The Working Waterfront

Why hide the heart of the home?

Kitchens shouldn’t be show places

By Sandy Oliver
Posted 2022-12-19
Last Modified 2022-12-19

Spotted recently in a mainstream national newspaper: the phenomenon of the “back kitchen.” Apparently increasingly common in million-plus dollar homes, the back kitchen accommodates all the messy business of actually preparing food and cleaning up after it, while the other kitchen stays neat and tidy for social events like children’s birthday parties and casual adult drinks and appetizer events.

Why? As one back-kitchen owner said, otherwise all the photos and videos of the event showed all the mess of throwing a party. I mean, you wouldn’t want dirty dishes to besmirch your record of an event. Made me wonder if they also wiped the icing off little kid noses before snapping a picture.

The sheer exhausting pretension of this sent me into paroxysms of self-righteous contempt. Oh, get over yourselves, I thought. This smacks, I thought, of the separation of kitchen from home wherever servants or slaves labored—kitchens in castles, chateaus, palaces, stately homes, mansions—kitchens buried in basements or extensions, or even another building, to keep food mess and laborers far from the ones who dined. Ugh.

The sheer exhausting pretension of this sent me into paroxysms of self-righteous contempt.

Some people would be grateful to have one merely good working kitchen, with functional plumbing, refrigeration, an operational stove, and washable surfaces, never mind a kitchen with an actual soul.

We moderns push our luck with galley kitchens which often occupy part of a larger family space where kids can sprawl with homework or video games, non-cooks can read the paper, or converse with the cook or pals, where sociability occurs in ear shot or sight of the one peeling potatoes, mixing cakes, and washing up.

More desirable, I believe, is a kitchen commodious enough to accommodate a helper or companiable friend lending a helping hand, or a youthful, aspirational cook pleading, “Let me help, I can do it.”

Some cooks, of course, prefer solitary splendor where they can concentrate uninterrupted on the task at hand, so for them a little isolation benefits.

An absolutely perfect kitchen would be the one I remember at my grandma’s house when I was very young. A black and chrome cookstove, burning kerosene, heated the space and warmed the maternal backside. I don’t recall Gram leaning against the stove, but

Mom took ribbing about singed apron strings. I lean against my stove, too, and perfectly understand the attraction.

In the center of Gram’s kitchen sat a green painted table, used for a work surface and for socializing and eating. Grandmother-made flour-sack tablecloths covered it at mealtime and the treadle-operated sewing machine she used to make them sat against the wall under the staircase.

Grampa occupied a Morris chair in one corner, next to the Hoosier cabinet. A kitchen sink with a window next to it filled another corner. Cat dishes occupied a spot on the floor by the stove.

Gram and Grampa had another room for state occasions, half-living room, half dining-room. I recall Thanksgiving in there but remember many more times in the kitchen, the center of their sometimes difficult domestic life, as they struggled their way out of the Great

Depression, huddled the night of the ’38 hurricane, sat out World War II counting ration points, and stormed about Grandpa’s alcoholism.

Quite probably, I’m projecting personal kitchen preferences here. I love my kitchen which occupies a space in the ell separated in the late 1880s from the main house by Capt. Bunker so that he and Adriana could swank it up a bit with a dedicated living room, dining room, and parlor. The house has a front door, though a large assertive doorbell on the kitchen door signals that here was the main entry.

Despite, or perhaps because of the patina of a century or so since the last spate of improvement, people (who have grandchildren of their own) walk into this kitchen and exclaim “This reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen.” One neighbor says, “I love what you haven’t done to your kitchen.”

It’s clearly the heart of my home. The wood-burning cookstove, while generating considerable mess of ash and chips of fire wood, warms the space in winter. Vegetables in baskets waiting for processing line a section of wall.

After snow, we dry and warm boots behind the stove. A cat dish occupies a spot on the floor by the stove. The kitchen’s spacious enough that pals sit nearby and chat while I peel, chop, simmer. Close friends snug up for a cozy supper around the kitchen table even with dirty dishes piled up in the sink and strewn along the counter.

Real friends don’t care and nobody’s taking pictures.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro. She may be reached at