America’s Kitchens (and the women who shaped them)

Back in January, I went to the New Hampshire Historical Society to take in a long-awaited exhibit called America’s Kitchens.

Sponsored by Historic New England, this exhibit covered the entire history of the kitchen in this country, as well as recipes, cooking techniques, and most importantly, the role/s of women in these important chores.  Although fairly small in scale, it featured not only print materials, but some fascinating antiques, a vintage 50s kitchen complete with appliances, and even a few hands-on displays.  As a real foodie, I’d gone into the exhibit thinking this glimpse into the past would be pure entertainment.  But it left me grappling with my own ignorance.  Although I can recollect recounted snippets of my great grandmother’s and my grandmother’s childhood chores, they’re fuzzy at best.  As a modern woman, I have never known the kitchen as anything but fun.  This exhibit reminded me that until very recent times, the kitchen was anything but.

Historically, cooking and kitchen work fell principally if not solely to females, and before the advent of today’s convenience technologies, the preparation, storage and keeping of food, and all associated & very necessary cleaning tasks were nothing short of grueling.  It’s one thing today to make a choice to cook or clean, but back in the day, women (unless they were wealthy) had NO CHOICE.  Sun up to sun down was devoted to maintaining fires, tending to livestock, working fields, preparing food, feeding families, raising children – and by raising I mean everything involved with their upbringing, be it nursing, changing, teaching, playing, and so on.  All day long there was cleaning to be done, not to mention seasonal activities, like canning, pickling, the smoking and salting of meats, butter making, and more.  And let’s not forget other important tasks like the making and mending of clothes, along with their maintenance.  Laundry alone would take hours of backbreaking labor.  The Whirlpool Corporation (well, technically its predecessor) wasn’t even founded until 1911!!

Women Worked (with a capital W) all day, every day, until they finally dropped dead of exhaustion.  Rarely was there expectation of eventual betterment or any other role to fill.

Home life for our predecessors was more than thankless; it was mandatory indentured servitude.  No wonder women were so eager to escape!  The kitchen was and is the heart of the home, but historically it was also a place of undeniable struggle.  Against hunger, against nature, and against gender roles.  While some women embraced their expected place, you can understand why others railed against it.  Choice, my friends, can make even unappealing tasks palatable.  Which brings me to another interesting point raised by the exhibit.  When American housewives had the finance and good fortune to pass their labor onto others, they happily did so, in the form of paid servants and unpaid slaves.  Interesting to note how often these unburdened women were quick to complain about the poor performance of those toiling on their behalf.

Many modern women, such as yours truly, complain about having to do simple household chores.  We gripe about having to push a vacuum across the floor or wipe down counters with magical germ killing cleaners.  We grudgingly toss clothes into big shiny machines which do ALL THE WORK FOR US.  In comparison to what our forebears had to slog through daily, we’re a bunch of pampered pansies.  But even now, some women struggle just as they always have.  They wash clothes by hand in filthy streams, they draw water from wells, carrying it miles back to their homes – often with their children in tow.  Women are still scraping by, cooking meager food, making clothes by hand, even here in America.  Fortunately, most of us reading this have a choice.  Whether you love or hate the kitchen, you’re not bound to it.  In 2010, women have the luxury of opting out of cooking altogether if they so desire, and some do.

I have been thinking about this exhibit a lot lately, not only because I recently finished reading the excellent accompanying book, but because of my own life circumstance.  I am someone who loves the kitchen, but who is forced to cook out of necessity.  When I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease and told I’d have to give up salt, I traded freedom for health.  Living in a 250 year old home, and spending hours each day in my modern-yet-historic kitchen

I wonder about the women who used to work in these walls.  I envision them laboring in front of the open hearth, baking bread in the beehive oven, having to constantly maintain the fire.  How exhausting it must all have been.  It makes me further appreciate all of the advantages I do have, circa 2010.  Like my beautiful new appliances!  Which do EVERYTHING FOR ME, including cool, cook and clean..  God bless them.

The Kitchen Project.

