On kitchens

by Barendina Smedley

Something strange has happened to British kitchens over the past generation or so — they have, apparently, become ‘the heart of the home’.

This is a departure. Of course, there have always been homes in these isles wherein life revolved around the kitchen — but only because the kitchen was the only heated room, and hence perforce was required to play the roles of dining room, parlour, office, bathroom and boudoir. The inhabitants of such homes doubtless wished things otherwise. No one really wanted to live in a Jan Steen painting, any more than they wanted to live off roots or see their infants die of cholera. Like illiteracy or rickets, a lack of specialised living spaces indicated the absence of all the other things that make life comfortable, convenient and civilised. No one chose to live that way.

For even the moderately rich, a generation ago, the kitchen was not so much the heart of the home, as a serviceable limb. My own grandmother only ventured into the kitchen on great state occasions in order to produce her rather exotic culinary speciality, egg mayonnaise, spooning oil thoughtfully into the bowl with a silver teaspoon as the cook did all the hard work with the whisk. I was charmed to learn recently that the lady who owned in our house in the 1930s did precisely the same thing, but with salad dressing. In both cases, we can see from the legendary status such activities obtained that this descent into the hands-on practicalities of domestic labour, this foray behind the green baize curtain, was regarded as something faintly eccentric — informed, perhaps, by a Ruskinian desire to engage in virtuous labour as a mechanism for moral and spiritual improvement.

Men, in contrast, could live a happy, well-fed lifetime without having to brave the kitchen. I once worked on a political campaign that was organised in the London townhouse of a rather old-fashioned gentleman who, wisely, spent the duration of the campaign at his family place in East Anglia. The campaign caused a degree of wear and tear to the London town house. Replacement of the refrigerator became necessary. The gentleman in question had to speak on the telephone to several junior members of the campaign in order to organise this. During the course of these calls, we all became aware, with mounting astonishment, that despite the fact he had lived in the London town house, which was not particularly large, on and off for more than three decades, the gentleman in question had literally never set foot in his own kitchen and accordingly knew nothing about it.

We should not have been surprised. Mid-twentieth century children’s books such as ‘Just William’ or the Paddington Bear stories portray unselfconsciously a world in which, even amongst what James Lees-Milne would have called the lower-middle middle class, the kitchen is entirely the preserve of the cook, to the extent that in case of her absence or illness, the family is humorously unable to cope with even the most basic culinary projects such as making a pot of coffee. When the cook was away, Anne Scott-James’ family were forced to send for a kleptomaniac Welsh woman, the vanishing table linens and items of clothing being considered a fair price for her expertise, as otherwise no one in the household could do as much as boil an egg.

So it was that the kitchen, far from being the heart of the house, was until very recently located at its margins. In the early Tudor version of our own house, the kitchen was actually a completely separate building. Today, houses that remain resolutely under-renovated — like our own — still keep the kitchen at arm’s length, preferably at the end of a very long corridor, buffered with a host of minor ancillary service rooms such as the butler’s pantry, scullery, larder and staff parlour. Even the tiniest cottages with any aspirations to respectability reserved the main space for what was basically a reception room, with the kitchen tucked into a miniscule lean-to at the back. The thinking was, I suppose, that cooking, while necessary, was one of those smelly, noisome, rather discreditable daily functions best carried out in private.

How things change! Today, it is vanishingly rare to see a property advert that doesn’t flag up the kitchen as a major feature, particularly if it has been converted into an enormous open-plan space, incorporating areas for dining, reception, recreation and pretty much anything else that comes to mind. Often, in older houses, this actually entails moving the kitchen from its original location into what used to be the main reception rooms. It is no longer at all rare to see a house in which the formal entrance takes one directly into the kitchen without any intervening rooms. This is part of what is known as ‘updating the property to suit twenty-first century living’. Designing, decorating and furnishing the kitchen has become a respectable preoccupation. Advice on these points takes for granted the assumption that a middle-class family will, given the chance, spend most of their waking hours in the kitchen.

How did this come about? The answer lies in the Second World War, the collapse of ‘service’ and the relative costs of technology versus labour. One doesn’t have to go far to find illustrations of this point. Our house was staffed, in the 1930s, by about eight regular servants of various sorts, including a cook, chauffeur and ‘companion’ — whereas nowadays, even when the house is full of visitors, we have no domestic staff at all. The science of preparing, serving and cleaning up after meals is, alas, no longer a sort of professional secret — it’s just another set of tasks that most people now need to master. And for that reason, for most of us anyway, the spaces for such activity can no longer exist on the margins of middle-class experience. Hence the late efflorescence of kitchens at the ‘heart of the home’.

