November's pick for The Kitchen Reader is The Warmest Room in the House by Steven Gdula. The book's title comes from the author's introduction, where he states that:
My family's kitchen was the warmest room in the house.
It's kind of hard writing this review today, as every room here is the warmest room in the house - our maximum temperature was 35 degrees Celsius, and it is still currently 26 degrees outside (and way hotter inside!).
However, Gdula is not referring to the temperature of his family's kitchen; rather, for him, it was the fact that the kitchen was the room where his extended family came together and stayed together as a family, thereby keeping their traditions and their pasts alive, which made it "the warmest room".
The Warmest Room in the House is a history of the American home kitchen in the twentieth century. It works its way, in chapters divided into decades, through developments and changes in the American home kitchen. Gdula assists readers to understand how the political and social changes which took place inside and outside the home led to corresponding changes in the kitchen. This made Gdula's book an interesting read, despite being purely historical; I would never have imagined that outside events could have such an influence on the domestic sphere of individuals.
The kitchen of the first decade of the twentieth century was often a dark and depressing place where only the servants entered. The labour was hard, and women who did not have servants spent much of their time in the preparation and preservation of food. There were none of the mod cons such as electric or gas ovens and refrigerators, and canning and other means of preserving were important.
During the 1920s, sweets and soft drinks replaced the prohibited alcohol as a means for people to indulge, which was counter-balanced by the fashion for small figures to fit into flapper fashion. It was the decade in which boxed cereal and sliced bread first hit the shelves, revolutionising the way in which people ate, as these were the beginning of "convenience" foods.
The 1930s saw the introduction of many new kitchen gadgets to take the labour out of kitchen chores, such as pressure cookers and sink garbage disposal units. Another important innovation was the gable topped milk carton, because it could be resealed without having a lid.
In the 1940s, the war led to unexpected developments in the home kitchen, as freeze-dried meat, the microwave, Teflon coating and aluminium foil came about through scientific research for defence purposes. Additionally, the stimulus to the economy started by the war effort led to affluence in the kitchen, by contrast to the Depression years of the previous decade.
Further technological developments in the 1950s meant that people could spend less time in the kitchen, and leisure time came into vogue. Bigger families also led to bigger homes with bigger kitchens, and the development of the open plan living area in ranch style house meant that people could interact with family and friends while preparing food. The invention of the modern electric refrigerator during the 50s revolutionised the way in which food was stored. In this decade, the beginning of the long association between men and barbecues also began.
The 1960s began people's awareness of potential food contamination through the very chemicals that were being used to increase yields, such as pesticides, commencing with Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This led to the birth of the organic food industry. "Non-food" items such non-dairy creamers and artificial sweeteners were invented. The 1960s was also the decade when Julia Child first beamed into American homes, and urged people to ditch convenience foods in favour of cooking from scratch. Weight Watchers and similar organisations were also born during the health conscious 60's.
In the 1970s, as both men and women entered into the workforce in greater numbers and became time poor, technological advances in gadgets (such as the food processor and the Crock Pot) and convenience foods (such as Hamburger Helper and frozen dinners) became popular. People also became more familiar with authentic international cuisine such as Chinese, Italian and Greek.
The 1980s saw the battle of the bulge launch into full swing, as studies showed that Americans had become unhealthy on high fat and sugar laden diets. Diet books and diet foods were all the rage (as they still are today). Poultry and fish became more popular in American diets than ever before. Chickens became easier and cheaper to raise due to scientific advances in disease control, which helped poultry's popularity on the dinner table. Americans also branched out into more exotic international cuisine, such as Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai. Beautification of the kitchen came into vogue in the 80s through Martha Stewart.
In the 1990s, "Frankenfoods" (genetically modified foods) were approved for sale by the FDA, continuing the trend of technological advancements in the kitchen, while at the other end of the spectrum, nostalgia overtook the kitchen, with the re-emergence of the martini and retro-inspired kitchenwares becoming popular. This was also the era when people stockpiled non-perishable foods in preparation for the Millennium Bug which threatened to bite at the turn of the next century. Increases in the price of food during the 90s saw the return in popularity of foods such as the Hamburger Helper, originally developed to help people to save time but which now also helped them to save money by making more of less. The 90s was also the dawn of online grocery shopping - another technological advancement which meant that people could attend to the necessities without ever leaving the house.
Gdula finishes his history of the American kitchen with a short chapter on where the American kitchen may go from here. He concludes with this summation of the role of the American kitchen:
In its recipes we find our past; in the daily preparation of its meals we celebrate the present; and in our desire to share these recipes, meals, and moments with family and friends again, we look hopefully toward a warm and comforting future.
Although I am an Australian, I found Gdula's book interesting, because there are obviously strong parallels between the development of the Australian and the American kitchen, and we have been influenced by similar world events and share many aspects of American popular culture, from television shows through to groups such as Weight Watchers. I enjoyed learning how and why many things that we now take for granted were created, and after reading this history, I am appreciative that I have a modern twenty-first century kitchen rather than a labour intensive turn of the twentieth century kitchen.
Gdula clearly demonstrates how wider social, economic and political issues impacts on the domestic life of all Americans (and of course, everyone). Although The Warmest Room in the House is a history book, it is certainly never dull, and makes interesting reading for foodies and modern historians alike.