Changes in the Kitchen
When I first left Louisa and arrived in Virginia, one of the first things I did besides seeing the nearby fabulously reconstructed 17th – 18th Century Williamsburg, I checked out some of those old, beautiful plantations that dot the landscape along the James River. I found myself actually walking in the steps of Jefferson, Washington, Patrick Henry and many of the other forefathers. At one of the houses a costumed guide pointed out that the kitchen, which is now connected to the house, but had once stood alone as a totally separate building. With my 20th century reasoning I reasoned this was surely a terrible inconvenience, but the guide explained that in those days, especially in the heat of the summer, the hot fire and the smells of cooking would have disturbed the gentry who were trying to stay cool with open windows in the main house. The dress of the day, including powdered wigs, did not lend themselves for comfort. Also, since this was usually a large fireplace with a lot of activity, the risk of burning the main house down was reduced when the kitchen was a separate building. Apparently the owner preferred the house be saved if fire would spread.
I learned to my amazement that the meals for these wealthy landholders was prepared in numerous courses, well beyond anything I’d imagined, but pretty much all in a wide, open fireplace. Some meats were mounted on a spit and others cooked in ‘Dutch-oven’ cast-iron pots. The kitchens I saw in several of these ‘manner-houses’ had a great many tables and working surfaces for the cooks and maids to cut meat, prepare dishes, polish the silver, and make ready to serve the variety of dishes. House servants, usually slaves, would carry the meal quickly to the dining room and then return to the crowded kitchen for the next course. Some of these mansions, like Monticello, had dumb waiters to bring food up from the floor below, but food at Mount Vernon was served buffet-style, or at least so I was told. Long planks were laid across saw-horses and covered with a table cloth to enable large numbers of people to be fed. Those dinners would last for more than an hour and would end only when the gentlemen withdrew to the ‘drawing’ room and the ladies gathered in the ‘music’ room, or parlor.
This was fine for the landed gentry, but the common man’s kitchen was smaller and sometimes was an integral part of the cabin or home. They didn’t have as many courses, but food was prepared in much the same way. The fireplace would be smaller and only one table would be available for chopping and dicing, so it was used for both preparing food and then eating when the meal was ready.
Slaves, farmers, towns-folk, and workers stayed in small cabins often with a dirt floor, and would have to use the fireplace for cooking and keeping warm. They still had it a little better than the folks relegated to the woods. Indians and white men alike used an open campfire for their meals. A century later, cowboys had a ‘chuck wagon’ to carry the groceries and other ‘fixins,’ but they had to use a campfire for cooking the meals. When traveling away from home the campfire was often the only choice unless you lucked into a road house.
When you look back at the centuries of man cooking his meals, only the high-class, or aristocracy had it any better, and then only slightly. Just think of it, the castles of Europe used the same methods and the same kinds of equipment. Some had big fireplaces, others had smaller ones, and still others used campfires. This was true for the thousands of years preceding the 18th and 19th centuries, but things began to make drastic changes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was then that we saw things happen that our great grand parents couldn’t have predicted. Modern inventions changed lives.
I’m thinking one of the more important things was the invention of the cast-iron, wood/coal burning cook stove. This wonderful device enabled the lady of the house a way to control the heat, bake, fry, and boil right there in the kitchen. In the earliest of times this room was the kitchen, the weaving or spinning room, and in bad weather a laundry room. It came complete with ironing boards, wash tubs, and in some cases even a rudimentary icebox. The wealthy folks might by now have a pump right there in the kitchen rather than having to make repeated runs out to the well. I remember seeing houses when growing up that had a pump next to the kitchen sink! Another had their well under the roof on their back porch. Still others had to walk out in the yard and let down the old oaken bucket to fetch water. I remember that water being so cold and wonderful on a summer’s day. One would take a cut gourd and dip into the bucket and drink, sometimes spilling the water down a shirt front. Man that cooled things off!
Cooking was now becoming safer, but I still remember hearing about one lady out in the county that got too close to an open stove and her apron caught fire. The grownups would talk of several who died this way in Lawrence County when I was a little guy. In grade school I was taught how to drop and roll if my clothing caught fire, and how to take up a rug or blanket and beat out the flames.
It was during my lifetime that I saw my farmer’s wife Aunt use her the wood-burning range to cook a meal for us ‘company’ in her farm kitchen. I helped carry in some finely split wood but one of the older boys fed the stove. There were some neat little cast iron handles that hooked up with the cooking eyes and allowed my Aunt to lift the lids without being burned. She looked to see if the wood supply was working to heat the stove top. It was. The levers, or handles had a steel spring like piece that kept any heat from burning the bare hand. The oven doors had the same springy handles. The back of the stove had a bid water tank so there was hot water on hand. I never saw her use that, but I’m sure she did, especially during Saturday night bath times.
