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The really retro kitchen: Who'd rather have a hearth than a fancy stainless range, etc.?

New kitchens gleam like new cars, full of promise and shiny-clean metal. Nothing wrong with that. We have a somewhat older kitchen, and I find myself alternately thinking a new one would be nice vs. pondering the charm of incredibly old-style rudimentary kitchens... places where you could crack a coconut without fear of denting something.

That nostalgia, which I'm not saying is necessarily practical for the way we do things in modern life, comes from two places... one, seeing this old kitchen setup at TempleOfThai.com, and two, seeing an Anthony Bourdain "No Reservations" segment where they ate at a Tibetan house that had something a little more polished but reminiscent of this.

What about a kitchen where you can sit down and pound things? What about a huge hearth you can sit on a stool next to peeling potatoes? I'm not saying I would alter my current kitchen to do this, but sometimes I wonder if this wouldn't be better.



Leaving out lead water pipes, rats and the like.

Chow's piece about modern hippie kitchens also contributed to the thought.

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  1. I sometimes dream of building a new home with a two room kitchen, one with open hearth, brick oven, hand pumped well water; the other ultra modern six burner gas fired professional grade range, convection oven, microwave. etc. Idea is to prepare identical dishes in the two kitchens and compare results. Only cross over element I would insist on is my cast iron cooking vessels. They'd have to be in both kitchens.
    Not gonna happen though. I don't play the lottery ...

    2 Replies
    1. re: todao

      I like your line of thinking. Everytime I see one of those attempts at a second 'outdoor' kitchen I start itching to do similar.

      I don't think a stone cistern holding tank above the hearth to heat the water for the kitchen and the ancient spa tub would quite work though. Nice thought, alas.

      1. re: Cinnamon

        I built a wood-fired oven as the centerpiece of my outdoor kitchen, and it is SO much fun. The natural convection of the oven and the more moist cooking environment definitely make a difference. I wouldn't want to give up my modern gadgets, but the WFO does things that the inside kitchen just can't, both functional and aesthetic.

    2. Many middle class filipinos have a really nice high tech kitchen in the house and a "dirty kitchen" out back for the deep frying and so on. Makes good sense - other than that some never use the inside kitchen.

      On the other hand, here in my apartment I have a modern kitchen and up at the finca I have as primative as you can get.

      1 Reply
      1. hmmmmm.... How long do I have to think about the romance of an open hearth kitchen? Lemme see....

        A nice wrought iron hook that swings in and out that is capable of supporting a giant iron cauldron full of stock with carrots and onions and whole rabbits and partridges swimming in it? Yeah. I could go for that. I'll just have a whole lot of trenchermen pals in for dinner. No problem.

        A lovely spit with a nice scullery kid -- maid or lad -- to turn the handle while a juicy animal roasts, dropping its fatty fluids onto the waiting Yorkshire pudding below. Okay. And I get first pick of the tenderest fatty bits with the most flavor. And the lad or lass can clean up the mess.

        And then there's sitting on a stool next to the hearth on a cold blustery morning, warming one's cockles by baring them to the coals while warming ones hands on with a huge clay mug of hot tea.

        And by now the bloody hearth is piled high with annoying ashes that have to be raked up and shoveled into buckets, dragged outside and pray you have a yard or garden big enough to spread the ashes over without ruining the crops or tilting the soil toward ain't-nothing-gonna-grow-here-in-YOUR-lifetime!

        hmmmm... Yeah. I'd like a nice large art poster of an open hearth in my kitchen where I can sit and admire it in the air conditioned breakfast area while sipping a nice fresh cup of espresso from the super automatic machine that washes and cleans itself, while the nice crusty artisan bread bakes its way to perfection in the convection oven and a nice enameled cast iron pot simmers the coq au vin on the sleek seamless cook top and I'm washed with a feeling of contentment and well being. And if I need ash for my garden, I'll go to the damned store and buy it! '-)

        4 Replies
        1. re: Caroline1

          Caroline1, you left an important part of your open-hearth kitchen, the Brad Pitt lookalike swashbuckling corsair, just returned from vanquishing pirates off the Barbary Coast, now content to sit in front of the hearth with you and nibble your toes. Where are you going to buy that accessory?

          1. re: Politeness

            "While greasy Joan doth keel the pot"

            1. re: Politeness

              Who needs a Brad Pitt look-alike when I can have George Clooney right here flappin' my jacks?

              Now, all I have to do is figure out how.

            2. I used to visit a writer I knew at a home in the southern Polish countryside, and they had a large wood-fired oven with chambers for baking, grates for pots and pans, and a well for a large stockpot, which was usually used for heating water for bathing, rather than stock. It was a lot of work keeping it going, and there seemed to be people cooking all the time, otherwise it wouldn't really have been practical, but it was an impressive thing.

              1. A simple way to dabble in this is to get a Dutch Oven, a real cast iron one with 3 legs and rimmed lid (not a frou-frou French enameled one), and bag of charcoal.

                Good Eats had a 'going dutch' episode using such a device. There was also a GE episode with a 'spit girl'. Was that the popover (and cousins) episode, or one with a roast?

                Dinner Impossible had a Williamsburg episode, which made hearth cooking seem really fun :)

                I'm quite willing to watch returns of the Ruidoso chuck wagon cookoffs.

                1 Reply
                1. re: paulj

                  Great ideas, thanks.

                  The closest I've gotten this week is buying my husband a small grill pig. That was not a typo:

                  It's only appetizer-sized, but I'm going to station it inside the fireplace. Also need to haul out the cast iron dutch oven and explore fireplace cooking. Ours doesn't have three legs, I'll need to improvise.

