On Cooking Smells (If Walls Could Talk Series)

This is part of the If Walls Could Talk series

In the book If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley claims “We live today in an age of deadened senses. People in the past could be shocked or transformed by a smell, something that rarely even registers in our sanitised world.” She then goes on to describe how, in the past, that bad smells themselves were believed to be a cause of disease, and that pregnant and other physically vulnerable people should avoid them (in other words, this was part of a different mental model of hygiene than we have today).

Cooking smells were considered ‘bad’ smells.

This was one reason why, in the past, large houses often had the kitchen in a separate small building (other reasons were fire safety, keeping messy kitchen waste away from the rest of the home, and preventing overheating in hot weather). Back when most cooking was done over an open hearth, if there was a chimney, the ventilation would remove some of the smells. Then, in the nineteenth century, when the closed cooking range became commonly used, the kitchen smells grew more intense.

Worsley claims that it is only in the later part of the twentieth century that cooking smells became tolerable, even pleasant. She ties this to the rise of foodie culture in the 1980s.

And yet, she also says “The extractor fan was perhaps the greatest mechanical development of the twentieth century, as it allowed kitchens and living areas to become one single space.” Extractor fans, the greatest mechanical development of the twentieth century? Huh?

I am using a computer and keyboard as I type this right now (both mechanical developments of the twentieth century), and I have various other great mechanical developments of the twentieth century in my home, but not an extractor fan. The idea that anyone would think that extractor fans are a greater mechanical development than computers. Perhaps Worsley only means that extractor fans are the greatest mechanical development in kitchens, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would consider extractor fans a greater development than refrigerators, or microwaves, or even electric blenders/food processors.

The only time in my life that I’ve lived in a place with an extractor fan was the brief period that I lived in Mountain View, and I considered it to be unnecessary, I only used it when cooking because that was the house rule. But the fact that it was a house rule shows that the owners of the place considered it important to control cooking smells.

The place I lived in Mountain view had a semi-open floor plan, in that the kitchen and the dining room were practically the same room (though one area was obviously the kitchen, and the other area has a really big dining table with seats for at least a dozen people). In the next room over, there was the living room/dining room – yes, this house had two dining areas, and I know both of them were used to serve meals to guests, they switched dining areas depending on the occasion. The living and dining areas were both clearly defined, yet people in one area had a good view of people in the other area.

I don’t even remember if it was possible to close a door between the kitchen/dining room and the living room/dining room, but if there was a door, it was never closed, so lots of air would pass between the two large rooms.

Given the quasi-open floor plan, I suppose the extractor fan was maybe useful. Except I was never bothered by cooking smells, possibly because the extractor fan was used frequently, but also because when I wasn’t in the kitchen I was either out of the house or in my own bedroom/bathroom, which were on a different floor and had doors which I could close.

It would probably be good to mention that I also have a relatively weak sense of smell.

Where I live now (which is also my childhood home) the kitchen and the living room both connect to the corridor, and once upon a time there were doors which could shut off the kitchen and/or living room from the corridor. These doors are now in storage in the basement (I remember when there was a door between the living room and corridor; I think the kitchen door was probably removed before I was born). So, it’s not an open floor plan – there are walls between the rooms and there is no line of sight between the kitchen and living room – but the air does flow freely between the kitchen, corridor, and living room.

As far as I know, there has never been an extractor fan in this home. Nobody has even talked about getting one. And very rarely is anyone bothered by cooking smells.

Once again, I spend most of my time at home in my room, which not only does have a door which can be shut, it also has an air filter which, among other things, removes smells (though that’s not its main purpose).

I think another thing which may make a difference is that our kitchen is primarily used for plant-and-fungi based foods. I’m vegan, my mother is almost vegan, and though my dad is not vegan he mostly eats vegan at home. Most of the smells which come from our cooking come from herbs or spices. Sometimes, when I’m cooking something, my mother will come into the kitchen and ask ‘what is that I’m smelling?’ (answer: probably an herb or spice). Usually, she likes the smell which got her attention. It seems that animal-based foods are a lot more likely to produce offensive cooking smells, in fact Worsley says “nobody wants their house to reek of fish the morning after the night before”. She also says that, before modern times, only British people who lived in an aristocratic and/or wealthy household (including some servants) at meat on a regular basis: the peasants, who lived in cottages where the kitchen was also the living room and the bedroom, mostly ate plants, and maybe some eggs, milk, or fish if it were locally available, and once in a great while some meat. She does not make the connection between the peasants having a more plant-based diet, and possibly having less need to control cooking smells than the ‘great houses’.

Mountain View is where I transitioned to veganism, so all of the cooking I did there was also strictly plant-and-fungi based, which might have been part of why I considered the extractor fan superfluous.

Though I am amazed that Worsley makes such a big deal about cooking smells, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on cooking smells. Perhaps I am simply a more extreme example of the cultural trend towards toleration of cooking smells. And the fact that so many people do put extractor fans in their kitchens is evidence that a lot of other people care about clearing out cooking smells.

4 thoughts on “On Cooking Smells (If Walls Could Talk Series)

  1. Out of curiosity, do you do much heavy frying?

    I’ve noticed that deep frying and stir frying is when I really appreciate having an extractor fan – if I forget to turn it on, the whole room gets a strong “oily” smell, and the oil particulates in the air can start building up on other surfaces on the kitchen, which is a pain to clean.

    When it comes to things like boiling and light sauteing, though, it seems like it only makes a slight difference (and an open window often has similar affects if there’s even a little breeze).

    (That said, I definitely still would not consider it one of the top inventions….not sure it even makes the top 50 tbh)

    • On another note, what I find wild is that there was a time not too long ago when Italian-American food was stigmatized for it’s use of garlic, which was considered smelly and low-class. And yet now it’s considered so delicious that it’s a “what are you cooking? That smells good” staple, and people regularly use far more than called for in many recipes. Guess it’s another example of how preceptions and affinities for different smells and environments can change.

    • We never deep fry. We do stir-frying quite often, though it is probably closer to sauteing than ‘heavy frying’. I forgot about olive oil and sesame oil smells – but I do like them. Olive oil smells in particular evoke fond childhood memories – I guess that is an example of a cooking smell taking on positive cultural associations.

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