Eight months ago, my husband & I bought a new house.  And by new, I really mean 250 years old and in need of restoration.  While structurally sound, parts of the house needed to be rebuilt, others merely updated.  The kitchen fit into the latter category.  It was from the 1950s, the oven didn’t work well, but everything else was fine for the time being.  We made the decision to postpone the kitchen until spring, when our tax refund could cover improvements.  Last month it arrived.  Our refund wasn’t huge, but it would be enough.  And in true If You Give a Moose a Muffin fashion, one thing inevitably led to another, and…

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An anchor in the storm.

Well, I’ve not yet abandoned ship, but if my basement takes on any more water I might have to.  Several weeks ago I had a dream – a nightmare, really.  My husband and I were in a new house – not this house, but ours all the same, big & old.  We were in the middle of a flood and an enormous tidal wave was coming; I could see it rolling toward us through the window.  My husband had just gotten home in an old paneled station wagon full of kids.  Ours?  Who knows.  He came into the house with two of them, a boy & a girl.  I turned for a moment, and when I looked back, I saw the children had drowned in water coming up through the floor.  My husband pulled me from the room.  We ran to the top of the basement stairs, but water was pouring in from beneath the door.  We turned and ran to the upstairs staircase.  Water was streaming down the walls.  We flew up the steps, trying to get to the attic, but I knew we were going to die.  Then I woke up.

Last week Portland received a record rainfall, which flooded our already wet basement and has yet to recede.  Though we live at the top of a hill, we’re sandwiched between two rivers, the Fore & the Stroudwater, and several aquifers run directly beneath our house.  While this might have been a plus back in colonial times, for cold storage and food preservation, nowadays it’s just a mess.  Although the former owner sealed the basement floor with cement, there are several holes in the foundation through which water still rises.  When the whole basement floods, like now, you can actually see the water bubbling up in places, evidence of the underground stream/s.  Although we have a large drain pipe running from the basement to the outside, it’s been blocked for who knows how long.  And because it’s buried underground, we have no idea where it is or goes.  If we did – trust me, we’d have cleaned it out already.  We have a sump pump, but it’s old and just can’t keep up.  It doesn’t help that our basement floor is sloped such that water pools in areas where it can’t possibly drain.  So my husband & I spend part of each day downstairs, using a snow shovel to push the water towards the sump pump hole, shuffleboard style.

In addition to our problems inside, things outside aren’t much better.  I’ve spoken before about the compost ravine at the back of our property.  Where we would dispose of sticks, twigs, garden refuse.  Pretty much anything biodegradable got tossed down there, including last Halloween’s pumpkins and the better part of our next door neighbor’s dismantled trees.  Well.  After last week’s rainfall, parts of the ravine, heavily laden with all this stuff, have completely collapsed.  My older daughter & I went out one morning to change the guinea pigs’ cage, and discovered a big chunk of our land has cascaded down the hill in a silt-slick mudslide.  And now much of that refuse, sticks twigs and all, rests two doors down, at the bottom.  The waterlogged ground surrounding the top of the ravine has also become saturated to the point of collapse. The only thing keeping it in place is a tree at the top.  But even that seems to be tilting slightly, how long its roots will hold is anyone’s guess.  Large parts of ground surrounding the ravine are riddled with cracks.  We’ve warned our children not to play anywhere near there – especially on the rope swing now dangling precariously over the pit.  Water is trickling from the mouth of the ravine, all the way down the hill to the bottom.  It’s a tiny stream, but steady, and it’s seems just a matter of time until that entire back portion of yard sinks or goes cascading down the hill as well.  One neighbor has suggested we call our insurance company, informing them we’ve lost part of our property in a natural disaster.  Another neighbor is urging us to call the EPA, to have the silt cleaned up before it enters the water supply.  My husband wants to fill the whole damn thing in with boulders, cover it with soil and pack it firmly down.  Which we’d do, if we had the money – which we don’t.  Me?  I’m too tired to care what happens.  I just pray I don’t get sucked down the hill when it falls.

