Concerning Kitchens

by Ralph Bergengren

MANY a man, I am sure, who never in his mature life thinks emotionally of his own kitchen, still keeps a tender memory of some kitchen of his early youth. It may have been his mother's, his grandmother's, or his Aunt Susan's; and not often, but once in a great while, something reminds him of it. His thoughts hark back, and he touches, in his own degree, the emotion of Uncle Felix (whom you will remember if you have ever read 'The Extra Day') alone at night in Mrs. Horton's kitchen.

'And Uncle Felix traveled backwards against the machinery of Time that cheats the majority so easily with its convention of moving hands and ticking voice and bullying, staring visage. He slid swiftly down the long banister-descent of years, and reached in a flash that old sombre Yorkshire kitchen, and stood, four-foot nothing, face smudged and fingers sticky, beside the big deal table with the dying embers of the grate upon his right. His heart was beating. He could just reach the juicy cake without standing on a chair. He ate the very slice that he had eaten forty years ago. It was possible to have your cake and eat it too!'

For my own part,—and no doubt each backward traveler has his particular kitchen memory,—I ate the crisp brown beans off the top of the bean-pot. It was a sort of ceremonial; a Saturday-night function, irrespective of whatever menial might at the time be in official charge of our kitchendom. The baking of the beans was never altogether trusted to a menial. My mother, last thing before bed, would go out to the kitchen, lighting her way with a kerosene lamp; and I with her. We put the lamp on the table; we opened the oven door—and all over the kitchen spread the delectable, mouth-watering aroma of the baking bean. We took out the bean-pot. Then we scraped off the crisp top layer of the beans into a saucer. And these we ate!

My mother wore a bustle, and at that historic period there were no kitchenettes; nor had the Spirit of Efficiency inspired the thought of planning your kitchen with a route for food-preparation which makes a flying start at the ice-chest, takes in the meat, fish, and vegetable shelves, touches at the cabinet for dough-mixing, skirts the pan cabinet, and so (as Master Pepys would say) to the stove. There were no scientifically determined routes for food-serving and dish-washing. Each menial, and my mother herself between menials, followed a kind of cow path. My mother had never had it figured out for her that the lowest estimate of time spent at the sink alone is two hours daily, and that these two hours a day count up to five days of twelve hours each in the course of a month, or sixty twelve-hour days at the sink every year. And when, as the expert modern kitchen-planner points out, it is realized that these sixty days are spent in useless stooping, and that, to this strain, is added the fatigue of miles of unnecessary steps, one gets an idea of the kitchen which I am glad to think never occurred to her.

Nor, on the other hand, do I think my mother would have quite followed the mental state of the rhapsodist who writes of housework in general,—

'When I am about the house, taking part in the work, I am of course conscious, among other things, of the rhythmical qualities of housework. But when I stay apart from it, and listen to it, it comes to seem all rhythm, both in the larger sense of regular recurrence of tasks, and in the repetition of sounds with insistent ichthus and pause. Ironing, for example, is nearly as pleasant to listen to as to watch. Not by one stroke of the iron, but by many, is the linen polished and the cambric smoothed to a satin daintiness; the blows follow one another, now slowly, now fast, like the drum-beat of some strange march. There is rhythm in the kitchen; rhythm in the dining-room.... Most soothing of all household rhythm is the swish of the broom. It is gentle and low-keyed. It takes my attention from other things, and makes me think of abstractions. I wonder whether there is not some mathematical calculation by which a ratio can be established between power of stroke, length of arm, and good-will. And so speculating I sink into comfortable depths of nothingness.'

Oh, shade of Mary Ann, the Perfect Servant Girl!

But this digression into the 'ichthus and pause' of housework—I seem to hear my mother, 'Who is the lunatic?'—takes me away from the kitchen. I hurry back to it, for, although it is not a place where I wish to live, it is very much a place where I like to visit. Though not with the cook. When I was younger, I enjoyed visiting with the cook, but the years have separated us; I have, as it were, grown apart from her. Granting her absence, there is a homely, cheery informality about a kitchen; and if the lady of the house will take you there herself, some rainy afternoon in the country, and serve tea on the clean, plain table, and let you butter the toasted crackers yourself, with all the butter you please, why, for my part, I ask no more this side of Paradise. To use a quaint old obsolete word, I like to be 'kitchened'—provided, of course, that I may select my kitchener. So, I understand, does the policeman: our tastes are different, but we are both human.

And yet this kitchen, as we know it to-day, is comparatively recent, and already insidiously passing away from the larger cities to, I hope, a long survival in the country and suburbs. If I were of an older generation (also insidiously passing away), I would be able to recall another kind of kitchen, where colonial customs of cookery held sway well into the twentieth century. To me the stove seems ancient only because, thank God! I am not ancient myself; I find it hard to believe that when my grandmother bought her stove, her up-to-date spirit marched bravely from one period of kitchendom into another. But men still living remember how their very mothers baked bread in a brick oven, and have seen in operation many of the queer old cooking things we somewhat younger mortals wonder at in museums. Only a bit further back, the fireplace, at its most generous, had room for a seat in the corner, and grandmother sat there,—it was really what the kitchen-planners would call a rest corner,—sometimes, comfortable old creature, smoking her honest pipe and observing the stars by daytime as she watched the smoke on its journey up the big chimney. But the newfangled kitchen range was much more convenient; the easier management of a coal fire made a new day in household economics; a delighted generation busily bricked up the fireplaces. And so the sturdy useful kitchen stove is not so very ancient; and the homely, hospitable kitchen, even of our childhood memory, is still so new that only to-day is the Spirit of Efficiency providing it with routes of travel to save those wasted steps that mother used to take, and a cosy rest corner, cunningly placed to solace the soul of a tired cook with prophylactic contemplation of the most restful available scenery.
All day long on the kitchen routes
Her helpful feet have gone,
With never a senseless, wasted step
Between the dusk and dawn;

And now, dear soul, at the kitchen sink
She has washed the final spoon,
And sat her down in her rest corner
To look at the rising moon.

But the life of our larger cities is growingly inimical to kitchens. In the more distinguished sections, unfortunately, one must be more than ordinarily well-to-do to live in a house that has a kitchen: otherwise one lives in an apartment and has a kitchenette. In my bright lexicon, published by the Century Company in 1889, there is no such word. The thing did not exist. This Peter Pan of domestic institutions, the baby kitchen that never grows up, had yet to be born. And a great army of other equally unborn babies, who would be shrewdly created male and female, waited in the mystery of non-existence until such time as they, too, should enter upon life, grow up, discover each other in happily surprised couples, love, marry, and set up housekeeping with two rooms, a bath, and a kitchenette. It was then impossible—though I have since done it myself—for a gentleman to take his morning bath, shave, and cook the breakfast all at the same time, stepping with accurate judgment out of his porcelain bath-tub and into the contiguous kitchenette, and so back and forth, bathing, lathering, shaving, percolating the coffee, and turning the toast. Perhaps, also, humming a little tune.

Here, too, as the rhapsodist I have already quoted would say, is rhythm; nor is it impossible that the same imagination would find a wild yet orderly beauty in the design extemporized by his wet footprints between his kitchenette and his bath-tub.

But the thing isn't a kitchen, though it serves many of the kitchen's practical purposes. It lacks the space, dignity, comfort, and opportunity for helpful conversation. I cannot imagine any gentleman of the future recalling with poignant pleasure his childhood kitchenette. In fact, I cannot even imagine a child in a kitchenette.

Last updated February 17, 2023