“…the heart of this common area is a kitchen or an eating area since shared food has more capacity than almost anything to be the basis for common feelings…
…all the members of the family [need] to accept, fully, the fact that taking care of themselves by cooking is as much a part of life as taking care of themselves by eating.” Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language
Food is not the center of life, as though providing the reason for living. But it is the center of life, as providing the natural context of daily living together as human persons.
To get the realm of food and eating right should be a central concern in our home. This will actually foster getting most everything else right too.
The bodily nourishment of man has three main stages: production, preparation, and consumption, and each of these were pillars of the traditional household. The first was often the main outside work and the second the main inside work of the household.
Learning to work together is essential to close human relationship and community life; and the outside work of the household has effectively vanished. Food preparation in the home, then, should be a privileged area of our focus as a place to learn to work, and thus be, together.
Alexander sees cooking—herein we include all in-house food prep—as parallel to eating as a way of taking care of oneself. Surely we can extrapolate: to cook is to take care of others; it is to serve them, to give them life, and to love them. It can also be a way to be with them. We can habituate ourselves and our children to experience these aspects of cooking.
We are in this together—the work of preparation as well as the eating—each of which has its own pleasures, and power to unite us.
Perhaps the wife cooks most often. But then the husband too should see this business as still his own; he should neither feel nor be remote from it. From an early age children can have an integral part in this whole project, a part that grows organically through the years. They need to become competent, and with some effort and patience on our part they will, and feel comfortable in the kitchen knowing they make a real contribution.
This is not about efficiency. It is about communal life, a sense of responsibility and a sense of belonging. How many times have I made the mistake of putting efficiency first? So I have brushed my children aside, or worse, made them feel incompetent, when I might have invested myself in forming them to succeed, and to live their part of the whole. Then we wonder why this generation has little sense of responsibility.
The design and disposition of our kitchen space will reflect these convictions. Alexander emphasizes that the space should be arranged with an eye to encouraging work by a number of people, as well as the comfortable presence of non-workers, perhaps the elderly or guests. Likewise it will accommodate that informal eating together that so naturally follows food preparation, especially at certain times of the day.
Our homes are more and more devoid of life, becoming places where individuals do their own thing, resting up and refueling to ‘go back out’ to life. The kitchen may be the room of our last stand, or even a restoration, where two ways stand open before us. It can be the living organ of the household, throbbing at its center, where attending to human necessity daily occasions real human living. The choice is ours.
More from Alexander:
“Make the kitchen bigger than usual, big enough to include the ‘family room’ space, and place it near the center of the commons, not so far back in the house as an ordinary kitchen. Make it large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room.” Pp. 662-63
“To strike the balance between the kitchen which is too small, and the kitchen which is too spread out, place the stove, sink, and good storage and counter in such a way that:
1. No two of the four are more than 10 ft apart.
2. The total length of counter—excluding sink, stove, and refrigerator—is at least 12 feet.
3. No one section of the counter is less than 4 feet long.
There is no need for the counter to be continuous or entirely ‘built-in’ as it is in many modern kitchens—it can even consist of free-standing tables or counter tops. Only the three functional relationships described above are critical.” P. 855.
This is the third of several posts taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.
Christopher Alexander (born 1936) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.
Image: Leon Lhermitte (1844-1925), The Midday Meal