I also remember her pride when she had the wood range replaced by a gas stove. No longer was the hot water-jacket on the back of the stove because it had been replaced with a stand-alone water heater in the corner of her kitchen. While hers was gas-fired, but ours at home was electrified. This was an amazing change over the centuries before. Hot water on demand and a stove that was relatively safe was a dream come true for the housewife. It was at this same time that electric lighting replaced the oil lamps, candles, and for richer families, the gas lights. It was a big decision as to whether ‘receptacles’ were installed in which rooms, but with all the new available appliances the kitchen was an obvious first. The old fuse boxes often had very low amperage and were always blowing. Even as a kid I learned to screw in new fuses when the need arose.
I remember that several landholders in Lawrence and Boyd Counties that had discovered natural gas on their property. Besides the economic benefit, they often were allowed by the gas company to tie into the supply for their heating and cooking, sometimes at no cost. In around 1912 the world saw great strides in producing and transporting liquid gas, propane as we call it today, but it wasn’t really until the 30’s before a large number of farms were using the product. It was handy for those who didn’t have the natural gas, but wanted the gas stoves and space heaters installed. Meanwhile, the gas companies ran pipes along the right-of-ways and throughout the towns.
I remember that the Louisa Inn, my home for most of my preschool years, was fitted for gas lights. Gas preceded electricity’s arrival, at least in that edifice. I know we had electric lights when I was there, perhaps around ‘45 or ‘46. I explored the vacant third floor of the building with my friend and neighbor at the time, Billy Elkins. We saw the gas light fixtures up there, which is probably why that floor hadn’t been updated and rented out. The only gas lights I ever saw working were street lights, and even those went away before I got much used to them. The job of ‘Lamp-lighter’ went away before I ever met anyone actually lighting those lamps. Mom told me it was kind of romantic having flaming light up and down the streets. That was almost entirely before my time.
Once electricity was made available, the ringer washer sales figures soared. They were often set on the back porch, or in the ‘workroom.’ Washboards and galvanized tubs were hung up on nails, ‘just in case,’ but weekly baths were now in a regular bathtub, with the help of the newly installed hot water tank. The stove-top flat-irons were put aside and the old-fashioned long-handled waffle irons were thrown away in favor of the faster ‘automatic’ models. Electric toasters were the ‘cat’s pajamas.’
It was natural that things in the cities changed faster than they did in the ‘backwoods,’ but as power lines and gas lines were installed, most, if not nearly all, houses started seeing major changes in the look and function of these kitchens. The term ‘Country Kitchen’ referred to an increased size, or of a more gathering area with ‘eat-in’ spaces. It was a room for the family to hang out while ‘mama’ cooked. The new ranges were complete with lots of new functions, some having two ovens, six burners, timers, and various storage compartments. They were no longer the black cast iron with porcelain doors, but were fully enameled and trimmed with fashionable chrome. Many of these had air exhaust systems that sucked out the negative smoke and smells. The kitchen became the place to be.
Ice boxes went away and were often, in those days, tossed over the hill. Refrigerators, and freezers replaced those old smelly boxes. This really allowed for longer retention of foods. The store that Bill Keeton ran across from the depot behind Bradley’s for frozen food lockers, (I think Bernard Nelson worked there part-time) found sales drop as home freezers became more common. With refrigerators the worry about clabbered milk went away. I don’t know about you, but I hated that sour smell, but with the ice box it was common. When pasteurization became part of the process, it helped prevent spoiling, too. As I recall, the little curdles were like a really strong, sour yogurt. Some people liked it when it was served with sorghum. Once that smell got in the icebox, it was hard to get rid of. I remember mom scrubbing and taking the ice box all apart to clean. Even the lower section that held the ice and melting tray had that awful smell. Actually, I found out later that this clabbering was necessarily the beginning of making butter, but it would be a while before I learned about that. I helped churn butter at my aunt’s farm, but that was hard work and a little boring for a kid. I don’t remember any electric churns, but I’m guessing the ladies who sold butter had one. A side product was butter-milk. Mom loved that stuff, but not me. You can still buy it at stores since it is often used in biscuits, pancakes, cakes, and other bake goods.
Kitchen tables were starting to be designed with less of a primitive farm look and was becoming more modern. It was the 30’s and 40’s when designers started using what would later be called ‘kitchenette’ styling. The tables and stools had wide aluminum edges. Some kitchens started to look like “Rips Restaurant,” with the Art Deco decorations. The flooring was now covered with linoleum and the counter tops in finer homes was surfaced with Formica.
More and more electric appliances were snapped up by the post war brides to liquefy, stir, whip and cream, and for that matter, to cook. Electric skillets showed up and heavy roasters that could hold a whole ham was mom’s Christmas gift. Fancier mixers to use in baking showed up in the stores and were featured in magazines and cookbooks alike. These had variable speeds and could whip up really light airy cream and saved mom from having to stir the batter with a wooden spoon a hundred strokes. I remember the ads in magazines and the newspapers, showing a smiling mom enjoying her modern kitchen.
