The Midcentury Kitchen | Sarah Archer
The Midcentury Kitchen
By Sarah Archer
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Sarah Archer: I'm Sarah Archer, and my latest book is The Midcentury Kitchen.
Suzy Chase: Remarkably, kitchens changed very little from the ancient world through the Middle Ages. First off, what did the medieval kitchen look like?
Sarah Archer: Really, until industrialization, the kitchen was kind of all about the hearth and it was all about the sort of heat source for, to some extent, the house, or the castle. The estate. And kitchens were workspaces. They were, even in the most luxurious houses you can imagine, they were kind of like the stables, like the domain of the household staff. So they may have been extremely well equipped, and that would have meant having lots of tools and having a very large hearth, and a spit to make delicious roasts. All that sort of thing. But they would not have been ever considered kind of comfortable places to be or pleasant places to be. They were extraordinarily hot, they were smoky, and this condition is really one of the things that led inventors to try to develop stoves, because that kind of billowing smoke, you know, is sort of not pleasant for anybody. And it actually sort of inspired the design of houses, with sort of a separate chimney that would sort of whisk the smoke away from the living space.
Suzy Chase: And then, in the mid 18th century, Benjamin Franklin invented the Franklin Stove, which was the beginning of enclosed fire.
Sarah Archer: That's right. And there were a few iterations of enclosed stoves. Basically it was sort of the cast iron revolution that led to this, and there was the Oberlin Stove, there were all sorts of variations of this that kind of, there were increasing refinements in efficiency and even decoration. They were in some cases very beautiful, and kind of a lovely thing to have in the kitchen, which was sort of a new idea. You know, we think of appliances looking cool or looking nice as just part and parcel of kitchen design, but this was kind of a new lovely thing, that you would sort of have this decorative cast iron object in your kitchen and be freed to some extent from all that smoke. And making that room a more pleasant place to be.
Suzy Chase: And then we go to the first refrigerator for the home in 1913. And now that was the real game changer.
Sarah Archer: It was a total game changer because it really revolutionized the way people could shop, and the idea that you could stash leftovers, you could sort of plan ahead a little bit. It was normal to sort of have to go shopping for produce or meat or dairy products every day, and the idea that you could kind of, you know, sort of plan your week a little bit with the advent of a refrigerator was revolutionary. Not everybody had them, it was pretty rare to have one when they first came out, just like television or anything else. But yeah, that completely revolutionized shopping and cooking.
Suzy Chase: I remember my grandma used to call it the ice box.
Sarah Archer: Yes. My mother grew up with an ice box, and it was literally like, the ice man would come to the door.
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Sarah Archer: With a gigantic block of ice. And that was, you know, I mean, it was probably not as efficient as today's Frigidaire, but it was, yeah. I mean that completely was just a fixture of a lot of peoples homes. And not having a freezer, also, which was rare in the '40s and '50s.
Suzy Chase: I love the idea of home economics. Describe domestic science.
Sarah Archer: Domestic science is this wonderful, I think of it as being kind of, it's sort of the ancestor of Martha Stewart. Kind of a whole field of study that was very serious, that was taken very seriously, and we tend to kind of giggle at it nowadays, the idea of, we remember our moms or grandmas in home economics class and you think of people with beehive hairdos, making cookies, and it's kind of the idea that you would do that in school seems odd to us nowadays. But domestic science was an outgrowth of a couple of fields of chemistry and food science and hygiene, and there was a lot of concern in the second half of the 19th century. There were people like Catharine Beecher who was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, with her sister designed kind of the ideal rational kitchen with the idea that increasing industrialization and more people living in cities, it would be, women would really need optimal work spaces. And the idea of kind of separating things, just at the moment when germ theory was coming into play, that kind of, "Oh, maybe it's not a good idea to have raw meat kind of sitting around, where you're also, you know, making bread, and you want to separate these things." And it entered into the school system.