                2. Funny, In the 50's hoboes were still around (and I can sing Jimmy Dickens' "Hobo Bill"). Some of my earliest cooking was in the back yard where I made a fire pit and a tripod, hung a pot and made "hobo stew" that we all actually ate!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    How do you prepare the hobos before cooking?

                    1. re: Cinnamon

                      You know, people used to discuss the differences among hoboes, tramps, and bums. So I guess its like green onions, ramps, and chives - similar but different prep and cooking methods.

                      Hobo Bill might have replied, "Ah allus yuster chop up a vegteryun hobo hin hit allus come out lak uh vee get able stew. Tairnt bad 'tall iffn yuh hangry."

                  2. We looked at a house that didn't really have a "retro" kitchen, but it was an early 20th century house that had cleary had some sort of addition added to it when running water was added.

                    The result was a very large open kitchen and in one corner was a big wood-burning stove (designed more for heating than cooking). Lots of cabinets and counter space, big tiles on the floor, and along the "new" wall the stove and sink and all. It was amazing. I envisioned myself, family, guests, sitting on big comfy couches around this stove, whomever was cooking right there to join in the fun.

                    I tried *SO* hard to overlook the one showstopping problem, but I simply could not. Another byproduct of the running water addition retrofit: There was only one bathroom in the entire joint. And it was right off this kitchen. :-( Ew.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: jzerocsk

                      Of course there was a time when, running water or not, the kitchen was the place where you took a bath - and did laundry - since the stove was your source of hot water.

                      1. re: paulj

                        You could just place a chop board across the bathtub and loll around there doing prep, if your supply of hot water was plentiful enough.

                      2. re: jzerocsk

                        It's our turn to live in the family homestead but when we moved in in 2007 the next thing we did was completely gut the kitchen. It hadn't had any major changes since 1947 when new cabinets were installed. My in-laws bought an old cape back in the 60s that needed a new kitchen but my MIL insisted on keeping the old woodburning cookstove. DH loved that stove so when another stove was available, he grabbed it. Our new kitchen was designed around it. The trouble is, it makes the kitchen too hot. It's great to use in the fall during the first cold mornings before we want to get the wood furnace going but all I've done for cooking is keep things warm in the oven and use the top for simple cooking. So far I have not made my husband's favorite meal, roast pork with fresh apple sauce simmering on top of the stove. It's nice to have when extra "burners" are needed during the holidays.
                        Since we have a wood furnace, we have lots and lots of wood ashes. A lot of them are used on the dirt driveway during ice conditions instead of sand. We also use some in the garden. However, you don't want to use too much near the house because they can be very messy if tracked in. We have ceramic tile floors precisely because we tend to have messy boots during much of the year.

                      3. A key fixture in kitchens in Kenya - no matter how modern and fitted out is the jiko - a coal burning clay pot that is used to make everything from fresh roasted papadums, roasting aubergines for roasted aubergine dishes (nothing can match that smoky flavour), making fresh gujarati style chapattis over a metal grill directly on the charcoal, cooking huge pots of ugali, boiling water for drinking and in the evenings the guards use this to keep them warm.

                        For large parties this is used for karoga's, a 4-6 hour group cooking process to make some of the tastiest mutton and chicken curries imaginable

                        An old-fashioned yet highly effective kitchen necessity.

                        1. A couple of things:
                          1. We built a couple of years ago. Have an open kitchen/f room/dining area (no formal dining room). Beside our table, we put in a wood fireplace and had my dad build us a four legged stand. We could beans and sausages in terra cotta pots we brought back from italy, roast chestnuts in the winter and have been known to roast marshmallows for smores for Christmas parties. We also have a regular wood burning fireplace in the family room. The house is not extravagant by any means, just things we wanted to do. Now, I want to look for one of those swing clamp things to hang a pot on. Our gas cooktop is a 6 burner jennair. The only problem is our hood range. We built it and drywalled it and now looks like this big painted elephant on the wall.
                          Looking for a design solution to make it look more appealing. The problem: have a backsplash behind the cooktop (tile), then have that fireplace (red reclaimed brick) for the dining fireplace and it is all open.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: itryalot

                            I'm not doing a great job of visualizing it, but would covering in a matte tile - perhaps a wood-look tile or brick-look tile - be an option for the range? That or some sort of acid-washed concrete look in a neutral color that goes with the floor, the walls or the fireplace... on the theory that fewer colors are better, when trying to tie things together.

                            Here are a couple links to some wood and wood-look and brick-look tile places:


                            1. re: Cinnamon

                              I am liking the acid wash concrete idea. MY DH is pretty handy, creative and artsy...think he could do it?

                              1. re: itryalot

                                Well, I've never tried it but it looks like a fun project. I would maybe suggest:

                                - Get a small bag of concrete and make a big plant planter and stain that first, to perfect the color. You can stick leaf cutouts and all sorts of things in the concrete as it's drying to create a relief design.

                                - Check Home Depot, Lowe's or somewhere and see if you can get a book (or at least flip through it) on proper procedure for acid-wash.

                                - Go lighter and more conservative on the color, as I would think if you had to you could deepen/build it, but not necessarily remove the color as easily.

                                The 'home boards' section of www.gardenweb.com might be helpful (forums).

                                Have fun!

                          2. Everyone is too caught up on this wood-burning, open hearth idea. You know, it's much more practical to just buy an old range.. complete with the water heater in the back, and shovel coal into it. Then you can bake your bread, boil water, and make stew at the same time. There's really no need to go back 200 years, when 125 is fine.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: 33limes

                              Is the old range that much easier - why not marry function and form?

                            2. But Alice Waters toasted her tomatoes in the fire place,not the wood stove :) A wood stove just isn't as romantic.