An overly brief and incomplete history of kitchens.
I’m on shaky ground here, and I know it. I have a dear friend (and faithful reader) whose study of kitchens earned her “Dr.” designation. I won’t pretend to know a fraction of what she knows about home kitchens through either an architectural or anthropological lens.
We met, my stylish architect/anthropologist friend (who now has a doctorate in kitchens) and I, because of my own kitchen. It was she who took my rough hand-drawn sketch and turned it into a formal, code-approved plan.
We became friends because she understood what we wanted (needed) in a kitchen without my having to explain it — which was terrific, because I couldn’t have articulated it at the time.
Through our growing friendship, I’ve learned quite a lot about kitchens that I didn’t know, even though what I now know barely scratches the surface of what she knows.
Here’s my hyper-abbreviated version:
For most of their history, kitchens were separate from living spaces because of, among other things, fire hazard.
The advent of modern gas and electric ranges, along with the advent of indoor plumbing and electricity, changed the practical need to keep kitchen spaces separate from living spaces.
Societal changes brought the activities of kitchen spaces into the realities of daily family life.
The rise of celebrity chefs, starting with Julia Child in the 1960s, made home cooking glamorous and helped give kitchens their modern status symbol status.
Those are things I know, thanks to my friend and to the beauty of online search.
What I believe from my own experience is this: Anything you could ever want or need to know about a person, or a family, is apparent in their kitchen.
Home is where the kitchen is.
My parents separated when I was 14. We moved, my sister, mother, and I, into an apartment and then a rental house, and then another rental house, and then, after I left for college, a continuing succession of other houses and condominiums.
“Home,” to my mother, who opened her own business when I was 11 and “worked outside the home” for the remainder of her natural life, was a place for hospitality.
The first order of business, in every move from place to place, was getting the kitchen, *dining* and *living* rooms in order. I emphasize those words, dining and living, because the idea of separate places for cooking (kitchen), eating (*dining* room), and conversing (*living* room) was important to my mother. It was the way she established order and stability.
When she looked for suitable places to rent, as we moved from one to the next, that triad of kitchen-dining-living space was an important consideration, just below desirability (safety, convenience, familiarity) and affordability.
The kitchen was literally and metaphorically central to our shared lives as a family. We cooked; we ate; we talked. We did not order takeout; we did not go to restaurants.
My mother stopped at the grocery on her way home from work. She cooked. We sat at a table and ate. We talked.
“Home” was dinnertime, together, in the room next to the tiny kitchen.
The kitchen is home base.
Here’s what it’s like, moving into an unfinished house, for two working parents with two small children:
Our move-in, 20 years ago, was a rushed and disorganized DIY. We couldn’t easily find anything among the piles of boxes that had been hastily stuffed and poorly marked. We’d open a box (that might or might not be labeled), and try to get it close to the room in which its contents belonged.
We’d used clothes and linens to pack breakable items, so even a box marked “KITCHEN” likely contained things that did not belong in the kitchen.
“Control what you can control,” a counselor advised, which I took as free license to spend a small fortune at The Container Store, buying clear plastic storage bins for toys and shoes, small metal tins for spices. One night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, I sat at the table in the kitchen (the only room relatively settled, compared to the rest of the house, because it was the only room we finished) with my label maker, typing and printing and sticking: SAFFRON, CAYENNE, TURMERIC, CINNAMON, CARDAMON, and so on, until I had everything tidy and taken care of, arranged in a drawer, in control.
Ridiculous, but true.
The first year in the new (very old) house was a disorganized, unstructured mess. The only room that was close to finished and in any semblance of order was the kitchen. With the kitchen as a kind of home base, we started to establish the beginnings of a family routine, a rhythm that helped soften the edges of all the rougher parts.
One anchor in this routine was Sunday supper.
In my growing-up home, Sunday nights were the only nights when we were allowed TV and dinner at the same time. We set up individual, folding TV tables and watched those staples of 1970s life, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the ABC Sunday night movie.
This was one of the few lived experiences Bernard and I shared in common. So establishing a Sunday supper routine for our own, new family was something that emerged on its own, organically.
Some Sundays featured long, slow cooking — carne adovada in the oven for several hours, or a roast chicken with garlic and lemon — making the entire house fragrant and cozy.
Other Sundays, usually when the weather was nice, featured simple, easy meals that came together quickly: grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, cheese soufflé, chicken paillards.
As our children grew older and resisted weeknight family dinners (“We are eating at the table, as a family, AGAIN?!”), Sunday suppers held true with few complaints. They became (and still remain) the reset button for each week, a time to recalibrate.
“I like it when you make that rice stuff,” my daughter said one Sunday afternoon, as she and her brother headed out to tennis practice and I to the grocery. “Yeah,” her brother echoed, “like, we could have that every Sunday, and it’d be cool.”
“Risotto?” I asked, to make sure we were clear.
