Elizabeth Collins Cromley


On her book The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses

Cover Interview of January 18, 2011

In a nutshell

The Food Axis is an architectural history of the years from the first European settlement in the 17th century until today that approaches the understanding of domestic architecture through the set of spaces and functions related to food.

Traditionally, architectural history approaches understanding buildings by studying architects or through concepts of style.  Instead, I want readers to think about how American houses have developed and changed by responding to the impact of food.

I argue that storage, preservation, preparation and cooking, and serving of food require specific kinds of spaces in the architecture and its home grounds.

In New England 17th century settlers most frequently lived in one-room houses with a cooking fireplace.  Meals were therefore served in the same one room where the food was prepared.  To preserve food people built smoke houses, dairies, and root cellars so that the landscape near the house was also occupied by various food facilities.

As diverse ethnic groups created homes in the new world, they brought with them preferences for how to handle food.

For example, Hispanic settlers in the 17th century lived in one-room houses where a lot of the food preparation was done in a patio or courtyard.  Dried corn was stored inside the main house and carried outdoors to be prepared for meals.  The meals themselves were also served out of doors when the climate was suitable.

French settlers in the Mississippi Valley sometimes treated their homesteads like farms even when they were part of a densely settled town.

For example houses in St. Genevieve, Missouri, built by French families were surrounded by intensely gardened landscapes and were also home to domestic animals used for meat, milk and fur.  Exterior bake houses added food preparation structures to the home landscape while removing heat and the dangers of fire from the interior of the home.  Settlers with fewer resources sometimes hung a kettle over an outdoor fire instead of one indoors, and prepared stews and one-dish meals.

Evidence of similar one-dish meals has been uncovered at housing for the enslaved workers of southern plantations.  As households developed more wealth and were able to expand their houses, people added specialized rooms to serve as kitchens where the principal cooking would be done separate from the social rooms of the house.

During the 19th century new inventions and utilities added to the food repertoire piped water, efficient cooking stoves, and ice boxes that reduced the need for external food storage on the home grounds.  By the mid-20th century electricity was available in nearly every house in the United States, adding refrigeration to make food preparation and storage modern.