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  • The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses
  • Howard Davis (bio)
Elizabeth Collins Cromley The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 288 pages. 54 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-8139-3007-7, $50.00 HB

Food is hot. In the last decade or so, it has become a major subject of scholarly concern, public policy, and consumer interest. There are graduate programs in food studies and at least two new journals have appeared—Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and the Journal of Food Law and Policy. Food-related public policy issues include the potential relationships between urban design and obesity; the existence in American cities of "food deserts," or neighborhoods without adequate retail food outlets; and the effects of agricultural practice on land use, water availability, and environmental quality. There is also a proliferation of farmers' markets, along with "slow food," organic food, and local food movements, including the inevitable involvement in such movements of large supermarket and "big box" chains.

Elizabeth Collins Cromley goes a long way in her new book, The Food Axis, toward placing vernacular architecture studies into these scholarly and popular contexts. This broad-reaching study of American houses from the point of view of the "food axis"— the collection of indoor and outdoor domestic spaces in which food was important to their function—synthesizes direct observation and a variety of primary and secondary sources to make a strong case for considerations of human use in our understanding of domestic architecture.

The term "food axis" implies not only the existence of multiple spaces that accommodate food, its processing, preparation, and consumption, but also the relationships [End Page 126] among these spaces. Fields, gardens, outbuildings, cellar storage rooms, pantries, butteries, kitchens, and dining rooms are all part of this constellation, and the author deftly describes them along with their interrelationships. Although somewhat loosely defined—the food axis is "a group of elements with related interests" (2)—the concept does provide an underlying framework for understanding food-related spaces and how strongly they shape house form and site planning.

The idea of the food axis and its functional relationships is strongly suggestive of an ecological approach. Food is grown, processed, consumed, and eventually returned to the soil. The book puts the different elements of this cycle into architectural spaces through the point of consumption. It does stop short of what happens to food after consumption—in other words, waste, recycling, composting, and garbage. Cromley anchors the house in larger systems of food production (canned foods, for example, allowed both for the simplification of preparation space within the urban house and for food availability on the frontier) and within technological systems such as municipal water distribution and electric grids that allowed for a growing number of labor-saving appliances. But of course, as cities grew, food waste could not as easily be returned to the soil as it had been on the farm, and spaces for the storage and collection of garbage needed to be provided in and adjacent to the house, along with systems at the urban scale that took care of it. Although the book does not complete the cycle in this way, it is certainly strongly implied, and the idea of the food axis and the connections that it suggests help show how the house may been seen as the physical manifestation of a much more complex set of human and natural systems.

Indeed, although Cromley, as an architectural historian, has organized the book in what may seem to be a simple and typical chronology, she has integrated strong themes like ecology within that chronology—themes that are suggested by the idea of the "food axis." The strong relationships between architectural space and human use, for example, are extensively described through dozens of personal accounts taken from diaries, letters, and other sources. Such accounts—"I have been hard at work all day putting away my hog. Succeeded in trying out the lard stuffing the sausages & salting away the pork before dark. Sold one ham of it for $1.15 cts. feel miserably tired tonight" (121)—make real...


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