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If you can't stand the heat ...

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If necessity is the mother of invention, the kitchen is surely one of the great arenas of technological change. The pace was slow through the first two-thirds of the millennium, but the impetus behind 1,000 years of kitchen developments has remained the same: to move food from larder to table efficiently.

From the large, open fireplace of a medieval shopkeeper's house, to the grandiose layout of a 15th-century nobleman's kitchen, these rooms were indicators of wealth - and often a virtual slave quarters for the women and servants who worked in such torrid environments. Not until the stove appeared in the 17th century did the kitchen as we know it begin to take shape.

The first innovations dealt with regulating cooking temperature. In wealthier homes, servants used hooks, suspension chains, and pulleys to raise or lower cauldrons, controlling the amount of heat supplied. Such a system seems to have been the major improvement of the late Middle Ages.

As European explorers brought back foods and spices from far-off lands, wealthy citizens had greater access to exotic ingredients, but cooking techniques remained almost unchanged, with two exceptions:

In the mid-17th century, an anonymous cook discovered that cooked meats would keep longer sealed in a layer of fat thick enough to keep air out.

The second innovation occurred in 1679 when French-born physicist Denis Papin invented the pressure cooker. Called Papin's Digester, this airtight cooker produced a hot steam that cooked food more quickly while preserving nutrients.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, common people began to use the plate, usually made of wood or, for those who could afford it, metal.

"You had only one and you carried it with you," explains Andrew F. Smith, culinary history professor at New York's New School. Guests also brought their own knives, and later, their own forks.


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