills, socialize and entertain.

So it is that the kitchen is now the social center of the home, and truthfully has made the living room and the dining room a place we rarely visit. I have noticed at parties that these two rooms tend to contain certain types of guests; overflow from the kitchen/great room area, shy wallflower types, the uncle who likes to take an afternoon nap, and teenagers who think the adults are too noisy. Everybody else likes to hang out in the kitchen (all the cool people are there and also because you don't have to travel so far for seconds). The kitchen island is an effective social catalyst, the center of the action, where a host can continue to cook while regaling the guests on the other end. Not unlike a bar at a restaurant, a kitchen island holding a buffet of food seems to have the power to loosen everybody up and start conversations going.

For people who like to cook or have to cook like me, the kitchen is command central. It's the part of the house I spend the most time in. It starts in the morning and grinds its way into evening, with periods in between when I summon my 'staff,' to check on what they're doing, interrogate them about their day, and inevitably offer them food. It's a safe haven, where I can get lost in pasta and cake batter, and where I can't be blamed for not responding to cries for help because I cannot hear anything over the hum of the range hood.

I am all for the advancement of the kitchen as the best room in the house. My extended family is happy to hang out in our great room for the rest of the party, all the better to be closer to the food and be handy for cleanups. For several hours, my kitchen/great room transforms from my own quiet corner of the house into party central. I love it. Great food and all the people that matter, all in one room.

However, the daily grind can be too quiet. I notice that my kids would make brief appearances when I yell, "Food!" then put their dishes away and then magically disappear. We talk over meals and then I am suddenly alone again. Too quiet again. If I wanted to see and hear more of them I would have to hunt them down, but there's more work to be done in the kitchen, and frankly, I did not want to leave. Then one day, I thought of bringing in some background noise by installing a small TV. At least while doing dishes, I can 'hang' with Vanna White and the guys from Law & Order. It was perfect, but Vanna and Lennie Brisco did not stay for very long. A few days after I bought the TV, guess who lingered loooong after the dishes have been put away. Yes, my hubby, my kids, and some characters from ESPN and the Cartoon Network. Kitchen wonders indeed.

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