The phrase ‘the hearth is the heart of the home’ is very telling of the kitchen’s early days. In fact, back when the majority of the West’s population was made up of foraging peasants, the Medieval home was comprised of one room with an oval hearth at its centre, serving as a means to heat and light the home, as well as a means to cook.
True to the feudal system in place at the time, the homes of the wealthy were already much more advanced, and castles around Europe during the era show just what a difference money could make when it came to kitchens – Hampton Court, for example, which was King Henry VIII’s favourite retreat, has over 55 rooms that served as one kitchen and it was run by around 500 people.
The most surprising part of such kitchens was the fact that they were built as far away from the master’s private lodgings as possible. This was so because kitchens were not seen as the status symbols we make them out to be today, but rather as necessary nuisances, in that they couldn’t do without them but were too smelly, hot and prone to catching fire to have them within the home.
As time went by, the middle classes took to this trend, and examples of wealthy yeomen’s homes with a separate kitchen building are not unheard of. Indeed, this led the way to the typical Victorian home – as any fans of the TV dramas Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs know – had kitchens in their basements and as far away as possible from the dining area. This made it quite difficult when the traditional way of having all the dishes on the table at the same time (what we would today consider as a ‘buffet’) made way to the à la Russe style of dining (i.e. different courses in succession).
The job of the kitchen staff was made even more arduous with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which ushered in the range along with an arsenal of kitchen equipment. Ironically, it was only the break out of World War I that put an end to the scullery maids being a staple in middle-class and super wealthy homes, and this set the ball rolling for new ‘wage-less kitchen staff’ like the gas oven, which didn’t require daily cleaning or an army of staff to work it.
Then, over the course of the 20th century, appliances like the refrigerator and the Kenwood chef moulded the once-humble kitchen into the electronical-bedecked rooms we know and love today. Using the ‘labour-saving layout’ of sink, cooker and fridge, interior designers in Germany, the UK and the US came up with the first designs that were the precursors of our modern kitchens, and helped unchain staff from the backbreaking work that kitchens were associated with.
Today, the kitchen is thought of as a room that brings the family together, and we have once again turned this room into the ‘heart of the home’.