Gone were the Hoosier cabinets and those cute little white kitchen cabinets with flower decals. When I was growing up we still used our cabinet that had a pull-out metal surface. It was needed to hook up our hand-cranked meat-grinder. We would often make our own hamburger, or chicken and ham salads. I remember well that a sweet young lady I used to date in high school had one of those grinders, too. I would bring a loaf of bread, a big block of Longhorn, or Cheddar Cheese, a jar or two of pimento peppers (I used to confuse those with little fish – minnows, get it?) for my part of the fixings. We added some of her best sweet relish that she had made herself from the family garden. What great sandwiches it made when everything was ground and mixed together with a glob of mayonnaise. I think we went through an entire loaf of bread making sandwiches. I expect a good bit of milk was used up, too. I don’t know how her family could afford feeding me.
I don’t remember the first time I saw an outside grill, but I do remember going to a party at a friend’s house out near Fallsburg when I was in high school when I saw they were cooking hot dogs outside. It was the thing back then to have a brick barbeque complete with chimney in the back yard. The store-bought grills came out a little later. I remember that I ate well over a dozen hot dogs until I was too embarrassed to ask for more. I should have been embarrassed sooner, I suspect, but those dogs were so good. It would be years later at a major league ballgame before I found a match in flavor.
Propane grills are the more recent development, and even those are becoming fancier. In a prior home we had our natural gas line run to the patio to allow us to use that for fuel for our large stainless grill that has a burner and warming shelves. It was fancy, but now, at this new house, we have a smaller one that has a griddle instead of a wire grill surface. We can actually make pancakes and fry bacon and eggs on this one. We can still cook burgers and dogs, but we haven’t tried it yet. I’ve used it a couple of times, but it’s easier to use the one on the patio. I think my wife likes for me to cook outside because it keeps me out of her kitchen. It doesn’t save her much work, but it does keep me from being underfoot.
I’ve wondered about how a housewife of those days, just before and after World War II, would react to seeing the open kitchen concept popular today. Consider the fancy stainless appliances, big islands and multiple sinks, hot shots, icemakers, coffee makers, garbage disposers, trash compactors, deep farm sinks, and the latest custom lighting. Many kitchens have Jenn air grills with a downdraft airflow to remove the heat and smoke, so you can grill your steak inside. Sometimes they are stand-alone, or part of the range. Houses today often have commercial kitchens with large exhaust hoods, islands, and other work surfaces to support those cooks that get into gourmet meals and love to entertain. The floors are tile, brick, or hardwood, and the counter tops are granite, or another kind of stone products. Today the stores are full of stoves of many designs and styles, including ‘throw-back’ models depicting the old wood burning ranges.
The one sad thing to me is that many couples today lack cooking skills and the desire to learn. They are the children of fast food and packaged meals. They don’t know about scratch cooking and think it starts in a box. Over time this may lead to smaller kitchens because the art of cooking just isn’t being taught. Contrarily, there is a counter-culture that pushes for fancy cooking shows on TV. These millennials write, or buys cookbooks of all kinds with exotic dishes. I suspect in the publishing field, that cookbooks are a mainstay.
My kids all love to experiment and find tastier food, but too many of the younger generation just eat out or microwave a prepared meal. Look at all the space in the supermarkets devoted to frozen meals. That tells me that this section is making money for the grocers or it wouldn’t justify the amount of floor space devoted for these products.
There’s little need any more for a pantry, or springhouses for that matter. No one cans, very few freeze, and the pizza delivery numbers are on quick dial. This isn’t my style, or that of my wife, kids, or grandkids. I believe that when we lose our cooking skills it follows that the joy of eating some really special creations will go away, too. I remember when I was a little short muffin, my mom had me right next to her while she fried chicken. She had me help her bread it. We bonded and I learned something at the same time. She would gently place the breaded pieces of the bird into an iron skillet full of hot Crisco oil. When it was done she took care of me seeing that I not only got a drumstick, but that little pile of crumbs that were left in the skillet. I enjoyed eating those crumbs almost as much as the chicken itself.
So looking back at the evolution of the kitchen and all the changes in cooking, I see we already take too much for granted. This generation doesn’t understand what it was like when we lacked indoor plumbing, cook stoves, electricity, refrigeration, and air conditioning. None of us could hope to turn out a meal like those cooked in an open fireplace of old, let alone fixing a big meal for guests. We older folks have seen some of those wonderful changes and know we are better off for them. With the progress we enjoyed wonderful foods were born. Looking back, I think we should be grateful, so pause and thank a cook and look forward to the next time you tie on your napkin and dig in. The eating is good. firstname.lastname@example.org