“That creamy rice that you serve in a bowl,” they answered.
“Risotto,” I said. “That’s what it’s called.”
My second job after college was teaching art and photography at a boarding school in Dedham, Massachusetts, where I shared a house with two other young teachers. One of these teachers had lived with family for a year in Italy while she recovered from a serious injury. The story, as I remember it, was that when she first arrived in her relatives’ home she was unfamiliar with the Italian way of eating. She loved (LOVED) risotto from the very first bite. She asked for a second and then a third helping, not knowing that this small course was intended as the first of many. It was so American of her, she said, and a little embarrassing.
I add that story to acknowledge that preparing, serving, and eating big bowls of creamy risotto as a main course, with a side of something mild and green (haricots verts, or fresh green peas, or asparagus) isn’t remotely traditional and wouldn’t pass muster with any self-respecting Italian host. As comforting suppers go, however, risotto (of any variation) is pretty hard to beat. It’s also one of the more relaxing things to prepare, standing, and stirring, and listening to music or talking for about 25 minutes.
- Arborio rice
- White wine
- Chicken stock
- Parmesan cheese
Note: You can absolutely prepare a basic risotto with just water, butter (or olive oil), and salt. It won’t have much flavor, but sometimes that’s OK, too.
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt butter (about a tablespoon) and stir in rice (about 2 cups), thoroughly coating the grains.
Sprinkle rice with saffron, using your fingers to crush the threads, and stir. (So pretty; so fragrant.)
Add the wine (about a cup), stir, and keep stirring while it cooks down. This will take a few minutes; do not rush it.
When the liquid is mostly gone, add some stock (or water) (about a cup), and stir, and keep cooking until the liquid is absorbed.
Repeat until the rice is cooked and creamy looking. Total time should be around 25 minutes.
Serve in bowls, topping with shaved (or grated – but shaved is better) Parmesan or other hard, acidic cheese. Round things out with sides of mild greens, crisp apples, or perhaps some luscious pears.
A home kitchen is an anchor.
The first time he came home from college, for his freshman year fall break, my son had only one request: to have a home-cooked meal waiting when he arrived. A steady diet of dorm food and late-night fast food burgers had him yearning for what he’d delighted in leaving behind only a couple of months earlier.
“What would you like?” I asked, when he called to say he was about an hour away.
“Anything, Mom. Literally a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g you make will be a thousand times better than what I’ve been eating.”
“Oh yeah! That sounds great.”
Home is a kitchen.
With both children away, temporarily, I can cook anything I please, whenever it pleases me. I can go to the grocery (or rely on Hungryroot, which I’m growing fond of doing) and buy what I like. I can roast broccoli or butternut squash, poach cod, or sauté Brussels sprouts — all things my children despise.
I can also eat granola straight from the bag, standing in the kitchen instead of sitting at a table.
Without children in the house, I can do what I like, anywhere I like.
Where I like, though, is always in the kitchen, sitting in my favorite chair where I can read, write, and think about what I want, what’s important to me, and how to get there.
Postscript: Dinner from my first Hungryroot box
If you’ve been reading here for a while, then you might remember when I explored different home delivery/meal kit options — Blue Apron, Plated (RIP), Home Chef, and Purple Carrot. Plated did the trick for a while, but I couldn’t get past the abundance of packaging, all the waste. I also liked and disliked the rigidity of the kits, with just enough pre-measured ingredients for that specific preparation.
Why did I decide to give Hungryroot a try? Not sure. It was an impulse, an Instagram ad click-through impulse. Something about the word “groceries” is what hooked me, I think, because I *hate* grocery shopping. Hate.
So I ordered a box and then another, and I think I’ll keep it up, at least for a while. The packaging is limited and recyclable. The goods are what I would buy at the store, if I went to the store.
The recipe suggestions in my first box were:
- Veggie tacos
- Chimichurri salmon and roasted potatoes
- Salmon salad
- Chicken and brown rice stir-fry bowl
I didn’t make any of those things, though. I cooked the spinach instead of using it for salad. Pan fried the salmon instead of oven roasting. I did roast the creamer potatoes, halving them instead of cooking them whole. I also roasted the baby broccoli, coating it in olive oil, red pepper flakes, and salt beforehand. I put the potatoes and broccoli in a bowl, sliced the chicken breast and arranged it on top, then drizzled the whole thing with green goddess dressing.
My children would have hated it.
This post is part of a series that explores that simple, complicated idea of “home” as I try to reconcile my now-empty nest and conflicting feelings about my hometown.
In the 23 years since I came “home” to Memphis (not intending to stay more than six months), I’ve thought a great deal about the psychological and physical notions of home, both for me personally and more broadly in the world. Occasionally I have tiny hints of clarity.
But clarity is hard to hold onto in life’s bumper-car surprises, especially in Memphis, in 2022.
And so, I keep writing.