Sarah Archer: It also borrowed some logic from the factory. So there's this funny thing where on the one hand, the Victorian home is the sanctuary and it's the place where you come home, you know, your wife and, if you're a man, your wife and children are there and it's cozy and it's sort of away from the dirty outside world of politics and business and all that stuff, and the home is your, you know, kind of peaceful sanctuary from all of that. But a woman named Christine Frederick, around World War I, studied the work of an industrial scientist named Frederick Taylor, I always trip on that a little bit because their names are-
Suzy Chase: Frederick Frederick.
Sarah Archer: Frederick, there's a lot of Fredericks. Who did motion studies and would kind of work with companies like Bethlehem Steel and kind of say, "Okay, you have workers doing this and that, and you need to kind of, reduce this space by two feet, it'll make it more efficient," and kind of almost look at the choreography of work and say, you know, how can we set up this factory so that it's fewer steps or it's, you know, easier for the workers to do this or that. She applied that to the kitchen, and designed an ideal modern, you know, circa 1916, kitchen that would make it easier for women to get everything done that they needed to do. And this was kind of considered feminism. I mean, we would think of that as being kind of like, you know, regressive, like, why is it making life better for women, because really everybody should pitch in in the kitchen, regardless of gender. But this was really a revolutionary idea at the time. And it paves the way for kind of the work triangle, if you have ever heard of that term for the optimal position of the stove, the sink, and the work top.
Suzy Chase: I have to wonder about the fact that she said housework was a profession back in 1912. And how was it received by everyone?
Sarah Archer: I think-
Suzy Chase: Seems radical.
Sarah Archer: It seems radical. It seems, I mean, and it's with the hindsight of 100 years, it's also we see it so differently that it's almost, you know, I mean, she was extremely popular. People loved her book. I don't believe, I have not run across any commentary about her that suggested people thought she was some sort of feminist radical at the time. People didn't, it wasn't kind of like she was a suffragette, in a sense. It was more kind of like, oh, this really smart young women is doing this really cool design. And of course there's the irony that she herself was a professional. Like, she was doing non-domestic work. You know, that was kind of the work of her life, but that was kind of, and that was true for a great many women designers, scientists, chemists, who devoted their professional lives to home economics.
Suzy Chase: So, you can't understand the mid-century without looking at the '20s and '30s. Describe the ideal 1920s kitchen.
Sarah Archer: So that is really like the golden age of [inaudible 00:08:12]. There is this moment in the '20s when, a couple things are happening. One, after years and years and years of everything being made of wood, maybe kind of a hodge podge of kitchen quote on quote "furniture," you might have sort of a work top, a hoosier cabinet where you kept your flour and sugar, that kind of thing. Suddenly there start to be these kind of bright white enameled surfaces. And it's almost like kitchens start to look like hospitals. There's this real concern around the time of sort of following World War I and the Spanish Flu and real robust understanding of germ theory thinking like, okay, we really need to turn kitchens from these kind of homespun spaces into almost like little laboratories. So the ideal kitchens that you often see in magazines if you look at, you know, House Beautiful and print ads for appliances are kind of almost clinical, and they're not usually brightly colored. So you see lots of tile, lots of surfaces that are easy to clean. And it's funny because they also retain a connection to furniture. So you might see a sink that has sort of lovely tapered capriole legs as though it were a chair or a table. So it doesn't yet look kind of mechanized in the way that it starts to later.
Sarah Archer: In the 1930's, all of that changes because streamlining transforms the look of, you know, everything from toasters and pencil sharpeners to cars and refrigerators. And it comes from the automotive industry. The designers of appliances start to borrow the look and feel of streamlining to give these devices the look of something high tech and new. And it's Raymond Loewy's refrigerator, the Cold Spot for Sears, Norman Bel Geddes's designs. A stove that kind of conceals all of the guts so instead of things like the monitor top refrigerator, which is one of the very early sort of popular refrigerators from GE, you can kind of see there's a giant condenser on the top of it and it's kind of this, it looks to our eye very clunky. The '30s appliances conceal all of that, so you don't see kind of all of the machinery. And it has, they have very smooth, you might say elegant, sort of casings. They look almost like the components of a train car, they're kind of styled to look that 1930s deco glam silhouette.
