The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home [Click the title
to buy this book]
by Steven Gdula
At the end of the 19th century, as Steven Gdula explains in his new book, The Warmest Room in the House (reviewed in this issue's Cover to Cover), kitchens were “hot, dirty, smelly, dangerous places, and the work done there seemed interminable.” By the end of the 20th century, however, kitchens had become the showpiece and social center of many people’s houses–gleaming with shiny granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, even in homes where the only “cooking” going on was heating up takeout. Decade by decade, Gdula charts that transformation. He describes how the domestic science movement of the turn of the century pushed homemakers to paint their kitchens white and coat their countertops and sinks in enamel in an effort to fight the germs that lurked there. He explores how the hard times of the 1930s forced Americans to open their minds to the cuisines of other cultures, as people relied on the generosity of neighbors and looked for creative ways to stretch the few ingredients they had. He discusses how TV dinners, frozen waffles, and Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix became all the rage in the 1950s, as cooks turned to packaged foods to cut down on time spent in the kitchen. And he documents how during the fitness and dieting craze of the 1980s, consumers moved toward NutraSweet and other “lite” products, while shying away from beef, milk, and other staples of the American kitchen. Along the way, Gdula doles out fascinating tidbits about some of today’s commonly used products, noting, for example, that the invention of Mason jars revolutionized preservation methods, allowing families to dispense with root cellars, pickle barrels, and smokehouses; that Wonder Bread was so named because it was the first packaged, pre-sliced bread widely available to American cooks; and that, during World War Two, when trade routes to China and Japan were cut off in favor of ones to India and Ceylon, Americans switched from drinking green tea to black.
Gdula was drawn to this subject by his own childhood memories of gathering with his family in their kitchen every night to share a home-cooked meal, despite the fact that money was always tight and his parents both worked. “My family’s kitchen was the warmest room in the house,” he recalls. “And often it was the hottest room in the house, as the combined heat from the oven, the stovetop, and the bodies that had congregated into the space to be nearer the hearth—and the heart of the action—made it nearly impossible to move, let alone cook.” The warmth and good humor that suffused that kitchen carry over to Gdula’s book—a witty and fast-paced account of a century of change.
I spoke with Gdula by phone on January 22.
What drew you to the topic of the kitchen through the twentieth century?
When I was a kid, the kitchen was the center of all my family’s activities. Everyone seemed to want to congregate there. No matter how many guests my parents had over, everyone ended up huddling together in the kitchen. At some point my mom would always try to usher people out so she could cook, because the room was so small relative to the kitchens of today. This was always something that I wanted in my adult life. Even in my college years I would have friends over for dinner and would try to recreate that.
As far as the history of the room, I wanted to explore why it is that Americans gather in the kitchen. But in order to find out how the room became such a hospitable environment, I had to go back and look at the kitchen as a scullery and as a smoky place and quite often as a dangerous place. I decided to go decade by decade to see how a room that was once at the back of the house and strictly relegated to serving one aspect of the housework became a room where everyone wants to gather.
You talk about how as kitchen technologies developed, cooking was no longer a full-time job for women. They didn’t have to light a fire, defeather the chicken, and cook it up. Instead, they could turn on the gas and cook up the boneless chicken breast they bought at the store. Did new efficiencies in the kitchen inspire women to work outside the home, or was it the desire to work out of the home that inspired the efficiencies?
I think women going into the workplace was definitely a byproduct of having more time available, but I think at the same time we’d been marching toward that since the mid-nineteenth century. A lot of this came from the ongoing food technology industry—as the head of the FDA said in 1956, “Our industry will not have done its job until housewives buy most of their meals as packaged, ready-to-serve items.” It was thought of as a good thing to bring this technology in, because it would free people up. But I don’t think there was the insight that people actually enjoy cooking, and enjoy gathering with people in a room. I’m not a sociologist, nor am I an anthropologist, but I think this goes back to something much more primitive—the food traditions and the rituals that have always surrounded the preparations of meals.
In writing the book, were you struck by any regional differences in the way people view food or use their kitchens?
I was definitely struck by the regional differences. One time I asked one of my editors at Cooking Light about Southern cooking, and he said, Well, what part of Southern cooking, what region? If you’re talking about North Carolina, you’re talking about she-crab soup, if you’re talking about parts of Alabama or anything in the Delta area, you’re talking about more of a Cajun-Creole influence, if you’re talking about Kentucky, you’re going to be looking at more beef. And I realized I didn’t know a thing.
Corby's Table: "A Kitchen of One's Own" (May 1, 2002)
Corby Kummer on Barbara Haber's From Hardtack to Home Fries, a book that intertwines American history with the lives of some enterprising female cooks.
This came up again when I was interviewing Barbara Haber, author of From Hardtack to Homefries. When I was asking her about what cookbooks she relied on, I expected she would say The Joy of Cooking. But she said she’d never seen a copy of it until she was married. She lived in the Midwest, where everyone primarily relied on Lizzie Kander’s Settlement Cook Book.