Date of release: Thursday, March 2, 2017

English KitchenThe humble English kitchen is the subject of a book by a University of Greenwich historian.

Dr Sara Pennell, senior lecturer in Early Modern British History, traces the emergence of the domestic kitchen as a distinctive household space we now recognise in The Birth of the English Kitchen 1600 – 1850 (published by Bloomsbury, June 2016).

In her study, she argues that the kitchen is a much more challenging space than simply a place to cook dinner. "Over the past three centuries, the kitchen is THE room in the house where most technological changes have occurred, but we often overlook this, and see them as unchanging rooms", Dr Pennell contends.

She wants her book to "challenge this perception and also question the idea that kitchens are places of harmony and domestic bliss: kitchens were and still are where a lot of domestic strife and even violence takes place."

Dr Pennell would also like to "overthrow the reputation of the kitchen as a space impervious to change, and replace with a reading of it as a domestic zone … participating in and embodying some of the most significant economic, technical and cultural transformations in British culture up to the mid-19th century."

According to the author, we should also take more notice of these spaces when visiting historic houses: "Rather than exiting through the kitchen on route to the gift shop, perhaps we should make it our first port of call".

She adds: "I want readers to view the historic kitchen anew. Rather than looking at these heritage kitchens as a place to taste some delicious home baking, we need to think about their role in making the social relations of the household, their significance in the domestic politics of gender, and their economic importance to the domestic economy. It might also make us think more about our own kitchens and their place in our personal formulations of home".

A member of the university's Department of History, Politics & Social Sciences, Dr Pennell has contributed to the reinterpretation of the seventeenth-century kitchen at Ham House, Surrey, and is very keen to be involved in similar projects. "Working through the challenges of displaying and interpreting these historic kitchens, the people who worked in them and supplied them, for diverse modern audiences, is one of the best ways to challenge abstract research ideas," she acknowledges.

Dr Pennell is interested in all aspects of domesticity and the making of domestic knowledge from c.1600 to 1850, and has previously co-edited a collection of essays about another feature of the kitchen – the recipe book (Reading and Writing Recipe Books 1500 – 1800, MUP).

She most recently appeared on BBC Radio 2, talking to Jeremy Vine about the intertwined histories of two more humble domestic spaces, the pantry and larder. Dr Pennell explained the differences between the two and explained why we are now returning to this 'humble cupboard'.

In May and June 2017, she will be Fellow in Residence at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, working on her next book which explores moving house and ideas about domestic possessions in the early modern period.

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History at the University of Greenwich is part of the Faculty of Architecture, Computing & Humanities.