My parents had just one party a year, always on Christmas Eve.
This party was firmly rooted in our kitchen, where women in beehive hairdos and men in plaid jackets would spend hours sitting around our Formica kitchen table laughing, eating, smoking and drinking the night away.
As a little kid, I always wondered why the party never moved into our far more comfortable living room. Didn’t they even want to see our Christmas tree?
Like so many mysteries of childhood, I gained a greater understanding when I grew up and acquired a kitchen of my own.
When friends come to visit me, the kitchen is where we all linger. Try as I might to lure people into the living room with a crackling fire in the fireplace and a table filled with hors d’oeuvres, my friends stick to the kitchen like burned tomato sauce sticks to a pan (I’m not much of a cook).
Of course, I do the same thing when I’m invited out. I’ll stand around a counter island, or settle into a chair around the kitchen table, and then I’ll stay put.
For me, the kitchen is where good news is announced, confidences exchanged and, more frequently as I age, sad news delivered. More than any other room in the house, this room has increasingly become the place to interact with friends and family.
Perhaps that’s due to traditions like my parents’ Christmas Eve party. Perhaps it’s just because that’s where the beer is most readily accessible.
For earlier generations, the kitchen wasn’t always such a convivial place, especially for women. “My mother used to hate having parties because she would always get stuck in the kitchen alone,” my friend Andrea recalled. Cliff, who grew up on a local dairy farm, agreed that the kitchen of his childhood was simply a place for his mom to prepare food.
Many in my mother’s generation did indeed get stuck in the kitchen alone as they nightly cranked out a steady stream of meatloaf, spaghetti and pot roast.
But food preparation roles have changed over time, as have eating patterns. We don’t all eat dinner together every night. We’re also eating out a lot more, making our home kitchens oftentimes the most neglected room in the house.
It may be neglected when we’re eating out, but it’s not overlooked when it comes to design. Kitchens are typically bigger, fancier and, most importantly of all, incorporated into a family’s living space in a way that just didn’t happen a generation ago.
These expansive kitchens are surely more comfortable than the small rooms we grew up with, but there are plenty of small, old-fashioned kitchens out there that are filled to overfilling whenever a crowd stops by.
Is it simply, my friend Bob suggests, because that’s where the food is? Or is it a desire to stay connected to the cook?
Maybe it’s just an inertia that comes with age. You don’t see many 5-year-olds clustered in kitchens.
In many ways, a kitchen’s utility — its function as a place for preparing food to be shared — engenders engagement and fosters a communal environment. Can I chop that onion for you? Should this come out of the oven now? Where’s your dishwashing detergent?
I’ve come to think of this time in the kitchen with friends and family as emblematic of our connections and what we mean to each other. We help each other. We want to stay connected. We care. And we do all of these things most often here amongst the pots and pans, the cluttered countertops and the dirty dishes.