A passion for food and family is rooted in the Italian culture. And uniting both these loves within the confines of the Italian home is la cucina, the kitchen. It is the part of the house towards which the Italian family tends to gravitate, where women share their concerns, where modern Italian men give a hand, where friends are given a taste of food hot off the oven, where the conversation often flows along with the wine.
But this natural progression of the kitchen as a living area in the Italian household has been some time in the making. The table had always been an important place in Italian homes, but the size and location of kitchens depended on social status, and did much to affect its significance in the home.
Italian Kitchens Through The Ages
Back in medieval times, Italian kitchens were of two types:
- kitchens that were part of the big houses of the rich, usually located on the highest floor of the house to ensure that fumes were well-dispersed, or constructed a little away from the house so the smells of the kitchen would not bother its residents. These kinds of kitchens had an army of dozens of servants and cooks working in them. The ladies of the house rarely, if ever, ventured there.
- kitchens that were barely the corner of one-room homes, rooms in which farmers and artisans lived. The baking was done at a public oven, where the owner let an entire village use the services for a fee. These kitchens were used by the women of the household to make soups and broths and re-heat food.
With the rise of the middle class in the later part of the 18th century, a new kind of city kitchen appeared, one which was smaller than those in the houses of the really rich, but also held a table for eating. It retained the fireplace, il focolare (the fireplace), which continued in its role of providing warmth. Kitchens in the Tuscan countryside are sometimes called il focolare instead of la cucina, even today. The tradition of women from even the more affluent houses spending time in the kitchen took root, and the family began to linger more around the kitchen and the dining table.
In the early 20th century, Italian women began to take on roles outside the home, because of the War and the related scarcity of labour. At about this time, Viennese architect Margret Schutte-Lihotzky worked with architect Ernst Mayto to design a kitchen for the city of Frankfurt. These kitchens were meant for social housing, in order to shorten the hours a woman had to be in the kitchen, which would leave her time to go out of the house and work.
An improvement in technologies supported this concept of more efficient kitchens and very soon, ways were found to reduce or properly get rid of the fumes associated with cooking. This made the kitchen a relatively more pleasant place to be than the kitchen of the middle ages, and such kitchens now came into Italian homes. The Italian kitchen soon had various cooking appliances, racks for plates, proper storage compartments and work zones.
As the process of Italian modernisation picked up pace after the Second World War, home decoration became a fashionable preoccupation, and snazzy, modular kitchens became an area of display of wealth and refinement. Guests were entertained more and more in and around the kitchen. Women began to help their children with their homework in this space, or share a cup of coffee within its warm confines with their girlfriends.
Italian design was experiencing a boom in the 60’s and the Italian kitchens of today owe their prestige to the spurts of innovation at that time. Form and function were married successfully, and the tradition of Italian kitchens as the epitome of beauty and efficiency began.
From being an area largely avoided other than at mealtimes, the Italian kitchen began to take pride in its presence in the house. It was a well-lighted, comfortable and often spacious place to be, because the people at the dining table did not have to tolerate any smoke or smell.
Along with developments in the kitchen manufacturing industry in the last decades of the 20th century, Italy also saw a change in the equation between men and women. Italian men began to enter the kitchen to lend a hand or whip up a dish, and this soon transformed the atmosphere of the kitchen from one of “woman’s domain” to “family or living space.” It became a place where men and women interacted with each other and their children, becoming in effect a living room, a welcoming, cosy place to be.
The Modern Italian Kitchen
The modern Italian kitchen is a functional area, no doubt, but most Italians do not treat it like a place to just get the cooking done and leave. They prefer to linger, whether it is over their coffee or a meal, around the kitchen table. Or the dining table, which is now mostly a part of the kitchen, and in some cases separated by a short wall. Conversation flows between the person who cooks, and those who would eat the meal after a long day of work. This is the place where an Italian family spends most of its time together. An atmosphere of conviviality prevails when relatives and guests are around.
La cucina has now become an unapologetic symbol of love, of sharing, and even of moments of human empathy, something you see in the eponymous movie “La Cucina.” This was released in 2007 to some acclaim. In the film, we get to peep inside four different kitchens, four different situations, where men and women play out the saga of Italian life. The kitchen also becomes a place where reality and irony plays itself out. And it becomes a haven in times of emotional distress.
Irene Grandi, a noted Italian singer, expresses this role of the kitchen in making you feel good, its sheltering and restorative properties in her song again named “La cucina”. The kitchen almost becomes an indulgent, motherly character in her song as she says:
“Non c'è un altro posto al mondo ora /Che mi fa star meglio della mia cucina/ Se mi crolla tutto addosso ora/ Lei rimane in piedi ed io non sono sola,” which roughly translates to : “There is no place in the world now/ that makes me feel better than my kitchen/ if everything crashes on top of me now/ She remains standing, and I am not alone.”
The Italian kitchen is the one place where most Italians would remember having at least one important moment of their lives, where they had heard the stories of their nonna, the grandmother, or learned important life lessons from their parents. The kitchen is indeed at the heart of the Italian home, and of the Italian way of living.
By Damyanti Ghosh