Have kitchens become too sterile and taken out all the joy of cooking?
Once the kitchen was a place where everyone gathered around the farmhouse table for familial feast, or headed first at a party to drop off a bottle or gift with the hostess.
It was filled with the impedimenta of cooking and entertaining, wooden spoons and spatulas stuck in an old earthenware pot, rows of dried beans and pastas in glass jars offering the promise of future meals, little pots of herbs and spices beside, perhaps gleaming copper pans hanging from an overhead rack, a battered enamelled kettle gently steaming on the back of the stove, a pot of soup or stew on the go, adding redolent aromas to the general atmosphere of wellbeing.
Alright, perhaps that’s pushing it a bit, but honestly I’ve not seen a modern kitchen I’ve liked. They’re all blindly bright or gloomily dark or antiseptic stainless steel, depending on the fashion, with nary an implement to be found. Not a dishcloth or a recipe book or a hint of anything to eat. I’m not sure what these rooms are for, but clearly no one is allowed to do anything as messy as eat in one.
I began to notice this trend when we started looking at the possibility of moving to an apartment. In Toronto’s overheated condo market, the kitchen up-sell is mandatory and developers compete to have the shiniest, most sterile display. I suppose all those condo dwellers are too busy clubbing to eat at home. Have we lost our appetite for home cooked food and entertaining with this trend?
Meanwhile, in Yorkshire’s deepest countryside, our friendly local building contractor Simon has been busy ripping out the long past its best date kitchen in our 1960s style bungalow. It’s a tiny galley affair where I didn’t imagine much could be done to improve it. Simon in an email thought we’d be pleased with the result.
Actually, the kitchen is wonderful beyond our expectations, clean and modern and sleek. The new fridge, freezer and dishwasher are hidden behind identical cupboard doors under the counter. The cupboards and drawers shut with a whisper: no slam/soft close, Diane explains technically. Awkward nooks and crannies have been straightened out by continuing the lines of the counter top around obstacles and adding a couple of faux cupboards. The counter top is faux black marble and the stove top a sheet of black glass with a black glass splash. Simon has managed to integrate the bright red tiles we had designed and made in Puerto Vallarta last spring, and they provide delightful little hits of jewel-like colour above the black counter.
Wait a minute! What am I saying? I’ve fallen in love with a bleak and sterile modern kitchen in five minutes. Except this is one we’ve designed ourselves to be exactly what we want. A quick shopping trip the next day and we pick up a new kettle, some new pots and pans and jars, all in bright red. These accents make it warm and friendly. We already have red dish cloths and red mats for the adjacent dining nook. The walls are a warm taupe which makes an excellent background for the surprising colour of the accessories, which designer Diane has carried throughout the bungalow.
It’s a treasure and after scanning quickly through the instruction books to find out how the stove and microwave work, I’m making my first meal. Nothing fancy, as we’ve just picked up the basics at the village shop on the way through, but good comfort food after a long flight. OK, just scrambled eggs and grilled tomatoes on crusty buttered toast, with a bloody Mary relish to spice things up.
I remember the kitchen in my grandmother’s house, where, as a small child, I could always count on a treat from cook. With post-war rationing still in effect, it was more likely a bit of beef dripping on a crust of bread, than a sweet biscuit hot from the oven. In fact, I don’t actually recall granny cooking until years later, when the family downsized and all the staff were long gone.
My first memory of anyone cooking was at boarding school, where those on punishments of various sorts had to endure washing up piles of dirty plates. However, if the job was well done, the usually dour and grumpy school cook would sometimes slip a naughty schoolboy a spoonful of whatever she was preparing for the next meal. She knew we were on starvation rations and were always hungry. Her vast domain was filled with what seemed to a six year old to be giant steaming pots of oatmeal, stew and soups, stirred endlessly with long ladles.
Yes, folks, I was six years old when I was banished to boarding school, the parents fleeing post-war London for warmer climes, Cairo in this case. In the ex-pat tradition, sons were left behind to get a proper education. I eventually escaped and joined the folks in their Egyptian paradise. The kitchen was out of bounds to all of us, mum included, where a sweating Sudanese cook huddled over a couple of kerosene burners and produced miraculous meals at the drop of a hat.
However, on home leaves every couple of years, the family assembled in various rented farmhouses in southern England. The best was in Beaulieu in the New Forest, where the kitchen I just ‘remembered’ may have actually been. In any event, this is where I took my first culinary steps, being allowed to prepare baked beans on fried bread for the family supper. Mum was a super cook, when she got her hands on a Sunday roast with all the trimmings, and Dad was a whiz at curries and the spicy foods he’d come to enjoy while on assignment to Indonesia. I was always amazed at the number of dishes he could assemble for our family’s version of a Dutch rijsttafel.
In our new Yorkshire kitchen, the black counter tops and appliances look dramatic rather than bleak against the shiny white cabinetry. The white gloss slab cupboard doors and drawer fronts all have integrated linear pull handles. It’s a very clean look where there’s no need to worry about bumping into things. I shall enjoy this kitchen where the bright red accents and accessories Diane has introduced, along with the well thought out design, creates a beautiful and practical galley kitchen out of a tiny and awkward space.
*Headline with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe who in 1849 wrote The Raven, which begins: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary …