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Whose kitchen is it anyway?

"Happiness is a small house, with a big kitchen." Alfred Hitchcock

First of all this post may, at times, sound like a complaint about my husband, but be assured David, it's just a minor irritation that has stimulated some general thoughts on kitchens and personal space. This is not a go at you, it's general thoughts about what a kitchen is really for.

Above, and here, is my current kitchen. It's a dream kitchen which I more or less designed myself with the restrictions of the space that I had and all the structural limitations that involved - the Ikea cupboards - which actually were not very restrictive anyway - other than colour perhaps, and I suppose budget, but not really - David and I are naturally thrifty when it comes to such things. It was constructed by David and our sons' builder friend Dale. They did a most marvellous job although it was stressful at times, as all renovations are, and I shall be eternally grateful. When we lived in Adelaide I had another dream kitchen, but it was a different time in my life - a time with small children - and a different time in history - yes the 1980s are history. And that one was designed by the architect and built by builders. We only had a say in the colours and the appliances.

Both of those kitchens were/are open kitchens - a large part of an even larger - and central space in our house. The front door opens into it and a large dining table takes up the rest of the space. The main feature as you can see is the large island bench around which the rest of the kitchen sits. I envisaged this as a perfect, large working space, with a small section at the end at which David could sit and eat breakfast. And that is how it started out. I lusted after a large work space and lots of cupboards and drawers. Yes probably more the storage than the work space, because I have a lot of pots and pans and bits and pieces, and I don't like unscrambling towers of saucepans.

Back to the workspace however, as this is really what set me off. As I said, one end of the bench is reserved for David's breakfast. However, David, being David who is irresistibly attracted by open spaces so that he can cover them with 'stuff', has gradually crept over more and more of my bench. Mostly I tolerate, but when a cookbook that I had placed at one end kept on being removed I tried to make a stand. Not only is his breakfast end covered with newspapers, magazines and papers of all kinds but they have crept to almost halfway up the bench. Then there is the section behind the post that holds up the roof which is full of cables and other such gizmos. Beyond that is another section which he seems to have reserved for his breakfast preparation. Leaving me with about a quarter of the space, perhaps a bit more, on which to prepare food - (the far corner on the left beyond the chopping board). So I had a bit of a tantrum.

However, I have now thought about it a bit more and, although I still think I am partly in the right, I do think that there are a number of things to be said here about who uses the kitchen, and what the kitchen is actually for anyway.

Of course the primary purpose of the kitchen is a space in which to prepare food. We all must eat after all. Or is it? Think about how the kitchen has changed over history.

"In ancient times, people cooked on open fires that were built outside on the ground. Later on, simple masonry constructions were used to hold the wood and food. In the Middle Ages the food was often placed in metal cauldrons that were hanging above the fire. These cooking areas naturally caused people to gather as they were the primary source of heat, light, safety and, of course, food." John Desmond, Limited

In fact, until modern times - mid nineteenth century perhaps - the general population did not really have a kitchen - or if they did it would have been some kind of shed outside - as it seems to be still in many less developed countries around the world. The cooking would have been over the fire, and the preparation on the only table. I suspect that outside kitchens existed because of the smoke caused when food was cooked over an open fire.

This picture is of a nineteenth century Irish kitchen centred around the fire and the cauldron suspended over it. I suspect that this is either an outside shed, or that the part of the room that we cannot see is where the family lived with the table and what chairs they had. The table on which the family ate would have been the only work space.

Of course the rich and the aristocrats had vast kitchens - often in the basement - with large tables on which the food was prepared. When I was working as an au pair in France at the extended family's country home in the Jura I spent a fair amount of time in the vast stone walled kitchen there with the cook. In times gone by there would have been more staff to help out and to keep the fire going, but Madame Perruque did it all herself, with the help of rather more modern appliances. Lots of space, but that meant a long way to walk to get to everything. A trap that some modern kitchens sometimes fall into.

The kitchen though was crucially not a social space - except for those vast aristocratic ones, it was purely for cooking. But then I'm wrong again I think, because, at least out in the country one has these romanticised imaginings, like this one from Jane Grigson's Good Things of a large warm and friendly kitchen, with a magnificent view, beautiful dressers filled with patterned china, rustic huge tables, a pot bubbling happily on a stove a cat or dog and mum:

"In the childhood memories of every good cook, there’s a large kitchen, a warm stove, a simmering pot and a mom.” – Barbara Costikyan

Related to this idealised image is the romantic European country kitchen - like all the various kitchens we have inhabited on our trips to Italy and France over the years. So full of personal clutter, copper pans and waxed, brightly coloured tablecloths. This is one example from Italy. Wonderful is it not? And almost open to the rest of the house, but not quite. But also with barely any preparations space.

Obviously these romantic places exist - we have seen quite a few of them, but not for the average family, and besides they are not always very practical.

This is the kitchen that I grew up with and there is my mother working in her tiny space - the rest of the kitchen was no wider and only a tiny bit longer, although there was a large stone-walled pantry at one end. The all in one cooktop, oven and grill is behind her, and the tiny fridge is more or less where the photographer is standing on the left - opposite the large ceramic sink. And on Mondays she had to do the washing in here too. I don't know where the washing machine - not an automatic - was housed when not in use because when in use it took up all the corridor space at one end of the kitchen, so that it could drain into the sink. And yet she produced mostly wonderful food. The British, whose houses are some of the smallest in the western world, still have generally small, and multipurpose kitchens.

