New Worlds: Kitchens

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

If you’re anything like me, you take kitchens for granted.

I mean, every house has one, right? There are some apartments that don’t, but even there, the assumption tends to be that it’ll have a kitchen — however tiny it may be — and the ones without are the exception. But that assumption rests on the modern conveniences of indoor plumbing, refrigeration, ovens and stoves, supplemented by microwaves and hot plates and toasters and everything else we use to preserve and cook our food and clean up the mess afterward.

Take those away, and it’s a very different picture. A much more hazardous one, too.

Let’s start with food prep. If you wanted to roast a chicken for dinner, you didn’t go buy a refrigerated carcass from the grocery store. You probably bought an actual chicken, either live or recently dead. If you were lucky, somebody had already plucked it and gutted it for you, but you might very well have to do those parts yourself before you got around to the actual cooking stage.

This smelled, if you’ll forgive the pun, fairly foul. We think of kitchens as places that produce tasty smells, but that’s because the much less pleasant parts of the process are done off-site nowadays, and we have the technology to keep everything fresh until it’s used. Which means, among other things, that there’s much less risk of food-borne disease now for those who work in the kitchen, and those who eat its creations.

You also don’t have to worry as much anymore about your kitchen destroying your home. “Did I leave the oven on?” is a proverbial worry, but how many times has your oven caught fire while you were in the house? For most of us, never. But when food is being prepared in wood-burning stoves, ovens, and open hearths, the danger is ever-present — not to mention the risk of people being burned.

The solution to this might be to separate the kitchen from the house. That way the stinks of food preparation are kept away from the living quarters, and if anything catches fire, you have a better chance of keeping the destruction confined to that outbuilding. You do pay a price, though, and not just in the cost of a separate building and the land to put it on; sometimes that means the food will arrive at table rather cooler and less appetizing than it ought to be, because you have to wrangle a bevy of servants to carry it through to where the diners are sitting.

For most people, though, it wasn’t possible to have a separate kitchen — in either the “outbuilding” or “dedicated room” senses. Go back far enough in time, or look at the houses of the truly poor, and you find a one-room dwelling with a fire that serves the triple purposes of heat, light, and cooking. More than one fire means needing to gather at least twice as much fuel. (I don’t actually know, but now that I type this I wonder, whether the rise of multiple hearths in a dwelling tracks at all to the use of coal instead of wood.) The earliest designs have just a hole in the roof for smoke to (theoretically) escape through — and actually rely on that smoke to help keep the thatching free of bugs. Chimneys are a much later technology.

In those buildings, the kitchen is also the bedroom and the sitting room and everything else, because rooms with a dedicated single purpose are very much the domain of the wealthy — here defining “wealth” on a global and historical scale, i.e. including a great deal that we would call abject poverty nowadays. And in cities, your single room might not even have a fire, because that’s pretty much just asking to burn the whole place down, and a good chunk of the city along with it.

So if you live off of takeout and fast food and things otherwise not prepared at home, tell yourself that you’re part of a long and respectable urban tradition. Why is “baker” a dedicated profession? Because relatively few people baked their own bread, especially in cities. You went out and bought it instead. You might buy all your food pre-prepared by someone else, from streetside stalls or carts that were the equivalent of modern food trucks (albeit with a much more limited selection). At home your larder would contain things like fruit, cheese, preserved meat, and bread rapidly going stale, i.e. things you could make a cold meal from.

(And then you’d have to deal with ants and rats and so forth, but I think vermin are going to need to be their own post someday. Suffice it to say that if you ever find yourself thinking, “god, there are so many flies in my house,” it almost certainly is nothing compared to the past. And now imagine trying to keep them from getting all over your food.)

This all changes in a futuristic society, of course — or one with prevalent enough magic to solve the problems that way. A microwave already cooks things without heat (or, if you want to be really pedantic, doesn’t even cook them; it more or less causes dishes to cook themselves, by agitating the molecules such that they generate their own heat). Preserving food in cold and vermin-proof boxes opens up a lot of options; so does the ability to reverse decay, either with localized time reversal or something like the D&D spell purify food and drink — though in that situation you’re still temporarily putting up with the smell and unappetizing appearance of things that have gone bad.

