Culinary design and display, Peta Mathias

Kitchens: The New Zealand Kitchen in the 20th Century
Helen Leach
Otago University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781877578373

Professor Helen Leach, the author of Kitchens: The New Zealand Kitchen in the 20th Century, is simply a national treasure, along with her sisters Mary Browne and Nancy Tichborne – talk about a heavenly power trio. If we didn’t have Leach’s scholarly, meticulously researched, riveting books on culinary history, we would have had to invent her. Shame about the uninspiring cover, though – maybe it’s an Otago University Press thing: mustn’t be too bright or shiny.

Human beings are the only animals in the universe who cook their food before eating it and who use food to entertain, and that’s why we have to have kitchens. You could open this wonderful book at any page and find something fascinating. Leach tells us how her grandmother taught her to cook a chicken in a stout, brown paper bag, explaining that it was the best way to achieve a golden brown skin and moist flesh. Bring back the brown bag, I say. And did you know that, in the 1930s, peasant-ware and coloured, decorated pottery had their place in the gay kitchen? The book offers lots of great illustrations of kitchens and kitchen design throughout the century, with very comprehensive notes, bibliography and index at the back.

I am spiritually disinclined to the concept of crock pots and pressure cookers and, interestingly, Leach tells us that by the late 1960s this method of cooking had declined to the point that only three of 239 cookbooks contained a section on the dreaded pressure cooker. Why? The food mixer came along and we New Zealanders have always been in love with baking. You could buy a top-of-the-range Kenwood, which came with a liquidiser and a mincer, for
£35.17s. In the 1960s, we came over all international and threw ourselves into flambéing, fonduing and frappéing – God, we thought we were fabulous.

This book is not only the story of how the kitchen in New Zealand changed in design and function, but is also a record of how we lived and how our socialising and domestic life in general have changed. Even today, if you go into an old villa you can see the remnants of the social structure of the house. The lounge room was at the front and the kitchen at the back because visitors never went past the lounge; in fact, you rarely saw the rest of the house and you never went into a host’s kitchen – that was the workers’ galley. Gradually, our kitchens got bigger, mainly to fit in big fridges, freezers and then dishwashers and microwaves.

In 2015, you’re a social failure if you don’t have a big, ostentatious, open kitchen/dining room with the latest equipment in it. Far from hiding away out the back, entertaining is now a performance art and the flash appliances are not hidden in cupboards, they are displayed. In spite of all this, we cook less, our food is simpler, we have smaller families and read more cookbooks! We just like being in kitchens – it makes us feel good. It’s like people who say: “I love to go to bed with a good book or someone who’s read one.” Where does Leach think we are headed for in the future? Maybe minimal facility kitchens, with just enough to prepare breakfast, but not a full dinner? Maybe mobile work centres that can be moved around? Or maybe we’ll go back to the nostalgic days, when we all cooked together and talked to each other.

Peta Mathias is a gastronomad, chef, author, broadcaster and agony aunt.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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