“The Warmest Room in the House”

by Steven Gdula

c.2008, Bloomsbury • $24.95 • 238 pages, includes notes and index

So, you say you had lots of people at your house during the holidays?

For days, you busted your tail making hors d’oeuvres, obsessed over the liquid libations list, and cleaned the house until the living room was lovely, family room was fabulous, and dining room dazzled.

And where did the guests congregate? 

Yep! In the kitchen.

According to author Steven Gdula, there’s a reason for that. Reading his new book, “The Warmest Room in the House,” you’ll eat up what he has to say.

If you were suddenly transported back a century in time, and you walked into the kitchen, you might barely recognize it. For one thing, cabinets didn’t exist in the form you have in your kitchen now. 

Instead, the room might’ve contained a “Hoosier,” which stored manual cooking tools and flour, but it wasn’t attached to the walls.

 

If you had electricity, lights extended your meal-making time. Gas stoves were new-fangled and you’d be lucky to afford one.  “Refrigerator” wasn’t a common word.

Off to the side of the kitchen (or maybe in an earthen sub-room), you’d have found shelves of jeweled jars of food, usually “put up” by the woman of the house and whatever children she could coerce into helping.

Food was mostly grown or raised nearby, if not at home.

This all was, of course, if the kitchen was even attached to the house itself.

Making a hot meal during the summertime wasn’t exactly something you wanted to do near the main living quarters before the advent of air conditioning.

But manufacturers and scientists were busy cooking up new ideas for American palates. 

In the Roaring Twenties, pre-packaged foods were an appealing novelty and sugar was suddenly cheap, dramatically raising the consumption of candy and soft drinks. Two decades later, sugar (as well as meat and coffee) was rationed and everyone had a Victory Garden.

 

By the mid-’70s, dieting was big; we had cyclamates; and new appliances allowed latchkey children to have dinner ready by the time their working parents got home.

Know somebody who’s hungry for a different kind of home-and-garden book? Then fork over “The Warmest Room in the House.” Gdula has cooked up a tasty history of food and home, but what makes this most enjoyable is the way Gdula wraps current events around the things Americans had on their plates. 

Seeing a chaptered timeline of the products that landed on countertops over the past 100 years is enjoyable, too.

 

A century ago, cooks didn’t have pop-up toasters or Pop Tarts.  Coffee and tea weren’t sold in little bags.

Meals could take hours to make and dishes were done by hand in the sink. Most meals were eaten at home because fast-food hadn’t been invented yet.

Be aware that there are no recipes in here, but that doesn’t make this any less fun. If you’re a foodie, a pop-culture historian, or if you’d love to bite into a good book about something unusual, “The Warmest Room in the House” is the book to serve up.