Sarah Archer: And this is also the moment when standardized counter heights come into play, and standardized cabinets. So that instead of your kind of personal collection of furniture that can store things, and work tops, you have a kitchen that is kitted out with kind of an intentionally uniform set of cabinets. And that totally transforms the look of the space, and you know, gives it that kind of signature look that we are used to.
Suzy Chase: So fast forward to July 24, 1959, where Richard Nixon and Soviet Primer Nikita Khrushchev got into an argument about women, kitchen appliances, and the American way of life. This cracked me up. So during a World's Fair style exhibition in New York City, the two leaders had this conversation.
Sarah Archer: It was actually in Moscow, sorry.
Suzy Chase: Oh, it was?
Sarah Archer: FYI. Yeah.
Suzy Chase: That's even funnier.
Sarah Archer: It's even funnier, I know.
Suzy Chase: So Nixon wanted to show off this spiffy new kitchen and Khrushchev shot back, "We have such things." And then Nixon said, "We like to make life easier for women." And then Khrushchev said, "Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism." Talk a bit about this exchange.
Sarah Archer: I love this exchange so much. And it's just, it, I think if you look at it in the context of even kind of looking back a few decades to Christine Frederick, you know, Nixon is kind of echoing the home economics theory that all of these new devices and all this industrial innovation is good for women. And of course in the 1950s it is the pinnacle of, you know, men are home from the war, people are buying Levittown houses and nesting and women are at home. Like, capital H, Homemaker. You know, the idea of being, professional is considered a little eccentric at this time period, at best. And Khrushchev is, you know, giving him almost what we would think of as like a feminist argument, that like, you know, you're essentializing. Like, who says women belong?
Sarah Archer: And I think it's fair to say that Soviet women, although they were fairly well represented in the sciences, there actually was a fairly high proportion of women working in kind of what we would call STEM, medicine and the natural sciences, in the Soviet Union. It was just as sexist as any place else on Earth, you know, in the 1950s. So the idea that Soviet women were all relying on their husbands to load the dishwasher or what have you, the communal dishwasher, is probably totally ridiculous. But I thought it was very savvy of Khrushchev to kind of zero in on that as a weak point in the conversation.
Suzy Chase: In the 1930s, working class women left domestic service in droves, leaving middle class women to take on their own housework. Julia Child described these middle class women as servantless. How did this effect the way households were run?
Sarah Archer: So it's a couple things. It's, one is that people who had lots of help before then probably continued to have lots of help. Or, help to some extent. And the idea, this kind of mythical population of people who kind of used to have lots of help and then suddenly didn't and then were left, you know, helpless, not knowing how to, you know, work the stove, I think was relatively small. What was more common was for people who had been working class or working poor to start to become more successful and have more means in the post war period. And to have a brand new kitchen, if they bought, you know, a Levittown house, or were living out in the burbs somewhere. And suddenly be living a new lifestyle, and in a sense they were a new kind of person. They were the American middle class, that kind of bedrock of middle class people that was booming in the post war era.
Sarah Archer: So servantless is kind of a brilliant term because it describes, in a sense, a new kind of person. So, somebody who perhaps, you know, would not have thought to entertain a lot decades earlier. Maybe in the 1950s and '60s they're reading about fondue and maybe think it would be fun to have people over, and their kitchen is attractive and maybe in kind of a fashion color, so you can sort of have people over for informal dining in your kitchen in this kind of new way. So it transformed the lady of the house, shall we say, to use an antiquated term, into a new kind of hostess, I would say. And women's magazines really played into this. There is a lot of advice in the '50s and '60s about entertaining in this kind of way. Things that you can do ahead, if you're kind of doing it all yourself. And you know, foods that keep, which is the signature culinary innovation of the post war era. Things that you can kind of leave for a couple days.
Sarah Archer: And ways that you can kind of dazzle people, you know. Sort of exploring different kids of culinary traditions that we would not think of as terribly exotic now, but you know, 70 years ago were magazine worthy because of their novelty.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of foods that will keep, talk about the innovation of Tupperware.
