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Cooking Up Memories

With all of today's handy gadgets, people miss the smells, tastes and buzz of activity from the times when kitchens were a pinch of this and a handful of that.

March 29, 1997|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Industrial Revolution has turned the home from a productive unit into a consuming maw, and from a nest and refuge to a 'physical service station,' a battery of bought conveniences from which individuals recharge themselves with food and sleep."

--Christina Hardyment

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Julie Walker collects old cookbooks because they give her a taste of what life was like in the days before microwaves and food processors.

"It's like reading part of history," says the 37-year-old Irvine resident. "Nothing is hurried or rushed, whereas today everything is menus-in-a-minute."

From reading the recipes, Walker has deduced that life in pre-1950s kitchens, while not easy, was less complicated and in many ways more satisfying than today. The recipes, for instance, usually require no more than six ingredients instead of the laundry list of exotic items that cookbooks call for today (ever try to find shiitake mushrooms?).

Back then, baking took time and good-old-fashioned elbow grease. One stirred the ingredients with a spoon instead of hitting the button on a food processor. Fewer fancy utensils were required.

Walker has had to guess her way through many old recipes that don't follow standard weights and measures; teaspoons and tablespoons were not yet necessities. Many vintage cookbooks don't list oven temperatures; they simply suggest baking the item in a very hot oven.

Not even Walker is about to give up the conveniences of modern kitchens, with their microwaves, food processors, electric bread makers and other gadgets that have evolved from curiosities to luxuries, and from luxuries to necessities.

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Yet there's a nostalgic feeling, shared by her and others who remember kitchens past, that in the rush to mechanization, the kitchen is no longer a center of activity shared by a family, neighbors and hired help but a pit stop of isolated consumption.

Walker's cookbooks provide a glimpse of how kitchens were once the focus of family and social life. They talk more about entertaining company than modern cookbooks do. They go into detail about how to set a table, "which a lot of people don't bother with anymore," Walker says.

In her book "From Mangle to Microwave: The Mechanization of Household Work," Christina Hardyment says labor-saving devices in the kitchen have had the unintended effect of fostering consumerism over community.

People buy bread, they don't bake it--unless they have an automatic bread maker. Even then, they no longer need others to pitch in with the kneading, and they're not as likely to send an extra loaf over to the neighbors.

Visit the kitchen of the 1908 Bennett Ranch House at Heritage Hill in Lake Forest, whose striking features include huge bins that could store up to 100 pounds of flour and sugar. One couldn't just run to the supermarket for a loaf of bread.

"You made everything," says Priscilla Hoel, a Heritage Hill docent.

The home's onetime occupant, Frances Bennett, was known for always having a batch of fresh cookies to share with neighbors. Such simple pleasures, once common, have been lost to busy schedules. Baking bread, butchering meat, brewing beer and other methods of food preparation often involved the help of family members and servants (they were quite common, even in middle-income homes, until World War I, Hardyment says). Not that Hardyment, too, doesn't see the value of many of today's modern conveniences:

In her book, she wrote, "Without food processors or convenient little packets from the grocer, even that simplest of puddings, the jelly, meant hard work.

"Improved kitchen plumbing, dishwashers and small kitchen machinery mean that preparing meals can be a swift, undemanding task. In theory at least, the family need no longer be dominated by the old and essential chore of feeding itself."

Still, when dinner means popping a ready-made meal into the microwave, people miss the smells, tastes and buzz of activity generated in kitchens past.

Mary Colby, an antiques appraiser in San Clemente, has warm memories of her mother's kitchen. She was born in 1914 and grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana. The kitchen was in a separate room from the house.

"It was a simple kitchen, with cupboards that had holes punched through to circulate air, and an old-fashioned ice box. Ice was brought in every day," Colby recalls. Her mother, born in the 1880s, cooked on a wood-burning stove.

"I don't know how she made such beautiful lemon meringue pies," Colby says.

Her mother used no electrical appliances--just granite ware, measuring cups, a shaker for flour and some hand-operated utensils.

"You should have seen how long it took to make an angel food cake," says Colby. "We'd beat and beat the egg whites."

Colby still has a copy of the popular Boston Cooking School Cookbook that her mother, and many other women, used. She appreciates the brevity of the recipes.

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