My grandma knew better–and yours probably did too

Obesity rates in this country continue to climb. And I’m not talking about the moderate amount of extra weight that new studies are now finding can improve longevity. People are becoming truly obese, despite the government’s best efforts to keep us from eating saturated fat.

I believe there’s something sabotaging your efforts to stay fit and trim. And it’s not the bacon. Or the butter. Or the eggs.

It’s your new kitchen. Actually, it’s the new location of your kitchen.

You see, for hundreds–perhaps thousands–of years people prepared food “out back” behind the house. Or in the basement. Or in a separate wing of the house. This helped keep the smoke of cooking fires out of the living areas.

Before this–in prehistoric times–men and women had to hunt or gather their food. Sure, they often cooked it nearby over a fire, but they worked so hard to get the food, staying fit and trim never really became a problem.

Still, when you tour great historic homes like Mt. Vernon or Monticello–or even typical houses in Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village–you see kitchens separated from living areas. And dining areas.

As late as the 1850s, kitchens were still located out back or in the basement. And cooking and eating required someone to go downstairs or outside.

Larger properties had also icehouses and spring houses. Natural springs ran through these small houses. And the cold, fresh water generally kept the air in the house between 45 to 55 degrees. In the winter months, ice formed and owners could store it into the hotter months.

In the mid-19th century, the first inside iceboxes hit the market. You put ice inside an insulated box to keep fresh food from spoiling. But you had to replace the ice regularly.

The expression, “the Iceman cometh” was commonplace throughout the growing cities at the turn of the century. (And was not just the name of the play written by Eugene O’Neill in 1939 about America in 1912.)

A bit later, the electric icebox–or refrigerator–replaced the old-fashioned insulated boxes.

And during the last century, homebuilders began installing kitchens upstairs on the ground floor. Often the old basement kitchen was kept around as a second kitchen. Or a canning kitchen. Homeowners used this to prepare larger meals. And to put up that seasons’ fresh fruits and vegetables for the winter.

Slowly, the eat-in kitchen became popular. And eventually, the modern kitchen moved from an isolated location in the back of the house to the centerpiece of great rooms.

For many families today, preparing and eating food is a major social event. And this has its benefits. It brings some families closer together.

But it may help some families grow fatter.

In a sense, when you bring the kitchen into the house, you open a 7-Eleven right in the middle of your living space. You have access to food around the clock. Anytime you want it. And even if you don’t really.

On the other hand, when food’s out-of-sight, it’s also–for the most part–out-of-mind.

Plus, today’s kitchens are glamorous. Some have bars and commercial-grade appliances. Many modern kitchens allow you to have the experience of eating out while staying in.

Not to mention, you can stock up until doomsday with refrigerators, freezers and pantries larger than some SUVs!

Again, this may have its social benefits. But it also keeps huge amounts of food at your fingertips at all times.

My grandmother used to walk every morning to collect fresh fruit and vegetables from the farmer’s market at the center of town. Once or twice a week she also stopped at the fish market. Or at the meat market, depending on what was on the menu that day.

The food was fresh. Plus, you could only eat what you “bagged” that day. And all of your family’s food had to fit into one or two small, net grocery bags (the original “reusable” bags).

Walking to the market every day was a pretty good way to help match calories consumed with calories expended. In addition, grandma’s refrigerator was the size of a nightstand. And her kitchen garbage can the size of a basketball. Waste not, want not.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, three out of four new homebuyers want their kitchen and family room to be a combined space. So now, you can sit and watch the profusion of TV shows–and even entire cable channels about food–without ever leaving the kitchen.

You can turn the popular Food Network program “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” into your very own reality show. But maybe it’s really become more like “Man versus Food.”

Sure–you no longer have the danger of falling into an open hearth. But the danger of falling into bad dietary habits seems to be part of the new design for living.

So, once upon a time the Iceman cometh. Now, the Iceman hath arrived. But the modern, metaphorical Iceman no longer keeps our food really fresh.

Instead, he poisons your diet. He kills your health as a hard frost kills vegetable and citrus crops. And, as a gangster “ices” an enemy. It’s swift. And often deadly.

If all of this leaves you cold, keep some distance between you and your icebox.