Or you could just conjure your food from thin air. In folklore it’s a miracle; in science fiction it’s more likely to be the product of some kind of “matter replicator” that can give you a ham sandwich or a perfect steaming cup of Earl Grey tea in the blink of an eye. (Which is to say, a miracle.) Maybe someday we’ll have 3D meat printers that can assemble proteins and flavorings into whatever form of beef or chicken or fish you desire.

And when that happens, maybe we’ll go back to not needing kitchens. Just some kind of food-producing machine, and maybe one that makes things warm or cold if the food producer doesn’t have those functions built in. But I suspect that people who enjoy cooking would find that to be a sad day indeed.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Kitchens — 7 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Kitchens - Swan Tower

  2. Most of the time, you sighed and wrote off roast chicken as a dream.

    It was not that long ago that chicken was a more expensive meat than beef or pork. One kept chickens for eggs, not for meat, and by the time you wrung its neck, it had stopped laying and was so stringy only stewing it would make it palatable. Tender young chickens, suitable for roasting or frying, were the luxury of the rich.

    Indeed, there was a Renaissance writer distinguishing between ordinary and extraordinary care for your life, who noted that you do not have to, even if your doctor ordered it, eat expensive and hard to get foods — like chicken — instead of cheap and easy to get ones — like eggs.

    • Yeah, a lot of livestock was kept around for its secondary products and only slaughtered once those stopped coming. Milk from various mammals, hair from their shearing, etc.

      The “even if the doctor ordered it” message is a nice one. 🙂

  3. The 102 years old landlady of the house we’ve rented for the summer holidays in a little Swiss village for the last 40-50 years had stories about how this worked in her youth. All the families assembled their own oven dish (maybe a crockpot or slow-cooker sort of thing?) and in the morning she’d take the dish to the baker for her mom. The baker had multiple ovens warm for the baking anyway, and for a penny would heat the families’ dinners in his ovens.
    In the evening when everyone came home from working in the field or the lumbermill, someone would be sent to the baker to pick up the one-dish dinner (and maybe the bread for next morning’s breakfast and lunch?).
    When we started going there, 50 years ago, the choice of bread was either a very heavy solid darkbrown ryebread (with or without walnuts to give it some juicyness), and a light white with a hard crust, based on something like a French bread, except a larger round or oval instead of baguette long and thin.
    Both were floorbreads, mostly round dome-shapes.
    The white was soft and wouldn’t keep beyond a day or two, and the brown was very very hard and would keep for a very long time uncut, and for at least a week or two once cut. According to our landlady, they always had the brown bread (as most of the village was poor, except perhaps monsieur the curé (the priest) and the mayor), and you could eat it with cheese or soak it in your milk for breakfast porridge (everybody kept dairy cows or goats). What I don’t understand is that she told me the brown bread would be baked all at once, for all the village, to be used over the coming months, so why would the baker have his ovens on every day? Maybe to bake white bread for the few richer people?
    They also did laundry only twice a year, in spring and in autumn, as heating all that water was an enormous chore, and all winter things wouldn’t dry well anyway.

    • Laundry is on the list of upcoming topics. 🙂 (The never-ending and ever-growing list . . .)

      I think I’ve heard something like the “bake your dinner in the baker’s ovens” things before, but I can’t remember where. It’s a good idea!

  4. Ironically, I think about cooking and kitchens a lot. I have been on the move a great deal over the past two years. One of the biggest PITAS is finding AirBnB or VRBOs that have full kitchens. (I need to cook mostly from scratch.) Most of them have a microwave and a cafe sized fridge–sometimes the sink is the size put into a half bath! Even extended stay motels usually don’t have a stove–I had to borrow a toaster oven from their appliance barn my last stay.

    So this can still be a problem in the West–and of course there are many places in the world where people still cook in their main rooms, or drape illegal lines for power for hot plates. Most people in the West never think about it, but…still a big deal.

    • Good point about hotels and similar places! I was delighted at the Tucson Festival of Books when I discovered my room had a complete (albeit tiny) kitchen and a Trader Joe’s across the road; I was able to eat quite cheaply that trip. But that’s exceedingly rare — even a microwave can be hard to find.