Monday, October 28, 2013

My American Kitchen

Today, Mae's Food Blog posted a photographic essay, documenting changes in the ideal American kitchen from (roughly) the 1930s to the 1990s. The photographs give a reasonable idea of the changes in appearance as well as the changes in food preparation/storage devices. (See also her post from Saturday, October 26, discussing 20th century kitchens as depicted in the graphic arts.)

Kitchen sink (original) and dishwasher
Stove, refrigerator (original) and microwave.
My own kitchen, itself an historical relic, is far from ideal. It is even more interesting to view it in the context of the March of History documented in the Mae's Blog essay.

My house, kitchen and all, was built around 1965. It's a "Sears" ranch home; historians of American home building will appreciate what that means better than I do. For purposes of the subject of today's post, however, it means my kitchen is blessed, or cursed (depending on one's point of view), with the following attributes:
  • It's small (maybe 10 feet by 15 feet, or a bit bigger) compared to the rest of the house (which is 1,734 square feet, according to;
  • There is almost no usable counter space;
  • As implied by the last point, most of the space in the kitchen is empty unusable space, with no good way to provide it with counter space;
  • There are no doors closing the kitchen off from the rest of the house, so cooking odors (both wonderful and otherwise) soon permeate most of the house;
  • Most of the available storage space requires anyone under 5 feet, 6 inches tall or so (including yours truly) to use a step stool to reach it;
  • The oven and stove top are separate devices;
  • The bottom of the kitchen sink is perfectly flat; so flat that any sediment in dishwater or washing water spreads over, and adheres onto, the bottom of the sink unless you move the faucet around while the water is running and sweep the water toward the drain.
Speaking of the oven, it was non-functional when I bought the house 17 years ago, and it remains so today.  Because I have little interest in baking, I have never had it replaced.  (The stovetop was equally non-functional when I bought the house, but that I did have replaced when we moved in, since I wanted to be able to do some cooking, if and when necessary.)

Kitchen table and chairs
Oven and refrigerator (both original)
On the bright side, my stove is powered by natural gas, which is great to cook with and usable even if the electricity goes out (as I have had occasion to learn during summer thunderstorm season).  

None of these negative attributes bothered me when I was deciding whether I wanted this house, because at that time I did not intend to do a lot of my own cooking.  But in the last few years I have been cooking regularly as a matter of economic necessity and find the size and lack of counter space awkward, uncomfortable and limiting. How on earth could the people who designed this home have possibly imagined that anyone, particularly a "housewife", could tolerate preparing three meals a day for her family in this room?

So let's face facts. My kitchen is not the kind of kitchen for which anyone would express nostalgia. It is not an ideal kitchen, for any decade.  Instead, it's the kitchen equivalent of the dishes featured by James Lileks in The Gallery of Regrettable Food. It's a bad compromise between the 1960's ideal kitchen and what some architect with more ingenuity than common sense was able to fit into a standardized ranch house design. I'm just grateful that my cooking habits (heavy on the use of the microwave, skillet, and slow cooker) don't render the kitchen unusable for me. And if your kitchen looks a lot nicer, or is more efficiently organized than this, dear Reader, count your blessings.  Whatever your culinary problems are, having to cook in this kitchen would only make them worse.


  1. Cathy - Have you thought of putting a smallish table in the kitchen as an island or peninsula? If you have floor space which doesn't contribute to usefulness, this could be a solution. - JDB

    (P.S. Swapping out a sink for a more functional one is a couple of hundred dollars or less and a longish afternoon, including the trip _and_ the extra trip to the big-box home improvement store. I would be happy to help you and ESR out in doing this. ;-} )

  2. Hi, John! Thanks for stopping by.

    Using a kitchen island (either professional or improvised) turns getting around the kitchen into a maze, which to my mind doesn't help the workability problem at all. In addition, the dishwasher you see in the pictures is not permanently attached (would have been cost-prohibitive to do so) but has to be towed out in front of the sink and connected to the faucet to work. We need to run the dishwasher twice a week, and doing so with an extra table in the kitchen would be a nightmare. In short, I'd rather use the kitchen table as counterspace when necessary than make it twice as difficult to cross the kitchen.

    I know we could replace the sink, but E. and I don't have the skills to do so and you are a longish drive away from us.