The Plain Kitchen

I don’t like modern kitchens. I am not hopelessly romantic about the past, either, because I think indoor plumbing is a great luxury, and when we have it, I am pleased and happy with hot running water. (That is, until the plumbing goes absolutely wrong and everything is a mess, and then I say, as a  friend did back in my younger days: “Indoor plumbing is greatly overrated.”)

Kitchens are another matter. I know my grandmothers couldn’t wait to get modern ranges and not have to keep loading wood into the firebox on the old woodburner, but I like woodburning cookstoves. I like open fire cooking, too. (My husband will tell people that I’m quite good at it, and that food tastes so much better cooked over an open hearth.) I don’t expect to get the open hearth in our next real house, but I am adamant that I have to have a woodburning cookstove. (Preferably a Pioneer Maid, when the money is saved up for it.) I am thinking about having Nicholas polish up his old bricklaying skills and give me an horno, an outdoor bake oven which is the ultimate crockpot, as well.

We have a modern kitchen right now, with refrigerator, electric range, double sink, and the ubiquitous microwave. (Which is not ours. I am very dubious about the benefits of using it, and avoid it most of the time.) I do use the electric Crockpots frequently as a good substitute for the slow-cooking of a woodstove.

Nicholas noted the other night that modern houses, post World War II, are used as people kennels. Go to work, come home, cook a quick meal over an electric burner, wash up, sit in the living room and stare at the television, go to bed in your little cubicle, get up in the morning, wash, do it all over again. There’s no work space, no real gathering space for a large family. Kitchens are designed to be efficient. Even these oversized ultra-houses are meant to house just two to four people. They have huge rooms with no place for people. They are display chambers, vignettes of good taste. A friend with a beautiful, large home and a mammoth cave of a kitchen asked us to come over one Christmas Day. We planned a menu, which I then prepared in my funky little farmhouse kitchen on the old Enterprise woodstove, with a linoleum covered table for workspace. We carted the feast to her house, and I could not comprehend the weird electric burners on her state-of-the-art range. So I finished the meal preparation on her new and very lovely Enterprise woodstove!

This is what the Plain kitchen needs: a hearth of some sort, such as an open fireplace or the iron hearth of a woodburning cookstove, a source of warmth and refreshment and nourishment. It needs good workspace for chopping and stirring and kneading and rolling. It needs a source of water and a really big sink, even if that’s a handpump (as my great-grandparents had for many years) and a watertight half-barrel.

It needs room for people. It needs a big table that doubles as a worktable for everything from breadmaking to homework and sewing. It needs sturdy chairs and if big enough, maybe a wing chair for Grampie or a rocker for Mama. It needs to be the center of the house, where everyone naturally gathers. Who needs a living room? That’s just a sterile environment for watching the cathode ray tube and its inanities. Television does not interact with people. We stare at it, slack-jawed and slack-minded. The other people in the room get annoyed if we talk over it (or worse, to it, because that usually involves some shouting.) A kitchen encourages conversation.

Ingredients become food in the kitchen. It’s a kind of miracle. Things that we can’t eat in their natural state get boiled and roasted and steamed and baked or something and become nutrition. Things we can eat raw get better with preparation, mingling, and seasoning. Mothers are in kitchens, feeding their families well past infancy, and everyone can feel secure and loved there.

The Plain kitchen has sturdy, well-chosen utensils. Forget the fancy china and delicate serving dishes. We need cast iron,  enamelware and stainless steel. We don’t own plastic anything. Dishes are heavy ceramic, purchased with the object that they will last a lifetime. Glassware is simple and heavy – champagne flutes aren’t required. The flatware is similar, heavy stainless, hard to bend or break. It doesn’t take a lot of different kinds of pots and pans and bowls or such to prepare Plain food.

And we don’t need a clutter of small electric appliances. These are just sales gimmicks, pitched to people who wonder why their food is so uninteresting. Maybe a new electric grill or whip-foamer will improve it! No, the trick to flavourful food is cooking it, preparing it, and doing it mindfully. It takes time to produce good food. Even a really good salad depends on carefully chosen greens and vegetables, washed and dried and torn or chopped appropriately, with a decently made dressing of oil and vinegar or lemon juice. 

The Plain kitchen may produce Plain food, but it is good, nourishing food, not an amalgamation of salt, sugar, artificial flavouring and chemically produced vitamins.

This is my favourite meal in the Bible: The apostles are out fishing all night. They are tired and hungry and discouraged, for they have caught nothing. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they are told from the shore to lower their nets for another try, and they succeed. Success, though, doesn’t alleviate hunger and fatigue, and when they get to shore, they find a meal waiting for them, of broiled fish and bread. And who has prepared it for them over a little beachside fire? The Lord, who says to them, “Come and eat.”

