The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home [Click the title
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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.