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Someone's in the Kitchen

March 5, 2008 | 9 Comments

Post to the Host:
I have a very unusual house built in 1900. The kitchen is and always has been in the basement. I have done a title search and found the first title exchange listed Hermine B. Deragisch as the seller. Later research showed she was born in Austria and her husband Lea C. Deragisch was born in Switzerland. Their first American residence was in Springfield, Minnesota. In one Prarie Home Companion show I thought I heard Garrison say "the women went down to the kitchen". Was I hearing correctly and is there a style of house which has the kitchen in the basement?

Jennifer B.
Salem, OR

The kitchen at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church is in the basement and so is the dining hall and fellowship room. I'm not aware of any residence with a basement kitchen. Women would not tolerate that, I think, unless there were a good reason — perhaps there'd be a summer kitchen down there, since it's cooler in the basement, or maybe a canning kitchen, but not your primary kitchen, which is a social center, and the basement is not where you'd want to take people to socialize. It has punitive connotations. Also an atmosphere of storage.


I remember the basement at the
church of my youth. We had youth
group parties, wedding receptions,
women's luncheons and fashions
shows, and later I even taught
pre-schoolers motor movement on
rainy days.

It was warm in the winter (from
the ovens), and cool in the summer.

What memories...
San Clemente, CA

Interesting. In the less Nordic world of ethnic Americans, as seen on the East Coast, there are frequently two kitchens; the one upstairs being used for breakfasts and other light duties, but the really heavy-duty cooking gets done in the basement kitchen.

Old town houses, especially in Europe, were often built with the kitchen in the basement, since it was work space for the servants rather than part of the house for The Family. Remember "Upstairs, Downstairs." My family, newly arrived at a diplomatic posting in London in 1958, spent a month temporarily housed in a rowhouse with the kitchen in the basement. My mother nearly went nuts.

I don't know if this is an Italian or an Italian-American thing, but on the east coast, we were always told that Italian houses had 2 kitchens, one for show that was always clean (obviously the one on the main floor) and the one in the basement where the "serious" cooking went on. Aaaaaah, and what cooking it was!!

You bring up the matter of a Church kitchen, not a residence kitchen. Most churches I have been in during my lifetime (and that number would be over 300, most of them Lutheran) have a kitchen in the basement if they have any. The main floor is devoted to the sanctuary. There usually isn't a story above that level. Any side rooms would be for offices or classroom space and the basement would be the most expansive area other than the sanctuary for a fellowship area where the church dinners and other activities would be held. Where better to put the kitchen then next to the fellowship area, and that usually translates to the basement. Also most of the churches that don't have the kitchen in the basement don't have a basement.

You can be sure that the ladies of the congregation only mind when the area is small, cramped, too damp, etc. They will do everything possible to make it a very comfortable area and to their liking, and inviting for visitors.

The previous poster is absolutely correct.

My parents grew up in a little mining town in the anthracite region of central Pennsylvania.
Every house in that town had two kitchens,
one on the main floor and another in the basement.
Each had a coal-burning stove that did double duty
as a food-preparation center and, incredibly enough, a source of heat for the rest of the house.
-Patrricia Stringer,
Philadelphia, PA

Possibly the clue is in the owner being Austrian - a European. Many family homes - especially larger ones - in Europe had the kitchen in the basement because it was considered inelegant to have cooking odors wafting through the house. Only the homes of the working-class assaulted your nose with the smell of cabbage boiling because the kitchen was on the same floor as the dining room. I'm writing from a part of Europe that used to be Germany. Friends have a house that had its kitchen in a low-ceilinged basement, too - cramped, dark, dingy (one tiny window at ground level). But the house was the summer home of a doctor, in a spa town. The servants were invisible downstairs, food was brought up back stairs into a sort of pantry (now the 'modern' - tiny - first-floor kitchen), and dishes taken away to be washed in a scullery in the basement (a separate room from the kitchen). It's awfully dreary! But that was elegance about a hundred or so years ago. My friends are planning to use it as a canning kitchen one day.

In the US, some houses had their kitchens in a separate building or lean-to. The idea was that since a fire was going all the time in the kitchen, if the wood-frame kitchen building or lean-to caught fire, it would be possible to save the rest of the building from burning down. And of course, in hot weather, the heat of the kitchen was kept in the kitchen. Mark Twain wrote about such a kitchen at his uncle's farm in his autobiography.

Amish friends have 2 kitchens in their house one upstairs, one downstairs. When they were building their home, the basement was built first and then the upstairs was finished as the men got to it. So the family lived a year or so in the basement. It also serves them well when church is at their house. My real question is for Garrison. What is the secret of you prolificness?

My Italian grandmother always cooked in the basement of her Chicago home.....and in the basement of the Catholic church. Frying up Italian sausage and bell peppers in the heavy summer heat was a lot more tolerable down there. Only in winter did she come upstairs to cook.

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