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Life in the USA
American Food Culture
A gleaming new dream kitchen on display at a home goods store.
The American Dream Kitchen
Americans love their kitchens, perhaps more than they love preparing food in them. In many American homes the kitchen acts as the family social center. New American home designs now frequently incorporate a combination kitchen and family room arrangement, resulting in a large, unencumbered family space. The family refrigerator may function as a key communications center, since Americans use refrigerator magnets to affix notices, lists, emergency numbers, photographs, brochures and other information to these and other kitchen appliances. Any experienced real estate agent will agree that the appearance of the kitchen is one of the most important factors in the successful sale of an American home.
Every year, statistics reveal that fewer and fewer Americans are cooking regular meals at home; the trend is toward purchasing ready-made meals and eating at restaurants. Ironically, interest in cooking (and hence kitchens) is at an all time high. Kitchen renovation ideas make regular copy for shelter and lifestyle magazines and for a wide range of television programs. Custom kitchen renovation businesses exist by the thousands, ranging from small independent and custom operators, to licensed dealers of popular brands of kitchen cabinetry and fittings, to the giant home stores like The Home Depot and Lowe’s. Kitchen renovation is expensive, and often requires extra financing, frequently secured by the value of the home. It is also extremely disruptive to life in the American home. It is nevertheless popular.
The result in many cases is a beautiful home area in which major culinary capacities remain under-utilized. The modern kitchen may have a stove with a “bridge-burner” feature that allows two round burners to merge into one oblong cooker. This would be necessary were the cook to go to the trouble of poaching a whole fish in a large fish poacher, an unlikely event in most American homes. The oven may have computer-controlled features like convection, delayed start, broiling and warming capabilities, only to be ignored entirely in favor of the microwave oven. The microwave itself may never be used to cook, but rather only to heat or re-heat commercially prepared foods.
The realities of actual use, of course, have little bearing on the American desire to have a “dream kitchen.” The notion of home cooking is so deeply engrained in the American consciousness that restaurants often claim their dishes are “home made” in order to increase their appeal (with no one questioning the logic). To any American interested in food, going without a fully equipped modern kitchen would be impossible. In the dream kitchen, the owner would not only have the kitchen, but cook in it regularly. Time, unfortunately, and the demands of a busy, multitasking world often dictate a different scenario. The American home chef might have to settle for preparing a few good meals a year, for holidays and special occasions and for invited guests. The primary comfort lies in knowing the full kitchen is there when it is needed.
The most elaborate aspect of the dream kitchen is, of course, the actual space itself. The ideal design gives plenty of storage space without sacrificing counter and working space. Supply companies offer clever options to use otherwise inaccessible space, whether to store spices, aluminum, and plastic wraps, bulk foods, canned goods, or plastic containers. Lighting must, of course, be optimized for both ambient and focused use. A center island, ideally with its own electrical outlets and built-in utility sink, will add workspace. Racks may be suspended from the ceiling to allow for storage and proud display of cookware.
A large, sturdy, full-featured refrigerator is essential. The refrigerator will have a built-in freezer; a separate stand-alone freezer may be added for extra capacity. Modern refrigerators have built-in outside cold water and ice dispensers. A smaller utility refrigerator may be used in a family room or den for cold drinks and snacks. Wine aficionados might maintain special refrigerators designed to keep the wines at the proper storage temperature. Non-refrigerated wine storage systems range from simple racks to full size rooms.
The dream kitchen would have an automatic dishwasher; the sink (preferably more than one) would have a built-in food disposal unit and a separate spraying hose. In addition to a large, high-powered microwave oven, the dream kitchen would have twin conventional or convection ovens. The stove may be a sleek, smooth cook-top or, for the true chef, a high-powered industrial-level six burner, gas range. Small appliances like toasters, coffee grinders, and blenders would be prominently displayed, as would be a range of attractive cutting boards and serving dishes.
As an outdoor extension of the kitchen, the well-equipped American home might have an outdoor grill or barbecue, ranging from simple charcoal cookers to elaborate gas-fired grills that do it all.
Americans are bombarded with advertisements, catalogs and offers for elaborate sets of cookware and knives. One gourmet catalog offers a “classic 23-piece knife set” for just under a thousand dollars. Even serious chefs are likely to find they use several of these knives frequently, the rest rarely or not at all. The same applies to the cookware: one or two skillets or saucepans do all the work, the rest molder unused. Even so, the addicted “foodie” will maintain a full set of German-manufactured craft knives in one wooden knife block, another set of evocative Japanese santoku knives in another knife block, a full set of multi-layer clad cookware, another set of anodized non-stick cookware, an assortment of French enameled cast-iron cookware, and a wide variety of gadgets, food processors, cake pans, molds, mixers and specialty accessories.
The kitchen would not be complete without fine matched sets of table linens, dishes, cutlery, mugs for coffee and tea (plain and imprinted), and possibly a range of glasses for the enjoyment of various wines. The serious kitchen might also have several sets of dinnerware, some kept for special occasions, some adorned with holiday (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween) motifs. The kitchen or dining room may contain a hutch, sideboard or cabinet used to display fine or collectible china.
High-end cookware and related items are sold in the United States in chains like Williams
Sonoma, Sur La Table, Crate and Barrel, and independent specialty shops, in home goods
chains like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Linens ‘N Things, in major department stores, in
outlets stores like Kitchen Collection and Le Gourmet Chef, and online.