Sarah Archer: Oh my goodness. This is one of my favorite things. I was fascinated by the idea of the Tupperware party. Because this is something that, by the time I was a kid, I was, that had, all that stuff had kind of fallen out of favor and it was kind of getting back to, let's use glass because it's better for you, or better for the environment. And of course as a child of the '80s I was kind of like, obsessed with plastic and thinking, what are these Avon ladies and Tupperware parties, what is this world that existed 20 years ago?
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Sarah Archer: The plastic that is used to make them was a World War II innovation, and it had originally been used to protect wires in telecommunications. And like so many things, it was kind of like at the end of the war, what do we do with this? You know, what civilian peace time application can we come up with? And Earl Tupper designed the first Tupperware. And one of the reasons for the parties is because that smell of that sort of plasticy smell that we are all very used to because it's all around us all the time was totally alien to people in this time period because there just was not a lot of plastic on the market. People were kind of not super into it. They were kind of like, oh, I don't know, is this safe, or it's just weird, it doesn't really go well with food. So the parties were a way of showing it and kind of almost like, playing with it in a domestic setting. Like you can, you know, this is how you could use it if you bought some, in somebody's house. And so it became kind of like Avon, sort of a kind of domestic retail fixture of the time period.
Suzy Chase: So I thought this was another game changer. Describe the change in mentality in terms of thinking about durable goods as consumable.
Sarah Archer: Oh yeah. This is another big one that actually is like, like so many things about the post war era, is secretly really from the '20s, and there's this long kind of decades long gap between the modernism and kind of industrial thinking of the '20s because of the Depression and the World Wars. There was an advertising man, sort of a mad man, so to speak, of that era, the 1920s, named Earnest Elmo Calkins who wrote a book called Consumer Engineering during the Depression. And basically it was a manifesto for planned obsolescence. And he was arguing that things like toothpaste and shaving cream that you kind of naturally use up, we need to start thinking of durable goods as things that you can use up. So a new color or a new shape or a new feature, you know, new and improved, all of that stuff. We have to start kind of baking in those qualities, otherwise people won't buy things as often as we would like them to. So the advent of annual styling, which was really big early on in the auto industry, where you would have, you know, a whole new pallette of cool colors every year and new fins, or new features, cup holders, you know, in cars, takes over kitchen appliances.
Sarah Archer: And this is partly because weird though it may sound, there was a strong connection between the auto industry and the world of kitchens. General Motors owned Frigidaire during this time period. And if you went to Motorama to see all the new concept cars you might also see the Kitchen of Tomorrow and see, you know, all the features. So they were presented as being kind of part and parcel of the design innovation and the new styling and the idea that there's a new color palette that's must-have for the kitchen. And as a result of that, if you're looking at old houses, which we were a couple years ago in Philly and it was sort of immediately like, oh, this is like 1968. Or this is 1972. You can tell because of the appliances, because there was such a kind of, it's like archeological layers. Like you can tell when a kitchen was done just by looking at the color.
Suzy Chase: On page 206 you have an incredible photo of the classic brown and orange kitchen in the Brady Bunch House.
Sarah Archer: Oh, I love Brady Bunch House.
Suzy Chase: I was so excited to hear that HGTV was going to renovate the home to its original splendor. That show kind of brings home the fact that life happens in the kitchen, don't you think?
Sarah Archer: Absolutely. And that is, when I was working on this book I immediately, I started thinking a lot about all the different TV shows where that, the standard kind of set where you have like, a bisected apartment or house, very often features the kitchen. And if you go way back to like, I Love Lucy, there's you know, a lot of like, the funny gags happen in the kitchen. But the Brady Bunch to be is quintessential because it's almost at the center. And because there are so many kids, it is a perfect illustration of the way that the kitchen became a living space. And so it wasn't just a place to make toast in the morning or make dinner, it was, you know, science experiments and homework and having a heart to heart talk, and you know, playing games. And you know, doing baking experiments and all that, all the kind of shenanigans that the kids get up to on the show, so much of it happens in that kitchen. And becomes kind of almost like a creative lab for the kids to kind of do their thing. Which I think was true for a lot of people, and still is.
Suzy Chase: I want to talk to you about a couple of the cookbooks featured in this book. There's the Can Opener Cookbook.