Come and eat. It has been prepared with love and care. It is real food. Come and eat!

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13 thoughts on “The Plain Kitchen

  1. You would love my kitchen (for the most part). It’s the whole width of the house. It’s layout is a little funny, but it’s pretty good. I need more counter/cupboard space or else a pantry. I do most of my work at the kitchen table (after I move the sewing machine). My kitchen is actually the one that was put in when they put the plumbing into the house. The counters are even still formica. It’s starting to look a little tired but still functioning. If we are ever able to put an addition on, the bathroom gets moved and I get a pantry, I would actually love to get rid of the cupboards and make the kitchen look turn of the century; ie, have a hoosier for a baking cupboard, maybe a few freestanding cabinets, my great-grandma’s sideboard, the kitchen table and my rocker. Since everything would be in the pantry I’d have more room and could get a cookstove. I would likely keep my gas stove so I wouldn’t have to heat up the house in the summer.

    I must admit, I do love my modern servants: my kitchenaid mixer, my bread machine, and my blender with food processor attachment. I appreciate the time they save me, with a little one I need the help I can get. I also have problems with my wrists, either carpal tunnel or my mother’s arthritis starting, so the less wear and tear I put on them the better. That said, when we go to a museum or pioneer village my husband laughs when we see the kitchens and most of the stuff there is the same as I have 🙂

    • I’ve had some strange kitchens over the years, including one that had an open hearth, but I didn’t dare use the fireplace because I was unsure of the status of the chimney, so we cooked on a gas stove. I’ve had a couple of gas stoves I loved because they didn’t use any electricity (piezo lighting) and the ovens bake so much better than electric. I’d put your electric auxiliaries in the semi-pro category!

  2. Magdelaina,

    This is yet another fabulous post. Sadly, in Australia, increasing numbers of local councils are legislating against woodburning stoves etc of any type in suburban homes. though, amazingly, the Horno seems less legislated against. many in power here in Aus would like to se woodburning stoves etc of all types made illegal for they (wrongly) think these are unenvironmental both because of emitions and the fact a tree, a living tree!! was cut down or pieces from this process used for fuel.

    Also, in Aus where summer temps in most places reach 117 F (45-47 degrees C) the woodstove has gone out of favour, and, total firebands are instituted in much of summer in much of inland australia. ironically, many of these homes, especially rural homes, were without electricity right up until the 50’s and 60’s.

    I likewise love old kitchens and simple appliances having only the modern gadgetry I need, )namedly a safe to use kettle and imertion blender) and the microwave my husband had when we married. (a convection microwave that functions as a normal oven (wen convection is chosen, it’s not the nuke box it is when normal microwaving is chosen and metal, baking dishes, all sorts can be put inside it. I’ve used stainless steel kitchen utensils for years, these have lasted over a decade since I made the switch from plastic. Our serving ware is simple white earthenware. our plates are plain but finer china (and we do have a selection of glassware) but the kitchen is tiny, a galley in an open plan living, dining, study, everything, so in effect, it is at the heart of everything because folk who come and sit down tend to gravitate about said little ‘swing a cat’ kitchen, the dining table and chairs only a few feet from the engineroom of the home. Having a gas cooktop is a nice touch however, far better than a fullly electric range, though the painfully tiny oven is electric; I’d love an Arger (woodburning preferably) and would simply move ( if such were possible) to somewhere where I could have this. they are pricy though; coming in at $20,000 australian; though once bought, this investment would last not only my lifetime, but the lifetime of generations to come also.

    Do write more on this, Magdelaina, for it is inspiring and allows one to dream and pray 🙂

    Sarah.

    • Yes, the Aga range is expensive, and prohibitive to heat with gas here in Canada. The Pioneer Maid, which is Amish built, is about CAN$2500. I learned to bake and cook on the horno in Honduras, where it is common. I think it would be great to have a traditional Russian stove, the pleeta, which is at least six by three feet of brick, with a cast iron top. Cooking outdoors is my summer solution to heating up the kitchen, but that isn’t really a problem in Canada except for a few days.

  3. My in laws designed this kitchen to be the focal point of the home when they built it 30 years ago. It is on one side and the living room on the other at one end of the house. A counter and stove are in the middle so you can still converse with those in the living room while cooking. Also we have a counter for table beside the stove where we have most family meals.

    One thing another commentor mentioned was a pantry. I love my pantry. This is something missing from many modern homes. They have limited food storage space. Most only have less than a week’s worth of food at a time. We once had a manager who had just about every kind of kitchen gadget or gizmo you could think of filling her cabinets and counters. Did they use them? No, they ate out most of the time because there was never anything to cook in their apartment.

