Appliances and the modern kitchen workspace

I’ve been trying to unpick my knee-jerk NO reaction to NPR’s string of Cooking With [Random Household Appliance] articles: you can make a whole meal in your dishwasher, even while washing dishes if you use tightly closed mason jars; you can poach salmon and steam vegetables in your coffeemaker; you can crisp up poultry skin with a hairdryer before roasting it. The hairdryer article, I’m afraid, nauseated me for quite subjective reasons: they go on at length about the benefits of blow-drying a duck to dry out its oily skin, and as I had a somewhat unfortunate duck encounter over Thanksgiving, I feel queasy thinking about blowing dry its stubby-feathered skin. Otherwise, why should I feel so repelled by these suggestions?  Is it because, aside from a somewhat recent acquisition of a poorly-placed and little-used dishwasher, I don’t own these appliances myself? Do I perceive non-culinary-appliance cooking as a fad in an evermore faddish world of making cookery more fun or cute? I’m not sure.

NPR being NPR, these things are presented in a quite practical and not gimmicky way: the reports focus on the energy used in cooking and the target demographics (soldiers, college students) who might benefit from having advanced cookery available in their domiciles by way of smaller appliances. I might have been into that as a college student, had I known about it, although most of my food needs were adequately covered by our refectory.

Image from FAIL Blog.

Image from FAIL Blog.

But as at-home as I am with standard kitchen appliances, and as delighted as I was to acquire a larger oven and ample counterspace (and an indifferent dishwasher) in my last move, I have to admit that the modern kitchen is a sort of arbitrary construction, and not always practical. Consider how many large objects have to be included in an American rental property for it to be considered an apartment, rather than an efficiency! It can be a a significant amount of square footage, which may not be considered a great use of space for tenants who don’t cook at home. Yet, homeowners spend more money on renovating kitchens than any other part of the house; houses with big kitchens sell at higher prices.

The way kitchens are shaped and the kinds of appliances you find in them have of course evolved as decades pass; the role that kitchens currently play in real estate suggests their value as status symbols rather than work spaces. But a functional kitchen still more or less follows a pattern that was established by ergonomic specialists in the mid-20th century: the work triangle. To exist as a kitchen (as opposed to a kitchenette), a room must have food storage, a heating element, a cleaning station, and clear paths between these stations. (A work station is nice, but I’ve certainly had kitchens without counters to spare for this purpose!) At the moment, we assume that food storage means a refrigerator, a heating element means a stovetop and/or oven, and a cleaning station means a sink. And as a person who uses kitchen space in the manner that 20th century ergonomics assumed would be the case–a single cook who manages all stages of the cooking and cleaning process–I can’t imagine living without any of those conveniences. But in the 21st century, a single cook working within a triangle is not really the norm: often there are multiple cooks per househould, or cooking is managed without need of a full-sized oven or ample counterspace. Just as I marvel while reading 19th century novels in which even supposed impoverished characters have a loyal servant or two, it may one day be considered astonishing that such large, energy-eating appliances were considered indispensable for a kitchen; perhaps smaller multipurpose appliances will become wildly popular when the Trophy Kitchen bubble bursts.

4 responses to “Appliances and the modern kitchen workspace

  1. Thank you for linking to my trophy kitchen post and for being similarly interested in and bemused by the role of kitchens in everyday American life. I’m also wondering what comes after the trophy kitchen and hope it isn’t the trend revealed by this recent NYT article in which a luxurious trophy kitchen remains the heart of an open concept home, but only to fulfill a social function. A “dirty kitchen” is used for food prep and keeps the effort and smells of cooking away from guests – so much like the home designs of early centuries in which the work of cooking was secluded in the back of the home or entirely separate from it.

    As always, I love your posts!

    • I didn’t initially know you had a post on the subject, but I Googled “trophy kitchen,” saw your name on the first page of results, thought “That’ll be what I’m looking for,” and it was so.

      As a frequent thrower of parties, it always amazes me how consistently folks crowd into kitchens. Even when I had a tiny kitchen that was no better than a crooked hallway, people would hang out in the three feet between oven and fridge. So I can understand the appeal of a big social kitchen, but I’m not sure what makes it a kitchen (as opposed to a den or dining room?) if the cooking appliances are elsewhere. Unless there are to be two fridges, two ovens, and so forth? That would truly scandalize me.

      And after all that, won’t people at parties still cram into the smaller, warmer, safer dirty kitchen when they can? : )

      • It’s so true. Whenever I share my trophy kitchen research, people often tell me a similar story about how the party always ends up in the kitchen, no matter how trophy-esque or bare-bones it may be.

        And prepare to be scandalized – I’m not positive, but pretty sure that any kitchen “worthy” of socializing in these massive luxury homes would still boast a second set of appliances…

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Uncommon Economies | Scenes of Eating·

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