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Kitchens: the rooms that changed everything

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By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST

It’s perpetually interesting to me how inventions, behaviors, beliefs and social practices can come from the most unlikely circumstances.

For example, how the interstate system was the impetus of the modern restaurants as we know them, or how denim jeans, one of the most universal pieces of fashionable clothing, began as durable pants for gold miners.

But there is one piece of modern life so taken for granted, so prosaic, that no one even gives it a bit of thought: the modern kitchen as we know it. More precisely, the Frankfurt Kitchen.

For centuries, kitchens only existed in castles or homes of the wealthy upper class where staff and servants performed their daily work. For everyone else, cooking and dishwashing was done around a stove, usually cast iron, which was centrally located in the main room of the house—in some cases, the only room in the house.

As early as the late 1930s, virtually all apartments and tenement housing in homes around the globe were designed this way.

This rather unattractive, not to mention obtrusive, piece of equipment was where all meals were made (no Weber grills outside on the patio), hot water for dishes was heated, as well as hot water for additional cleaning, such as laundry. And, as if this uncomely necessity wasn’t working hard enough, it was usually the only source of heat in the winter months as well.

Ironically, people spend thousands of dollars on cast iron stoves as a fashion item in their kitchens today. The Scandinavian AGA Cooker is a sleek (as sleek as a massive cast iron oven can be), beautifully glazed work of practical art commonly found in a spacious rural kitchen.

Then something happened. A movement. 

Due to the devastating effects of enemy bombings, large portions of post-World War I Europe were in the midst of a huge housing shortage. That, along with something called the English Garden City Movement, which involved designing neighborhoods so that they were surrounded by open recreation space, had city planners and architects rethinking the way we designed living spaces.

I doubt many Americans, or even Europeans for that matter, have heard of Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky, the first female Austrian architect, but we have her to thank for the kitchen as we know it today.

Enter Ernst May and the Romerstadt movement. May was a German architect who was tasked with redesigning living spaces in urban areas, one he quickly assigned to Schutte-Lihotzky.

So why was the first female architect tasked with such a project by a senior engineer and city planner? Because, in the parlance of the times, cooking and being in a kitchen was traditionally a woman’s work.

The challenge Schutte-Lihotzky faced was creating a functional, sensible, useful space without encroaching too much on the overall floorplan of the home. It was a major milestone in home design.

These first kitchens closely resembled a ship’s galley and had a cookie-cutter look to them (pun intended). This would turn out to be a prelude to the houses that would soon follow all across America after World War II.

So, the next time you’re watering the plant in the windowsill over your kitchen sink, or hosting your next party and you find yourself gathered in the kitchen, think of Margarete who passed away in 2000 just days before her 103rd birthday..

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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