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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

Embarrassing Holiday Cooking


This is the traditional season of sociability, when meals at home become more than simple refueling stops. Friends will be invited to dinner, and the family, and a few ghosts and vampires at Halloween. It all has to happen around the dinner table during the festive season. Then we can go back to pizza and sandwiches in the New Year.

Meanwhile the kitchen will be the focus of domestic activity, and therefore a source of  embarrassment. Almost every new and renovated house, including ours, features the abomination called “open plan.” The kitchen is not a separate room but “flows” into the living area, so that everybody can see what is going on, and join in if they feel like it. Regardless of those TV cooking shows, where all the mess and mistakes have been edited out, food preparation is not a spectator sport, especially if the spectators are going to eat the food. Things go wrong, things get dropped on the floor and picked up again, bad language is used. Also, the kitchen is the most dangerous room in the house in more ways than one. There are sharp knives and hot stoves, not to mention all kinds of deadly bacteria. Yet guests wander in and out without even considering the risks.

They used to live like this back in the early Middle Ages. Peasant huts had only a single room, often shared with animals. But even aristocratic houses centered round a common “great hall” where the household lived in a single large, chaotic space where they also cooked, ate, drank, and slept. Then in the Renaissance, which was not called the Renaissance for nothing, some architectural genius invented interior walls. Houses were divided into multiple rooms, with doors. The kitchen was banished to a separate and inferior part of the house, or even to a separate building. Civilization had arrived.

Six or seven hundred years passed in relative comfort. Then in the 1960s, when so many foolish plans were incubated, some demented architect decided that we should  go back to the twelfth century and live again in a single big room with no place to hide. This was known as “design.” Office buildings suffered the same open plan fate, so that millions now work, or try to work, in dreadful, warehouse-like spaces with no privacy whatsoever.

Kitchens need walls and doors as much as offices, bedrooms and bathrooms. Certain things should be hidden. Politics, medicine, banking and the law are all professions where secrecy is essential. They take place behind closed doors for a very good reason. Why should haute cuisine be any different? Yet even a few upscale restaurants have opened up their kitchens with big glass windows, so chefs are turned into performers and all their mysteries are revealed.

If we want to take a cooking lesson from television it should be from Downton Abbey, where the kitchen is a separate world in the basement. Even the owners of the house scarcely dare to set foot in it. Their food just appears, as if by magic. If we’re going to live in the past, let us at least choose a past where our festive meals are prepared offstage, out of sight, so we can thoroughly enjoy them.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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