Sarah Archer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzy Chase: A guide for gourmet cooking with canned or frozen foods, and mixes. By Poppy Cannon. I love that name.
Sarah Archer: Cannon. The great, do you know her backstory?
Suzy Chase: No.
Sarah Archer: She has a fascinating backstory. She honestly is worthy, I feel like, of a Netflix series. Her life, she's from South Africa, or she was from South Africa. She was a white South African who moved to the US. She ended up in a romantic affair with a man who was very high up in the NAACP, and this was considered very, he was African American.
Suzy Chase: Oh.
Sarah Archer: It was, yeah. So she was kind of in, not exactly in the scandal pages, but she was kind of a person of note in the news, on top of being a cookbook editor, or a food editor, and writing all these books. And it was all about kind of being glamorous and saving time. And she, you know, if there are photos of her that she was very chic and you know, always had really cool hairstyles, and it is in certain ways like the anti-1950s cookbook. But at the same time it's almost perfect. So on the one hand, and it gets to this tension between, you know, we want you to be in the kitchen all the time because that's your job as an American housewife and mom, but all of these innovations that we want you to buy are going to make it easier for you. So it's sort of like, walking that line between making it, you know, not too easy. Just a little bit more easy. And Poppy Cannon is, takes it to the Nth degree and just says, like, why? Why bother making things from scratch when you can just create, you know, a complete meal from shelf stable food?
Suzy Chase: A cookbook that I have: Dishes Men Like, from 1952. And I made the 30 minute noodle goulash that's on page 39.
Sarah Archer: And was it good?
Suzy Chase: It was kind of bland.
Sarah Archer: I'm not surprised, yeah, in 1952. I mean it's, this is sort of the era when people maybe had salt and pepper in the house and not a lot of other spices and flavors.
Suzy Chase: But this cookbook was kind of weird. Because I thought the premise was cooking for your man. But in the introduction, they wrote, "If you have a husband who likes to cook, pamper him." I thought that was a weird way to kick off a book for that era.
Sarah Archer: Yeah. Yeah. It's almost like they kind of weren't sure what they were trying to say, in a way. It was like, we want to sell this and we know that men like to eat. So let's, right.
Suzy Chase: So then there was the advent of foreign or exotic cookbooks, like the Art of Chinese Cooking from 1956, or Good Housekeeping's Around the World Cookbook from 1958.
Sarah Archer: Around the World.
Suzy Chase: Or, Simple Hawaiian Cookery, from 1964. That cracked me up.
Sarah Archer: Isn't that fascinating? Yeah. And there are oodles of these, and there are all sorts of, it is, it's kind of the confluence of the Worlds Fair culture of kind of sampling these quote on quote exotic foods that you might try at the different pavilions. Which I think is made permanent at Disneyland and Disney world. Those are kind of like permanent Worlds Fairs that never close. And this idea that you could kind of travel the world by, you know, going to Queens for an afternoon. And you know, sampling all these things, which were of, you know, probably dubious authenticity. But that kind of to me really fits into the kind of gamesmanship of being a hostess. And like, this is new and different, you haven't had this before.
Sarah Archer: And also kind of the legacy of World War II geographically, because so much of it is about the South Pacific and what would have been called the Far East at the time. Looking at Asian cuisine. And nowadays, there's practically, you have multiple options for hipster Korean fast food, you know. Like we have so much, you know, such an array of incredible food that we can get, even in medium sized cities and towns in this country. That the idea of being able to order, you know, Cambodian takeout in 1950 would have been unheard of. But I think it speaks to a real curiosity, and I think that it was kind of like, I think of the post war kitchen as kind of a stationary laboratory for exploring the world.
Suzy Chase: So let's talk a minute about Julia Child. In the book you wrote, "Child traveled the world, lived abroad, worked for her country during wartime, and learned to cook in one of the strictest culinary traditions on earth. So for her, the mid century kitchen was not a place where industrial designers had shown mercy on her. To make her inevitable lot in life easier. To save her from becoming a worn out Mrs. Drudge. It was a creative place full of exciting challenges and good smells, good tastes, and it was where she wanted to be." Talk a bit about that.
