Ancient Kitchen, The

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ANCIENT KITCHEN, THE. The traditional and symbolic heart of the home, the kitchen is inextricably linked with humankind's discovery of cooking food with fire. The use of fire has been known for over half a million years, as indicated by the remains of hearths in the Choukowtien cave in northern China. There "Peking Man" left traces of cooking around the hearth in the charred bones of numerous animals. Using fire for food preparation was a central culinary breakthrough. Some flavors are more palatable, and some foods are made edible, when cooked. The designs of hearths and ovens and the locations of kitchens through the millennia document the evolution of ancient kitchens. The English word "kitchen" comes from the Latin coquere, meaning to cook.

Kitchen Design

Several related and important areas were located near ancient kitchens, including the pantry, orchard, garden, spice and medicinal herb garden, larder, icehouse, and root cellar. Ancient Chinese clay models of a household show the kitchen located near or even over the pigsty. Pigs were a main source of meat, and they provided manure for fuel and a convenient place for cleaning up any refuse from cooking and dining. In the fifth century b.c.e. ancient Greeks designed the kitchen as a separate house, and the layout continued in ancient Rome. The Romans built street stalls for quick snacks, but these were not kitchens in the full sense. Most wealthy Romans also owned country property, where grapes were pressed into wine, wheat was harvested, and olives were pressed for oil. The city kitchens provided space for these products. Kitchens were planned with clearly defined preparation areas.

Later medieval châteaus and wealthy European homes had spacious kitchens with several adjacent anterooms, including a room for utensils, a pantry, cold storage, and a buttery. For the middle class, kitchens continued as a location for communal cooking, dining, and social activities. Renaissance kitchens were often elaborate. As is common of the privileged throughout the centuries, the wealthy boasted the most modern devices for cooking, storage, and food preparation, from the spit to gridirons, ewers, salvers, and huge cauldrons. The kitchen was viewed as a workshop for food preparation for daily dining and feasts and also for preservation of food for the winter months. Ottoman kitchens of the Turkish sultans in the sixteenth century provide another look at early kitchens of the wealthy. In the Topkapi palace in Constantinople, sultans' chefs had elaborate areas categorized for food preparation. European visitors were given a tour of the kitchen, which boasted eight-foot-wide cauldrons and large spits, and prepared food for thousands on a daily basis.

Nineteenth-century kitchens changed drastically with improvements in stoves and hearth designs. The kitchen remained a workplace, separate and distinct from the rest of the house. It was sometimes located in a separate building, in the basement (popular in Victorian times), or at the end of a long hallway. Temperate and hot climates alike moved kitchens outdoors. In India the Mogul kitchens were frequently located outdoors to remove the smells and heat of cooking from the living quarters. Moroccan kitchens placed cook pots in a "roofless kitchen," a walled enclosure off the pantry. Cool-climate Bulgarian homes have traditional summer kitchens used in the hot months.

Social Use

Traditionally a woman, sometimes an older relative or matriarch, has been the cook. A woman's domain, the kitchen was also the focal point for transmission of culture and teaching younger family members and apprentices. Even the use of kitchen servants in wealthy households was tied to the housewife or housekeeper. Often the main point of connection between master and servant was between the mistress of the house and the head cook. The kitchen became a meeting place between classes; long-time family cooks were often treated with the respect due family members. In segregated societies the kitchen was a connection between whites and blacks where orders and desires were given.

Kitchen Gods

In antiquity fire was sacred. A kitchen had an altar place for prayers and offerings to the kitchen god. Mexicans honor a patron saint of kitchens. The kitchen god Zaojing was revered in China, and Japanese cooks worshiped the god of fire. Similar examples abound.

Food Storage

A great range of food and foodstuffs is available for most kitchens, and the size of the kitchen or complexity of tools does not dictate the quality or complexity of the cuisine. The earliest storage containers were animal skins, woven baskets, or gourds. Pottery's introduction allowed more variety of shapes and types of storage in a kitchen, from double-walled cooling jugs for water to tripod pots for stews and pointed amphorae for wine. Thus the larder and pantry became central to the design and layout of early kitchens. Root cellars kept foods cool and available during hot months and provided an even, temperate climate for preserves in the winter. The smokehouse adjacent to the kitchen was crucial for meat and fish preservation. In Dutch homes the chimney had an ingenious bypass for the smoke, which allowed the cook to smoke meats at the same time. Ice and snow rooms in some cultures preserved food. Grapes were hung from rafters in Mediterranean kitchens and were preserved on the stem in water in glass jars in tsarist Russian homes. The many activities of preservation, canning, pickling, smoking, and drying all had places in early kitchens, as much of this work was done at home rather than in factories.

The Stove and Hearth

Early hearths were clay or stone, and their main purpose was to enclose the fire. The risk of fire was always a worry. Fireplaces provided heat and light, and the fire required tending. Large homes had deep hearths, and foods were cooked in pots placed in banked coals or ashes. Fireplaces had rotating spits and hooks for hanging large pieces of meat. Domes gave way to hoods, with better ventilation. Russian and Dutch homes in the sixteenth century raised the hearths and created a sleeping platform around the fire. Some flat-topped Russian stoves also accommodated steam baths and drying laundry.

The invention and mass distribution of the large cast-iron stove, called the "iron sow" in early Sweden, radically changed the design of the kitchen. In the 1870s oil lamps replaced the light a fire had given, and the risk of the open fire was contained. Gone was the hearth as a symbolic and aesthetic part of the kitchen, replaced by a modern tool that required less tending and less space.

As 1900 approached, families previously self-sufficient in food production began to purchase more marketed foods. By the 1930s the need for large kitchen staffs and large kitchens was reduced in most homes. The smaller stove, the increasing availability of mass-produced foodstuffs, and a changing workforce reduced the size of pantries, even eliminating the need for root cellars and smokehouses. The kitchen was streamlined with only a hint of design nostalgia. While the kitchen changed, it remained the symbolic center of the home.

See also Ancient Mediterranean Religions; Gardening and Kitchen Gardens; Greece, Ancient; Hearth Cookery; Rome and the Roman Empire.


James, Peter, and Nick Thorpe. Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine, 1994.

Davidson, Alan, ed. The Cook's Room: A Celebration of the Heart of the Home. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Terrie Wright Chrones

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Ancient Kitchen, The