    Our neighbor down the street has a wood cookstove. They used it a lot the first few years but not sure if they do anymore. I haven’t seen smoke and their wood pile was much smaller this fall.

    • Yes, I miss having a pantry, too! We had a large one with a window and a refrigerator at the farmhouse. Most modern houses have such tiny cupboards that is impossible to can your own food and have any place to keep it unless you convert a closet. I look forward to the day I have a real kitchen again.

  4. What a wonderful post! I do agree, a kitchen doesn’t need to be cluttered with appliances.
    A year and a half ago, our microwave bit the dust. Haven’t replaced it since. My mom thinks I have went off the deep end…lol.
    At first hubby was adament about getting a new one, but then when I showed him I can reheat stuff on the stove he kind of just shrugged and left me alone.
    When we moved in 2008, I threw out our toaster. Haven’t replaced it yet. Don’t see a need too.
    I was the big toast eater, hubby wasn’t.
    If I want toast now, I just lay a few pieces on a cookie sheet and bake for a few minutes.

    Our kitchen in our last house didn’t have a pantry, but it had lots of cabinet space! I loved it!

    In the kitchen we have now, it’s a very narrow space, with very tiny cabinets which all have to be replaced because of a water leak…ugh…

    In our next house I would like a larger, more square or large rectangular kitchen so more than one person can fit in it 🙂

    Wouldn’t mind a wood cookstove myself. Hubby was even interested in getting one…but that will be for when we move again.

    May you have a wonderful evening tonight!

    GOD Bless,

    Dawn in TX

    • I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, most of it alone unless Nicholas is home to keep me company. I can’t help but think of women in ages past who always had plenty of hands to help, whether sisters, mother, daughters or neighbours! Women in ancient times gathered around the cookfire to work together. At some point in the twentieth century, food scientists must have thought that we wanted our own private laboratories in which to produce nutrition units. They should have asked the women! Thanks, Dawn!

  5. My little town house is built in such a way that you have to be social to use the kitchen. It’s the same room as where the couches and dinner table sit. I don’t own a microwave and this bothers Matt to no end. He likes his and gets impatient that I heat everything on or in the stove. I told him we were not meant to cook food that fast. I admit to wanting the KitchenAid mixer/magical everything maker. It has a grain mill on it!

    • Ooh, a grain mill! I didn’t know that came with the Kitchenaid! But we are planning to go off-grid, so I will have to get a hand-powered one. Sometimes I would like a good standing mixer, because I make a lot of bread and big batches of pierogies, but we always seem to end up in kitchens that won’t accommodate one. So it’s the old-fashioned way (wooden spoon) for me.

  6. The grain mill is one of the main reasons we got a Kitchen Aid a few years ago. It’s not standard, you buy it separately. We also have a pasta maker for it but only used it once. The dough hook is a great way to make homemade milk shakes. Works better than the blender. Funny thing is I’ve never used the Kitchen Aid as a mixer. I still prefer my wooden spoons.

  7. If a person is okay with on-grid living, a kitchenaid can actually be helpful opposed to a cluttery “gimmick.” I don’t know how many attachments you can buy for the thing – but it’s alot. Some of them are not neccisary – like all the different pasta cutters. But, there is a dough hook, a sausage stuffer, and I can’t find it on the webpage but I know there is a grain mill attachment. So, a person could theoretically cut down on items cluttering their work space. I think it’s when you have a food processor, AND a blender, And a juicer…you know? I have little gadgets that were given to me as friends have gotten married. My hope is that when I get married, I can ask for something like one kitchen aid or several things from Lehmans. Then, I can turn around and gift some young woman that’s starting out and maybe doesn’t have the money saved up for a good grain mill (because we all know those are not cheapies).

    • I agree! It’s so much better to get one really good item that can do a multitude of functions rather than a lot of splintery little gizmos that last three months. The Kitchenaid is a true kitchen classic, and definitely semi-pro! I would love the dough hook, grain mill, and so on, but since we want to minimize the power use in our next house, I am not even dreaming. Lehman’s sells very nice grain mills. Friends have had them, and are quite satisfied. I’d like one that is high enough output that we could use it for animal feed as well. My small appliance aversion is aimed at clutter and lack of quality. For instance, the new toaster purchased for this house about six months ago looks like a kid’s toy, and barely toasts. I use the oven broiler instead. And we’ve all seen the kitchen that is nothing but squat plastic boxes arrayed on the countertops, with electric cords running everywhere. This can’t be safe!

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