Sarah Archer: So she has, to me, one of the most fascinating life stories. And I think, it's also an example of this kind of intersection of kitchen and class. She did not grow up cooking, because her family had help. She came from a very well to do background in California, and had, was highly, highly educated and was, you know, in the precursor to the CIA during the war. And so had kind of a world view that was very uncommon for an American, much less an American woman of her generation. You know, a degree of travel and kind of cosmopolitanness that was very unusual. But then decided to bring that to the masses by kind of putting her kitchen on TV. And I think one of the things that I love about her kitchen, which you can visit at this Smithsonian, and it's amazing.
Suzy Chase: I love it.
Sarah Archer: It's so great. It's just, everybody should go there. Is that it was actually not, it was really not like a kitchen of tomorrow or a kitchen of the future. You know, it didn't have that kind of Jetsons feeling of kind of the latest and greatest. She had, you know, the iconic peg board. All her different kind of nifty kitchen tools that were, some of them quite low tech, you know, just the old fashioned whisk. All that kind of good stuff. And it was not about innovation so much as mastery. And I think that she's an example of somebody who showed women that there was a real kind of pleasure, sensory pleasure, and kind of cultural interest in learning to cook. That it wasn't, it didn't have to be about, I mean, to some, it does have to be about getting dinner on the table at a certain, you know, hour, if you have lots of kids, but that it could also be intellectual. It could be challenging. It could be fun for you. And I think that certainly my mom responded to that, watching the show when it was on PBS, and that was, you know, it's a way of learning about another culture, to learn through their food.
Suzy Chase: In 1963, the same year the French Chef premiered, Betty Friedan identified the housewife as the chief customer of American business.
Sarah Archer: I find it so interesting that this happened in the same year. And not too far after the Nixon Khrushchev debate. So Friedan was looking at kind of the consumer industrial complex and essentially that same planned obsolescence scheme that Earnest Elmo Calkins devised during the Great Depression. It was that you must always be, for the market economy to work, waiting and wishing for the next thing. In order for, you know, sales to be robust, you have to always be longing for a better dishwasher. Or waiting for a washer dryer. Or hoping that you can, you know, change out the light fixtures in your kitchen, or whatever it is. And that that, getting swept up in that longing, is, you know, kind of, if you're not interested in that sort of thing, which a lot of people are not, you know, naturally, is not a substitute for a full life. And she was sort of making the point that, you know, there is more to life than, you know, this kind of obsessive perfectionisms around food and design.
Sarah Archer: The irony of this is that she became an avid amateur cook throughout the '60s and early '70s. And there's actually an article called Cooking with Betty Friedan, and it's about her, you know, rediscovering the joy of making soup or something. Really it's kind of, and it's presented as this kind of, you know, like, really? Her of all people? But I think that speaks also to this tension around women in that era who were chafing against the kind of, the societally prescribed roles for women, but also maybe really loved food and loved to cook. And you know, can you do both, can you be both?
Suzy Chase: So now for my segment called My Last Meal, what would you have for your last supper?
Sarah Archer: Oh wow. That's such a great question. I probably, I think my desert island food genre is probably Italian food. And I think if I had to choose, I have a, we have a, we make Marcella Hazan's bolognese sauce, that was kind of our go to sauce. So probably I would do the tagliatelle with bolognese. Maybe a nice salad to go with it.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Sarah Archer: So my website is www.sarah, S-A-R-A-H,-archer, A-R-C-H-E-R, .com, you can find me on Twitter at S-A-R-C-H-E-R, sarcher, or on Instagram at sarcherize, S-A-R-C-H-E-R-I-Z-E.
Suzy Chase: Thanks Sarah, for this fascinating glimpse into the mid century kitchen, and thanks for coming on Cookery By the Book Podcast.
Sarah Archer: Thank you so much for having me, it was really fun.
Outro: Follow Suzy Chase on Instagram, at cookerybythebook, and subscribe at cookerybythebook.com or in Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening to Cookery By The Book Podcast. The only podcast devoted to cookbooks since 2015.