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Kitchen technologies and mealtime rituals Abigail A. van Slyck

Kitchen technologies and mealtime rituals Abigail A. van Slyck

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Published by: Vormtaal on Aug 20, 2009
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Summer camps may seem like an odd place to study the relationshipbetween technology and culture.After all,organized camps—the industry’sterm for overnight camps attended by children without their parents—were initially established in the 1880s and 1890s as antidotes to overcivi-lization,a condition exacerbated by the technologies ofcomfort and con-venience that had blossomed in the second halfofthe nineteenth century.Although camps with distinct goals sprang up in subsequent decades,mostsought to develop in campers both the manual skills and the habit ofhardwork that would allow them to sever their dependence on modern tech-nology and regain the self-reliance oftheir forefathers.Touched by the anti-quarian impulse that also informed the Arts and Crafts movement andother late Victorian enthusiasms that T.J.Jackson Lears has identified withantimodernism,organized camping maintained a back-to-basics disdainfor technology throughout much ofthe twentieth century.Specializedcamps have emerged in recent decades to give campers intensive exposureto technology,but for many camp organizers the phrase “computer campremains an oxymoron.
Dr.Van Slyck is Dayton Associate Professor ofArt History at Connecticut College.She isthe author of 
Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and American Culture,1890–1920 
(Chicago,1995) and is currently working on a book manuscript titled
 A Manufactured Wilderness:Interpreting the Cultural Landscape ofAmerican Summer Camps,1890–1960 
.She thanksJoy Parr and the two
Technology and Culture
reviewers for their careful reading ofandthoughtful comments on earlier versions ofthis article.©2002 by the Society for the History ofTechnology.All rights reserved.0040-165X/02/4304-0002$8.001.For an overview ofthe range ofcamp types instituted in the late nineteenth andearly twentieth centuries,see Eleanor Eells,
History ofOrganized Camping: The First 100 Years
(Martinsville,Ind.,1986),chaps.2 and 3.T.J.Jackson Lears,
 No Place ofGrace: Antimodernism and the Transformation ofAmerican Culture,1880–1920 
(New York,1981),esp.chaps.2 and 4.
Kitchen Technologies and Mealtime Rituals
Interpreting the Food Axis at American Summer Camps,1890–1950
Kitchen Technologies and Mealtime Rituals
Yet ifcamp organizers deliberately decided not to adopt all ofthe tech-nological innovations available to them (a culturally significant act in itsown right),they did use technology selectively,especially in connectionwith food preparation.Well into the 1930s (and particularly during mal-nutrition scares in the 1910s),rebuilding the health ofurban-dwelling chil-dren was one ofthe explicit benefits ofthe camp experience,and mostcamps prided themselves on their ample,wholesome food.The challenge of providing three meals a day for a small army ofcampers was substantial,prompting many summer camps to make a dining hall with a properly equipped kitchen the first permanent building to grace the camp property.From this perspective,then,it is no more strange for summer camps toemploy available kitchen technologies than it would be for colleges,hospi-tals,or prisons to do so.
A great deal ofscholarly attention has been devoted to kitchen technolo-gies in private dwellings,but we know very little about the growing numbersofkitchens that operated outside the home in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.Molly Berger has considered the physical evolution of hotel kitchens,demonstrating their role in creating new standards ofrefine-ment by insulating genteel diners from the sounds and smells associated withfood preparation.Harvey Levenstein and Dolores Hayden have investigatedaspects ofpublic kitchens established at the end ofthe nineteenth century,first in Boston and later in other cities (especially in connection with socialsettlements such as Chicago’s Hull House),to reform the eating habits oftheworking poor.These not only provided cheap and nutritious meals (at leastaccording to contemporary scientific standards),but cooking took place inopen view in order to encourage customers to emulate slow-cooking tech-niques at home.But where neither the quality ofthe food nor the characterofthe dining experience was the primary focus,in institutions in whichmeals were simply an infrastructural adjunct to educational,medical,penal,or religious activities,kitchens have largely been ignored.These kitchenswere technological systems as necessary as those that provided light,heat,and sanitation,responding primarily to practical imperatives and contribut-ing little to the larger mission ofthe institutions they served.
Or were they? Can institutional kitchens tell us more about cultural pri-orities than we have assumed they can? Have we missed something by con-
2.On the relationship between summer camps and changing ideas about health,seeAbigail A.Van Slyck,“Housing the Happy Camper,
 Minnesota History 
58 (summer2002):68–83.For more on concerns about malnutrition in the 1910s,see Harvey A.Levenstein,
Revolution at the Table: The Transformation ofthe American Diet 
(New York,1988),112–20.3.Molly W.Berger,“The Magic ofFine Dining:Invisible Technology and the HotelKitchen,”
1 (1995):106–19.Levenstein,48–59.Dolores Hayden,
The GrandDomestic Revolution: A History ofFeminist Designs for American Homes,Neighborhoods,and Cities
sidering the kitchen in isolation from the other spaces and activitiesinvolved in producing and consuming meals—social rituals brimming withcultural meaning? Have we perhaps hampered our ability to interpret insti-tutional kitchens by focusing too closely on what happens within their fourwalls? Architectural historians have been guilty ofsuch lapses,even whenstudying domestic kitchens,as Elizabeth C.Cromley has pointed out.Herconcept of“the food axis,the system ofactivity arenas devoted to foodstorage,meal preparation,eating,and cleanup,is a very useful reminder tolook beyond the walls ofthe kitchen and to take seriously the interconnec-tions between seemingly disparate alimentary tasks.
In the case ofAmerican summer camps,a consideration ofthe entirefood axis will help us understand the relationship between developments inkitchen technologies and changes in socially constructed ideas about child-hood.Meals were key moments for camper socialization.Strictly observedmealtimes gave a clear and consistent structure to each day,and mealtimeorder and routine functioned to reconnect campers with civilized humansociety after periods ofrough-and-tumble activity in the more rustic cor-ners ofcamp.These were ritual occasions,both in the sense that they tended to follow predictable patterns in which each participant had a well-defined role and in the sense that those patterns were intended to commu-nicate important messages about the larger meaning ofcamp life.Meal-times were moments when the camp community acted out for itselfandothers its own sense ofits larger mission.An examination ofthe food axis at summer camps will also help usunderstand something about camps that we cannot learn from writtensources alone.Mealtime practices took on heightened importance in thelate nineteenth century and beyond,as eating became (in historian JohnKassons words) “the most exquisite social test”ofgenteel behavior.
Despite the apparent contradiction oflearning these behaviors in a rusticsetting,meals shine a bright light on a camp’s commitment to gentility andto class-inflected notions ofgender roles.Especially in the early years ofthecamp movement,from about 1880 into the 1920s,differences in mealtimerituals reveal a range ofattitudes that are almost invisible in written state-ments about the importance ofcamping for boys.That those differenceshad begun to disappear by the 1930s is undoubtedly the result ofthe grow-ing professionalization ofcamp directing in the period;indeed,their dis-appearance helps identify the moment when professionals redefined thecamps role in the process ofsocialization.Once understood to be bridgesbetween childhood and the world ofadults,American summer camps atfirst sought to instill self-reliance and a sense ofsatisfaction at a job well
4.Elizabeth C.Cromley,“Transforming the Food Axis:Houses,Tools,Modes of Analysis,”
 Material History Review
44 (fall 1996):8–22.5.John F.Kasson,
Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America
(New York,1990),182.

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