The Kitchen House Summary
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The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom examines the history of slavery, indentured servitude, and the helplessness that females experienced in the American South at the turn of the nineteenth century. As the book begins, six-year-old Lavinia McCarten and her parents are emigrating from Ireland; along the way, her parents perish. When they reach America, Lavinia and her brother are forced to pay for the passage, and so must become indentured servants to work off the cost of the journey. They are separated; Lavinia works in the home of a ship captain, where the kitchen slave, Belle, raises her.
When she arrives, Lavinia is sick, but Belle, along with Lavinia’s surrogate mother, Mama Mae, help her recover. The home is called Tall Oaks, and Lavinia becomes an integral part of the household. Belle, Mama Mae, and Dory teach her how to clean and cook. She is privy to farm secrets, including the fact that Belle is the captain’s daughter, and she saves the captain’s son from his tutor’s abuse.
When the captain’s wife, Mrs. Pyke, gives birth to one child but loses another, Lavinia takes on caring for the infant boy. She names him Campbell, after her own infant brother whom she recalls. Not only does Lavinia remain close to Campbell as he grows up, but Mrs. Pyke decides to teach Lavinia how to become a lady. The Pyke family travels to Pennsylvania for the summer, and both Mrs. Pyke and Campbell must leave Lavinia behind, though she looks after Sukie, Dory’s baby.
Yellow fever, a rampant illness during the summer, strikes and kills Mrs. Pyke’s father, as well as Dory and Campbell. Though the captain also gets yellow fever, he survives, but is weak and dies two years following his infection. In the face of her grief, Mrs. Pyke goes temporarily insane, and moves to Williamsburg, Virginia, where her sister lives, to be hospitalized. Lavinia accompanies her while she heals.
While in Williamsburg, Lavinia meets a widower who asks her to marry him. She agrees, but after he attempts to take advantage of her because she is an innocent, their relationship ends. Instead, she marries Marshall Pyke, who has inherited the farm at Tall Oaks. She is initially thrilled to return home, but quickly learns that things have changed there. Marshall is violent and imposes many expectations on her that she feels unable to fulfill as lady of the house.
Her situation leads her into a deep depression. Marshall drinks a lot, and has an affair with Beattie, one of his slaves. They have many children together, and Lavinia resents Marshall because he doesn’t even attempt to hide this from her. She becomes addicted to laudanum, an opiate that was popular at the time. All seems lost until Lavinia learns that Marshall has racked up numerous gambling debts, and in order to pay them off, he is selling his slaves, breaking up their families. She helps many of the slaves run away, accompanying them.
Before she can celebrate their mutual escape from Marshall’s violence and destruction, he hangs Mama Mae. Lavinia returns to Tall Oaks and witnesses Belle’s son, Jamie, murder Marshall in retribution. To save him, she takes the gun and is tried instead of Jamie. After the trial, she is pronounced not guilty and walks away a free widow, with the remaining funds attached to the Tall Oaks estate, and the slaves that once belonged to Marshall, who are now free and working for a salary.
Over the course of the novel, Lavinia learns that her brother went to work as an indentured servant with a blacksmith, but only survived for three years after their arrival in America. She is truly alone and must fend for herself, which makes her own servitude, first as an indentured worker and then as the wife of the violent and overbearing Marshall, more poignant.
A number of themes weave through this novel, most prominent among them indentured servitude and slavery. Both remove characters’ freedoms and place them in the path of danger. For Lavinia, as a young child, she didn’t understand the difference between indentured servitude and slavery, but as she grows up, she begins to see that there is a difference in the way she and the slaves are treated. The importance of family is another key theme in The Kitchen House; it’s what draws Lavinia to marry Marshall. In addition, she continually loses and gains family throughout the novel. The loving family Lavinia finds in the kitchen with Belle and Mama Mae contrasts with the cold upbringing Marshall is forced to endure, and the results show in the characters’ adult personalities.
I wrote two articles recently Are Dining Rooms Becoming Obsolete and How Science, Art and Technology Are Creating the Kitchen of the Future, which led me to question whether the kitchen may now be the most important room of the home. I discussed this with decorators, kitchen designers, architects, realtors, editors and friends both in and out of the design business to hear their thoughts.
The Kitchen is the heart of the home
They say that the kitchen is the heart of the home. And we have to believe it’s true. Whether small or large, the kitchen is the hub of the home. It is where the meals are created – it fuels the bodies, minds and souls of friends and families all over the world. Some say that while life may be created in the bedroom, it is certainly lived in the kitchen. Some tend to agree while others not so much. Where do you stand on this?
Much of the importance of this room seems to depend on the size of the kitchen, the family, and on lifestyle. In older homes, kitchens were smaller, separated and removed from the rest of the home. It was a contained space used almost exclusively for cooking that could be closed off to conceal the mess. Family and friends would eat and congregate in the dining and living rooms that were situated nearby. In older homes more importance was given to the dining and living rooms. Kitchens were utilitarian and that was about it.
