The modern kitchen

Whose place is it, again?

By Catherine Price

Published December 20, 2007 2:40PM (EST)

As someone who feels a magnetic attraction toward advertisements for faucet fixtures and countertops, I was interested to see this week's Economist feature about kitchens. Titled "Downstairs, Upstairs: Women Have Not Escaped the Kitchen; It Has Come After Them," it details the history of the kitchen in an attempt to explain where we are (or, rather, where we eat and cook) today.

I'll leave the century-by-century kitchen descriptions to the article itself (the part about Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister is particularly interesting), but I will say that the article quotes Remodeling magazine in noting that the average "major" kitchen overhaul in 2006 cost $54,000. In addition to the fact that I don't own my home, price tags like that are why my dreams of subzero refrigerators and professional six-burner gas stoves are, for the moment, hypothetical.

Also interesting: In rich countries like America and those in northern Europe, we're really into rustic, farmhouse-style kitchen design, whereas "newly rich" nations like China and Russia, says the article, "tend to think that high-gloss surfaces are a better reflection of modern designer living." It reminds me of Le Pain Quotidien, a cafe in New York whose name translates to "Daily Bread" and whose décor features long, unfinished, wooden communal tables that make it seem as if you're in Provence instead of the Upper East Side. (The prices, however, will quickly shock you back to 21st century Manhattan.)

But back to the article: It asserts that by the 1930s the kitchen had become the "showcase for the middle-class home, its newest appliances badges of status." By the '50s, the kitchen, now often located in the front (rather than back) of new homes, "had taken central place in the American Dream." And, according to the Economist, the '70s and '80s ushered in the idea of the kitchen being integrated into the living space of the house. "It became the open family space," says the article, "where friends hovered, teenagers grazed, and children did homework."

The article notes, though, that the more traditional a country's gender roles are, the less likely a kitchen is to be used as a living space; that is, if a woman's accepted place is still in the home -- or, more specifically, the kitchen -- then the kitchen is more likely to be kept separate from the rest of the home. If men play a bigger role in the cooking, the kitchen is more likely to be integrated into the rest of the home, as well as to offer other nonculinary accouterments like Internet access, music and television, partially to meet "what are considered male demands." (Men also are apparently the target of new, sleeker, "hard-edged" kitchen designs -- daily bread beware!)

It seems a little weird to me (though it's probably true) that women gravitate toward more rustic versions of kitchens, while men get high-definition television -- it's sort of like the difference between female-dominated home cooking and the glitzy world of professional (and mostly male) chefs. The article quotes feminist Shirley Conran, who writes, "Life's too short to stuff a mushroom" -- a call to arms for women to abandon the kitchen in favor of professional careers. But now that more women are in the workforce, the kitchen is beginning to regain some of its mystique (or, in the case of many men, to develop allure that may not previously have existed). Is this, as the Economist questions, a reaction against previous generations' anti-kitchen rebellions? (Are we coming full circle?) Or are women just now being subjected to even higher standards, and supposed to be able to "bake brownies" and "balance a spreadsheets" with equal ability and grace? I think it's a bit of both.

Regardless of the reasons behind the shift, I hope that for families who can afford it, some of our kitchen obsession goes toward making the idea of preparing and sharing food enjoyable to both men and women. Perhaps today's question shouldn't be whether life is long enough for mushroom stuffing, but rather how kitchens can be designed to make that into something everyone thinks of as fun.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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