Yet there are paradoxes galore here. We are told that the kitchen is central to our lives — yet right now food, eating and domesticity are themselves in flux. Surveys find that families rarely sit down to meals together. Food, in fact, is dangerous like never before — who, a century ago, had even heard of food allergies? We are frightened by obesity, but also frightened by eating disorders. We buy cookbooks by the shelf-load but never read them, devouring magazine-articles on baking bread or preserving damsons whilst wondering whether we dare scoff a second diet crispbread. We help celebrity chefs to create vast commercial empires on the strength of being able to tell us how best to poach an egg — yet at the same time, we expect mature mothers-of-four to retain the figure of a sporty fifteen-year old, engage in food scares and refer to chocolate as ‘sinful’. We waste more food, much of it highly processed hence very expensive, than our grandparents ever bought in the first place. We are really quite messed up, seriously so, when it comes to the basic business of eating.

The way in which kitchens are furnished reflects this cultural dysfunction. For those with the space and the money, refrigerators the size of London bedsits are objects of intense desirability. There is something more than a little compulsive about the food-hoarding impulse these things imply. Kitchens seem to attract a kind of competitive high-tech gadget fetishism. I’ve actually met people who believe double dishwashers are a necessity — as well those taps that produce boiling water. Yet the very same people will often demand an Aga (which they never use), some old copper jelly-moulds (ditto) or (heaven help us) a massive crystal chandelier, all intended to stop the kitchen looking ‘clinical’, or to put it another way, ‘functional’.

These same people will also have a dining table within easy view of the work surfaces, so that guests are forced to witness, acknowledge and probably praise the production of whatever they are being served. I am just about old enough, myself, to remember being told off by my mother for mentioning the food when dining at a friend’s house — the point of a dinner was the company, obviously, so to mention the food was as dire a faux pas as mentioning the decor. Now, of course, failing to heap compliments on either constitutes barbarism of a very high order.

When we bought our house, one of the first things we did was to ask our architects to come up with a back-of-an-envelope estimate of the work that would be needed to get the place into working order. Inevitably, with the benefit of hindsight, this list occasions some hilarity. Most remarkable is the bald claim that the kitchen would need approximately £25,000 worth of work, making it by some distance the most expensive room in the house.

I remember querying this with the architect — why the enormous sum? Well, first of all, we would need to strip out the existing dresser and work unit, executed in pine c. 1900, sagging mightily under the weight of time and the production of unknown thousands of dinners. Well, no — actually I wanted to keep the dresser and the unit. Next, we would need to get rid of the quarry tile floor and replace it with something else — travertine perhaps? Err, no thanks — the floor could stay. Obviously, continued the architect, we’d need to install a cooker, refrigerator, dishwasher and any other appliances I wanted. As it happened, I didn’t want any of these. The existing 1950s Aga would need to be refitted, but that was all — we had a perfectly good slate-shelved larder across the corridor, so there was no point in having a huge refrigerator, and of course our nineteenth century china can’t go in the dishwasher anyway.

But the architect didn’t give up. He made one last try. At very least, I’d need a new sink, which could be re-oriented to face the window, we’d need an extractor fan — and anyway, didn’t we want to open up the corridor space anyway, so as to create a lovely, light open-plan family space, perfect for entertaining?

I tried to let him down gently, but I don’t think it really worked. In truth, I loved our ineradicably manky old sink, its chips and stains speaking to me about decades of unsung, unhonoured food preparation. I loved the rotten old draining-board in front of the window, which — although sadly far too rotten to keep — was later recreated by my builder in pine and elm, just like the original.

And as for the lovely, open-plan family space — well, although I don’t think I put it that way to the architect, the kitchen as the heart of the home is very nearly my worst nightmare.

Personally, I love to concentrate whilst cooking — to lose myself in the process, like a sort of meditation — so the last thing I want is a kitchen full of extraneous staffage, littering my work-surfaces with books and toys and iPads, getting in my way both physically and spiritually. As for guests, they don’t need to see the unsightly messing-about that goes into producing their dinners, any more than I need a bank of spectators critiquing my performance, for all the world as if I were the star turn in a cookery programme. Nor do I want to eat my own dinner with a mountain washing up looming before me, emanating passive aggression, evoking apprehension and guilt when I’d rather be enjoying my friends’ company.

Admittedly, I am possibly the last human being on earth to feel this way. My husband and son, for instance, don’t really see the problem regarding work-surfaces, books, toys and iPads, despite my attempts to explain it to them. Possibly, too, I am simply in a state of denial, because heaven knows I have certainly enjoyed dinners in other people’s kitchens. But for me, at least, while my kitchen may be many things, most of them pleasant, it will never be the heart of my home. It’s a place for preparing food. There is more to life than that.