Our Kitchens, Ourselves

A new book centering on the ‘warmest room’ explores the ingredients of pop culture that have affected Americans’ food fads, dieting, and appliances

In 1954, a Detroiter named Brownie Wise became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week, thanks to her key role in creating the marketing concept for Tupperware.

That detail is among many morsels dispensed in Steven Gdula’s exploration of how food and kitchens mirror American popular culture. His book, The Warmest Room in the House (Blooms-bury USA, 24.95), examines American eating and cooking habits from 1900 to present day or, to put it another way, from Fannie Farmer to Fiesta Ware, Crock Pots to Pop Tarts, and Mr. Coffee to Viking stoves.

His plainly written 100-year tour of American dinner plates proves that food trends are not only as fickle as fashion, they’re also as accurate as hemlines when it comes to predicting the mood of the economy.

Gdula blends a diverse mix of ingredients — wartime rationing, presidential diets, scientific discovery, and TV programming — into an easily digestible feast of history as it relates to our refrigerators, islands, and cooktops.

Lyndon Johnson, Julia Child, Euell Gibbons (“wild hickory nuts”), and Typhoid Mary mingle on the pages, along with anecdotes about Kraft Slices, Victory Gardens, The Brady Bunch, Manwich, and the Salad Shooter by Presto.

Gdula makes ample use of television sitcoms in describing the evolution of kitchen styles and changing male-female food-prep roles. In the process, we’re reminded of Uncle Charley at the stove in My Three Sons, and John Ritter’s household duties in Three’s Company.

The chronology of food fads reveals the fickle side of humans as their hunt for something new to eat progresses from fondue to egg drop and from wood-burning stoves to the BTU envy of Wolf ranges.

Part of the reason why we flit from garlic to wasabi, iceberg to romaine, and sprouts to acai, is our eternal pursuit of longevity. Along the way, we also try to be stylishly healthy by prominently displaying gadgets such as Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif Lemon Squeezer on the counter.

Dieting through the ages also is explored, which earns Detroit’s own Florine Mark a cameo mention for her status as the first Weight Watchers franchise, in 1966. Other flashes from the past show up within the context of food culture. Remember that terrifyingly intense bleached blonde diet dominatrix named Susan Powter?

As Gdula moves through the eras from Formica kitchenette sets to avocado appliances, he documents how the contents of our refrigerators are connected to our expanding waistlines. “Nearly 50 percent of all vegetables eaten in the United States during World War II came from backyard garden beds,” Gdula writes. Contrast that statistic to this: The year 1976, he says, “marked the first time Americans purchased more soft drinks than milk.”

As fashion-forward foodies race toward the next gustatory craze, Gdula says at least one thing will remain the same. Kitchens, whether they have pass-through windows or Kitchen-Aid mixers, will provide more than just breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’ll serve as the crossroads of ever-evolving family life.

Kitchen Trends

Style // Homeowners are seeking classic contemporary looks with clean, crisp lines and linear wood-grain patterns combined with a mix of stainless steel, aluminum, and mesh glass. They also like simple cottage looks with vintage elements.
Transitional is currently the most requested.

Message centers // A central place for cell phones, iPods, and chargers is being built into many mudroom entrances. These areas often include message boards, desks, mail slots and built-in paper shredders.

Countertops // Popular materials include CaesarStone, a quartz hybrid that’s favored by designers. CaesarStone textures mimic concrete, but with more durable qualities and less upkeep.

Flooring // Hand-scraped and wider plank is the trend. Lyptus is a very sustainable wood that grows quickly and is almost identical to mahogany, but much denser. It’s one of the “greener” woods available. Source:  Chris Varady, designer, Millennium, Inc., Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-9005; millenniumcabinetry.com.

Equipment // Appliances are a large part of what is new. Just 10 years ago, the appliance package was $20,000. Now it’s $40,000 (per kitchen). There are built-in coffee systems, like having Starbucks in your house, wine storage, and induction cooktops. Magnetic induction heats pots and pans by vibrating molecules in the pan. It’s energy-efficient and fast. The pan gets hot, but the cooktop doesn’t. Steam ovens are good for everything but popcorn. They maintain flavor and nutrients.

Style // People are going to transitional and contemporary. They don’t want things “dripping with carvings and corbels.”

Countertops // Instead of polished granite, different stone is being used: soapstone, limestone, onyx, concrete, and wood (end grains, for example).

Accessories // Organizational features are popular. They include tray dividers, cutlery inserts, recycling baskets, and pot-and-pan drawers and dividers. Source: John DeGiulio, owner, DeGiulio Kitchen & Bath, Birmingham; 248-258-6880; degiulio.com.