In the first years of my marriage kitchens were separate affairs. Our first kitchen in our tiny basement flat in Hampstead, had no bench top. The only work space available was on top of the tiny fridge. And yet we frequently entertained our friends with meals derived from Elizabeth David et al. Anything is possible. I was embarrassed though by the glass wall separating it from the living and dining space - the washing up looked horrendous. We had no dishwasher in which to hide it. Our second flat had a kitchen similar in size to my mother's and it also was separate, which at that time was a relief. Even our first house in Australia, an unbelievably luxurious, to our eyes, but actually really small home, had a separate kitchen. I think we may have chosen to do this because I still remembered the embarrassment of the piles of washing up. After that though the kitchens became open to the 'family' room - which we treated as the family dining room. We had more formal dining rooms too, for guests, and for larger gatherings. A tradition that has continued to this day, with the kitchens becoming gradually larger and more open to the rest of the house with each subsequent house. I won't even mention the outdoor kitchen - which we do not have.

Today, there are, I think, two opposing trends. Mine is an example of the trend to a large central kitchen. My kitchen is larger now than the one we created from our first renovation, but it was never tiny and it was always open to the rest of the house. So this is where my children gathered. We turned an outside shed built to house a boat by the previous owners, into a rumpus room for them but they never used it. They preferred to be near the kitchen. Maybe it was the large table, maybe it was proximity to food, maybe it was because I was there. Who knows. But people do indeed tend to cluster around kitchens don't they? At how many parties in your youth did you you end up in the kitchen? I can't count how many I attended and at which I almost always ended up in the kitchen with almost everyone else. Maybe it was the food and the drink - which attracted the people.

But back to that modern trend. Check out this part of my kitchen - the section with the cables:

Actually it is relatively tidy in this picture. That black case is generally open and there are generally lots of cables all over the place and some piece of digital equipment being charged. For this is another purpose of the modern kitchen is it not? The charging centre for all those phones and iPads and laptops. When I think about it, it's really interesting that the kitchen should have become the charging centre. Why not do it in your bedroom, or if you are lucky enough and your house is big enough - in the office/study? Again I am pretty sure it is something to do with the inevitability of the kitchen as focal point. And the fact that the kitchen is now open to the living and recreational areas of the house, means that this is where the children gather to do their homework - mum is there to assist if need be after all. Dad might also be at home, but he might be working in his study, and somehow dads are less interruptable than mums.

Anyway Ok I give in on that one - some of my kitchen bench should be a charging centre, but I'm sure it could be kept rather tidier than it is. Mind you we could declutter some of our very large study to be the charging centre.

I suppose the central question about these large kitchens and large benches is how much space do you need to prepare your food? Do we indeed need the whole bench? Well no, but it would be easier if I had more than I currently do. I think I can fairly lay claim to half - a bit more than half.

And should I be so proprietorial about it all? Probably not, although I think my own wish to claim the space as my own is because in my whole life I have only had three years - when at university - when I could claim a personal space - all mine in which to do as I wished. My husband has his shed, and he has also taken over the laundry partly as a tool charging and storing centre, and partly as a bakery and partly, wonderful man that he is, for the washing which he has taken over. Lots of husbands have sheds, or nowadays home offices but mothers rarely have anything other than the kitchen as their own space, and that is very definitely a shared space. The hub of the home and we should be proud of that. But it would be nice to at least be nominally in charge of it.

The second and completely opposite modern trend is the disappearing kitchen, particularly when it comes to apartment living. Here is my son's kitchen - that's it. Behind my grandsons' mother's head is the fridge and a thin but tall pantry. Where the boys are standing is all there is in the way of kitchen. I remember them complaining at our last Zoom cooking class of no workspace and the iPad was propped on the toaster.

"First they came for the walls. Kitchens went from being closed-off rooms of their own to morphing into the living space. ... Then they came for the islands. ... the kitchen has been one of the first places where space has been sacrificed." Arwa Mahdawi - The Guardian New York

This trend is because of the perception that the young, in particular, do not cook any more. They order in.

"A new UBS research report, titled The End of the Kitchen?, posits that by 2030 we could see a scenario where “most meals currently cooked at home are instead ordered online and delivered from either restaurants or central kitchens”. In-home kitchens will shrink accordingly and we’ll see the rise of shared kitchens." Arwa Mahdawi - The Guardian New York

The article went on to talk about residential developments in which there were central shared kitchens - just like in Communist Russia and Kibbutz Israel - rather than individual ones. Is this a good thing? I suppose on the plus side, if these kitchens are in fact used it would increase a sense of community and we all think that would be a good thing surely? But if it does actually mean that people do not cook at all we surely can't think that is a good thing. Or can we? Is it just a case of specialisation? I mean civilisation and urban living developed when people began to specialise - to focus on one particular task or craft or skill - that was provided to the community in exchange for food or some other means of enabling them to survive.

And what about COVID? We are being constantly told that people are cooking more - that they are baking their own bread and making their own pasta - so much in fact that the supermarket shelves are being emptied. But who is cooking? Is it new people cooking or is it the same old cooks - mums - cooking new things because they are bored? And if there is a frenzy of home cooking then you need the space - at least a couple of metres of bench space I think, to be comfortable doing it. It is indeed possible to cook in a tiny space but not desirable. Besides you have to make room for the rest of the family to do their thing at the same time - raid the fridge, charge the iPad, do their homework, fight their siblings ...

I do know though, that if and when we eventually downsize, my primary focus will be on the kitchen - which hopefully would have a clearly defined breakfast and charging space that cannot spread into MY space.


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