Whereas kitchens were once solely for cooking they are now also for living
Kitchens were for cooking. We all have memories of our mothers (in some cases the father or both parents) slaving over a stove, working tirelessly over countertops, preparing delicious, filling and nutritious meals that the family enjoyed and savored together. In some cases children were told to keep out of the kitchen – mother’s workspace – so that mother could prep and cook. In most cases children were encouraged to join and learn the art of cooking, the joy of preparing a family or holiday meal together, thus creating true memories of a lifetime. Kitchens are not sedate and quiet rooms. They are rooms filled with energy, aroma and texture. They were created with a purpose, one purpose in mind. They were created to be utilitarian spaces.
The kitchen was not always where the family congregated
In medium sized and larger homes, these rooms were often large enough to house a table large enough to seat a family for breakfast, a snack or a light meal, with the important meals still meant to be served in the dining room where the family congregated at the end of the day. The family meal had much more importance and significance in past generations than it does now – much of this, again, due to busier lifestyles of modern times.
The kitchen is the new living room
Over the course of the past 20 years or so, kitchens started to become living spaces with more time spent in these spaces and where more was done than just cooking. Newer homes were designed with kitchens as living spaces in mind and so these rooms became larger to better accommodate family and friends as an additional space for entertaining. Many kitchens began to open up to other rooms, yet some remained separate spaces. These newer, larger, more accommodating kitchens now had space for large tables and islands were planned in to create a natural flow for those coming and going. Much more thought was being given to kitchen design and functionality. The idea of the kitchen as a living space was becoming more and more popular and those with smaller kitchens in older homes started to take notice. As a result homeowners started to alter and enlarge their own kitchen spaces to follow the “trend,” both for lifestyle and resale purposes.
The importance of kitchen size today
Today the importance of a good sized, productive kitchen is vastly important. It is, according to many, the most important room of the house. In the eyes of realtors it certainly is. A house’s resale depends greatly on its kitchen. Its location and functionality are key. Older kitchens must be made to look newer, more streamlined and more modern. For resale purposes, it is not unheard of for sellers to bring in new accessories, paint and appliances are brought in to help the sale. Many buyers, when considering an older home with a smaller kitchen, immediately look into renovation possibilities that may include a remodel, expansion, or blowing out a wall to create a more open feel. As our lives become more casual, our homes are as well and the walls are literally coming down all around us.
The importance of living and dining areas today
With much less importance being paid to separate living and dining areas in today’s modern times, the importance seems to be almost solely concentrated on the kitchen space. Much attention is being paid to the room’s layout, design and functionality. There are still those who will argue and tell you that their living and dining room areas do matter greatly, even if they are only used a couple of times a year. Again, much of this is reflective on lifestyle.
Today’s kitchen is much more than a kitchen
Newer kitchens, while called kitchens, are really so much more. Today’s kitchen is today’s family living space. These large rooms house several areas within. There is the kitchen area – the designated cooking space – thoughtfully, carefully planned and laid out. Then there’s the dining area within the kitchen, usually large enough to hold a table that comfortably seats 6 or more, and finally, in many of these larger kitchens, is the sitting area, so that in effect, the whole family can hang out together while cooking, working or relaxing. Many new homes embracing the more casual lifestyle are being built without a dining room or formal living area. For those who enjoy entertaining and do so often, even the homes with formal dining and living areas find that the crowd usually gathers in the kitchen.
Size does matter
So clearly size does matter. When asked whether the kitchen was the most important room of the home, the result was pretty evenly divided. Those with smaller kitchens tended not to think that these rooms were the most important – necessary but not most important. Those with larger ones absolutely believed them to be the most important space in their home. Lifestyle was a large influence as well. Those who enjoy cooking and entertaining view the kitchen as an important and integral space – contributing greatly to family life, even if the space was not large enough to be “lived in.” For these people kitchen efficiency is very important. For families where cooking and eating is very much a part of their lifestyle and tradition, cooking, teaching, sharing recipes, and passing them down from generation to generation was important to many – and this is done in the kitchen, regardless of size, with the belief that cooking with a child, or as a family, is an important moment in family life and not to be dismissed or taken lightly.
The kitchen is ever evolving
The kitchen is ever evolving. Builders, architects, designers and realtors all recognize this, as do kitchen manufacturers. Kitchen functionality and design is ever evolving based on today’s busy and varied lifestyle, with much thought given to where we are deaded in the future. Kitchen appliances, from refrigerators to dishwashers and ovens are constantly changing as well. New products, concepts and designs emerge into the marketplace every year. Perhaps the best example of this is the Kitchen of 2063 that I highlighted here. Kitchens are also becoming more environmentally friendly, using recycled materials, environmentally friendly products and incorporating “greener” lifestyles that cut down on our footprint. For example, in the UK garbage disposals have been banned and composting is a must in every home. Modern kitchens are being designed with this in mind.