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Technology and Culture 43.4 (2002) 668-692

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Kitchen Technologies and Mealtime Rituals
Interpreting the Food Axis at American Summer Camps, 1890-1950

Abigail A. Van Slyck


Summer camps may seem like an odd place to study the relationship between technology and culture. After all, organized camps—the industry's term for overnight camps attended by children without their parents—were initially established in the 1880s and 1890s as antidotes to overcivilization, a condition exacerbated by the technologies of comfort and convenience that had blossomed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although camps with distinct goals sprang up in subsequent decades, most sought to develop in campers both the manual skills and the habit of hard work that would allow them to sever their dependence on modern technology and regain the self-reliance of their forefathers. Touched by the antiquarian impulse that also informed the Arts and Crafts movement and other late Victorian enthusiasms that T. J. Jackson Lears has identified with antimodernism, organized camping maintained a back-to-basics disdain for technology throughout much of the twentieth century. Specialized camps have emerged in recent decades to give campers intensive exposure to technology, but for many camp organizers the phrase "computer camp" remains an oxymoron. 1 [End Page 668]

Yet if camp organizers deliberately decided not to adopt all of the technological innovations available to them (a culturally significant act in its own right), they did use technology selectively, especially in connection with food preparation. Well into the 1930s (and particularly during malnutrition scares in the 1910s), rebuilding the health of urban-dwelling children was one of the explicit benefits of the camp experience, and most camps prided themselves on their ample, wholesome food. The challenge of providing three meals a day for a small army of campers 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 to employ available kitchen technologies than it would be for colleges, hospitals, or prisons to do so. 2

A great deal of scholarly attention has been devoted to kitchen technologies in private dwellings, but we know very little about the growing numbers of kitchens 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 of refinement by insulating genteel diners from the sounds and smells associated with food preparation. Harvey Levenstein and Dolores Hayden have investigated aspects of public kitchens established at the end of the nineteenth century, first in Boston and later in other cities (especially in connection with social settlements such as Chicago's Hull House), to reform the eating habits of the working poor. These not only provided cheap and nutritious meals (at least according to contemporary scientific standards), but cooking took place in open view in order to encourage customers to emulate slow-cooking techniques at home. But where neither the quality of the food nor the character of the dining experience was the primary focus, in institutions in which meals were simply an infrastructural adjunct to educational, medical, penal, or religious activities, kitchens have largely been ignored. These kitchens were technological systems as necessary as those that provided light, heat, and sanitation, responding primarily to practical imperatives and contributing little to the larger mission of the institutions they served. 3

Or were they? Can institutional kitchens tell us more about cultural priorities than we have assumed they can? Have we missed something by considering [End Page 669] the kitchen in isolation from the other spaces and activities involved in producing and consuming meals—social rituals brimming with cultural meaning? Have we perhaps hampered our ability to interpret institutional kitchens by focusing too closely on what happens within their four walls? Architectural historians have been guilty of such lapses, even when studying domestic kitchens, as Elizabeth C. Cromley has pointed...


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