The reason I haven’t posted in a month and why I am so very tired isn’t all this water.  It’s our kitchen.  My husband & I spent the better part of March remodeling it.  By ourselves, on a very tight budget, while my husband worked his regular 9-5 job and I woefully suffered through the worst bout of Meniere’s I’ve had in years.  As of today, the project is done.  Save for a couple pieces of trim, bringing my cookbooks back in, one wonky tile that won’t stay down.  Finished.  We cooked part of Easter dinner in our brand new oven, the rest on the grill, and finally – after 4 weeks – began to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  Unfortunately, the project triggered a Meniere’s episode from which I’m still reeling.  I’ve spent 3 weeks now dealing w/ my ear, and it’s been horrible.  Deafness, fullness, tinnitus to rival Niagara Falls, dizziness that comes & goes w/out warning, leaving me seriously disoriented and nauseous.  That’s life w/ Meniere’s.  I keep reminding myself this too shall pass, but this is the longest it’s gone on since before I was diagnosed.  I simply can’t say how depressing it is, waking up day after day, in the same sorry state.  Thank God for my family, who keep me going.  And this house, for all its endless work, does its part to save me from myself too.  I can’t languish in self pity when we still need to finish the office.  And build a chicken coop.  And plant the garden.  And..

Stay tuned for my next post, all about the NEW KITCHEN.  And many thanks to everyone who has left me a comment the past month.  Although I didn’t have time (or often patience) to respond, please know I appreciate them.

An ode to my kitchen.

When we began looking for a new house, we saw many kitchens.  Some were so-so, some were downright beautiful.  But none of them spoke to me.  Except to say HANDS OFF! the way a lady might slap a frisky man.  I was looking for a plow horse, but all I found were prima donnas.  Until SHE walked in.

my kitchen

My kitchen is not showy.  Like the rest of this house, it is old.  It is not cherry & granite, stainless steel, status and POWER.  It is simple.  It is trying in some ways, like an elderly relative who needs help finding their glasses.  You wonder WHY DON’T YOU JUST PUT THEM ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND? But you search for an hour anyway.  Out of love.  My kitchen has character.  That rare attribute that only comes w/ age.  From its retro counter to the curve of its built-in shelves, my kitchen makes me happy.  I like its red color.  I like the way the vintage cooktop wobbles.  I even like the way the tap leaks unless you turn it slightly to the side.  MY KITCHEN.  Like a favorite pair of sweatpants, it’s what you turn to when you’re hungry.


Even though I don’t have a dishwasher anymore, I am not angry.  Each day & night as I wash dishes by hand, I look out my lovely window to my nice next-door neighbor’s house. I think about living in this most historic home.  I think about what it was like 250 years ago, when EVERYTHING was work.  And then I feel humbled, and grateful.  For all the modern conveniences I do have.  Like my OVEN!  Even though the dial doesn’t correspond to the temperature, so everything is guesswork – It sure beats cooking over a campfire.

my oven

And there’s my washing machine!!  Which is right there in my kitchen.

my laundry room - in my KITCHEN!

Sure, some people might think that’s odd.  But I don’t.  I am so happy – b.c I LOVE DOING LAUNDRY!!!  And I LOVE to cook.  So now I can do them at the same time!  My husband even wired the clothes dryer into the kitchen, so now I can fry bacon and dry my pants, simultaneously.  But there’s more.  The former owner – when he modernized this kitchen in the 50s, thought practically.  He knew there’d be a need for counter space as well as convenience, and he didn’t want to sacrifice one at the expense of another.  So he crafted a special countertop that lifts and/or slides out from atop the washing machine.

cool countertop

So you can access the machine whenever needed, but when not in use, it functions as normal workspace.  Pure genius!

I know you are all wondering WHERE IS THE FRIDGE??!!  WHERE DO THEY KEEP THEIR FOOOOD??!  When my husband wired the clothes dryer into the kitchen, we had to move the refrigerator into the adjacent keeping room.  Mostly b/c there wasn’t anywhere else to put it.  It took a little getting used to, but now the fridge LOVES it!

fridge in keeping room

He gets to hang out right next to the fireplace.  So he stays cozy warm, even while he’s keeping our ice cream icy cold.  Plus he likes being part of the action.  Sometimes we even throw him scraps when we’re eating.  GOOD BOY!