The All-American Kitchen

Steven Gdula, the author of The Warmest Room in the House, talks about home cooking, how we eat, and the evolution of the American kitchen

book cover

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
Bloomsbury USA
256 pages

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.

—Katie Bacon

Steven Gdula
Steven Gdula

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.

From the archives:

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.

I was interested by your discussion in the book of Taste of Home magazine. You mention that it’s incredibly popular, but I’d never heard of it.

I’d never heard of it either, and when I mentioned it to my mom, who lives outside of Pittsburgh, she said, “Oh, yeah, do you want a subscription for Christmas?” Taste of Home prides itself on having a greater readership than all the other cooking magazines’ readerships combined. The New York Times wrote an article about this in 2002, called “America’s Real Foodie Bible (It’s Not What You Think).” It’s a magazine that relies on a lot of prepared food—mayonnaise, canned foods, soup mixes, that sort of thing. It’s very traditional, I would say a 1930s, 1940s way of cooking.

Because we cook with so many influences in this country—one night it’s stir-fry; another some spaghetti carbonara—is our experience in the kitchen fundamentally different from that of people in other countries?

I think foods travel differently here—from kitchen to kitchen, from restaurant to home, even things from the prepared-foods aisle at the grocery store make cooks curious about trying things at home. So I think there are fewer boundaries, both figurative and literal, here than in other countries. There’s a certain restlessness about our cuisine. Everything here is abundant and accessible.

You talk a fair amount about Julia Child and her influence on the American kitchen. How much did she shape American tastes and cooking styles?

From the archives:

Hard to Swallow (September 2007)
The gourmet's ongoing failure to think in moral terms. A review of The Best Food Writing 2006 and The Omnivore's Dilemma. By B. R. Myers

I think her biggest impact wasn’t necessarily French food but the idea that people would and could take the time to invest in these recipes, and would cook from scratch at a period when the food-technology industry was putting so many packaged foods out on the market. Just as Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma  has made people think differently about where food comes from, I think Julia Child’s impact was on making people think differently about how the food gets on the table. It’s the same thing with Martha Stewart. For as much as people have lampooned her,  she was right on in her way of thinking. If you invest the time with her recipes, they create this instant nostalgia. There are recipes of hers that are seasonal staples of my kitchen. As soon as it gets a little chilly, I make the macaroni and cheese. My friends notice if I don’t make her chocolate bread pudding.

How did you do the research for this? What were your sources?

Basically I spent two and a half years doing a lot of reading. I used my mom’s old home economics books. I spent lots of time at the Library of Congress, and went through a lot of old cooking magazines, all the way back to the turn of the last century.  I watched old food commercials, to see how ads changed over the years. I think those are always a good indicator of what’s going on socially and culturally. It was great to see the patterns emerging from era to era.

What do you think of the phenomenon of the super-fancy kitchen with all the latest gadgets and technology? How much do gadgets actually change the cooking experience?

I’ve found that many people have just the façade of technology—the stainless steel appliances, etc.—but they never use them. But my sense is that people are actually making more use of those things now. I think there will always be people who seek out new technology no matter what room of the house we’re talking about, because they’re just wired that way. But I think that eventually in the kitchen, for instance, those types of appliances and gadgets end up being used, if not out of interest, then out of necessity. Unless you’re fortunate enough to keep moving up and up and up, either financially or socially, the time comes when you have to use what you’ve invested in. I’ve seen that a lot recently in the District with people who have what I call the trophy kitchen or the vanity kitchen, where they’ve invested a lot of money strictly for the purpose of resale, and now they realize they have to use the rooms.

At the same time, there are some gadgets that sound pretty great—a silicon-coated sink that muffles noise and doesn’t chip your china or glasses; a countertop that automatically weighs your food. Or the Polara refrigerator/oven that can have your meal ready for you when you get home.

Your book ends with the 1990s. What are the new kitchen and food trends? What are your predictions for this decade and beyond?

I think people are going to be more conscious of eating locally. That’s going to become a necessity more than a trend, because it’s going to become so prohibitive to buy food from far away. With the global economy as unsteady as it is, shipping food is becoming more expensive. I think people will be eating out less. Again, depending on what happens with the economy, I think there’s going to be a return to simple meals. I don’t think people are going to cook less, but they may become more thoughtful about what they’re eating, how they’re preparing it, where the food is coming from. This makes me think of something that Anthony Bourdain told me when I was researching the book, that people tend to eat more heroically when they have less, so I’m wondering if a downturn is going to make people think more creatively when they cook.

To me, what’s going on now economically is reminiscent of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, and again in the 1970s, and how it affected the way people cooked. Obviously, I didn’t think of it at the time in the seventies; I just knew that both my parents worked, and that our lifestyle was similar to that of others in our neighborhood. It didn’t strike me then that a lot of the meals we were having were budget-stretching meals, but as I was doing research for the book and looking through different magazine articles from different periods, there was this unwritten sentiment that during those periods of time it would have been unseemly to have any sort of ostentatious display of food on the table. We’ll have to wait and see how the economic hard times we’re going through today are going to relate back to the way Americans cook.