Thursday, September 10, 2009

Exploring the Kitchens Behind The "Kitchen Debate"

Often enough, the Kitchen has seemed almost incidental to the retelling of the "Kitchen Debate," which is dominated by the geopolitical drama headlined by Nixon and Khrushchev. (There were actually at least three kitchens at Sokolniki Park: the General Electric Model House Kitchen, the General Mills Kitchen and the RCA Whirlpool "Miracle Kitchen.") In Bill Safire's photo of the two leaders squaring off over the railing of the Model Kitchen, a box of SOS cleaning pads sits incongruously just to the left of future Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Was the Kitchen a mere backdrop to the political theater? Just as the "Kitchen Debate" actually began in a TV studio, could it have continued anywhere else on the Sokolniki Park exhibition grounds?A number of scholars have taken a deeper look at the meaning of the Kitchen(s) at the 1959 American exhibition. Two U.S. university professors and their students have launched an online "research project on Cold War material culture," appropriately enough at the website In Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology and European Users (published earlier this year by the MIT Press), co-editors Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann argue that "the Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate demonstrates that artifacts are fused with politics in both small and big ways...As Nixon and Khrushchev realized, their kitchen debate cut to the heart of the kinds of technical artifacts and systems that their respective societies would produce. The shape and directions of innovations, politicians well understood, resulted from political choices. Both politicians discussed the kitchen as a technopolitical node that linked the state, the market and the family."

Whatever a "technopolitical node" might actually be, hyping America's lead in consumer goods over the Communist bloc did not begin at Sokolniki. For instance, model homes and kitchens were displayed in Western Europe during the early fifties under the Marshall Plan's informational program. At the 1952 "America at Home" exhibit in West Berlin, visitors from the East were offered admission at a reduced price, a conscious effort to boost attendance among the Berliners most subject to Communist influence.

Still, it was not a forgone conclusion that an American kitchen would go to Moscow. In Cold War Kitchen, the University of Louisville's Cristina Carbone relates how a Kentucky housewife, in a letter to her senator, pushed for an American kitchen to be included in the upcoming Moscow show. Chad McClellan, the exhibition's general manager, embraced the idea, enlisting the active support of a Long Island developer, Herbert Sadkin. Even before the exhibition opened, the Soviet media had insisted there was nothing typical about the Model Kitchen. Soviet commentators asserted that it was as if someone had asserted that the Taj Mahal was the home of a typical "Bombay textile worker." U.S. press reports about the concerted effort to undermine the credibility of the American exhibition's portrayal of a "typical" American lifestyle may have provided Nixon an extra incentive to emphasize America's lead in consumer goods.

Another contributor to Cold War Kitchen, Susan Reid of the University of Sheffield, describes the curious and conflicted Soviet reaction to the American kitchens. Just one day after the Sokolniki exhibit's opening, Izvestiya ran a picture of a beaming Soviet housewife proclaiming that her kitchen was "just as good as the American one shown at the exhibition in Sokolniki." Contradictory or not, a different "spin" angle adopted by the Soviet media -- and Khrushchev himself -- was to acknowledge that while the USSR might be lagging behind temporarily in the production of consumer goods and gadgets, it would soon catch up to and then overtake the U.S. Finally, other Russian media decried the very emphasis on household items and the like at the U.S. exhibition. As one Soviet paper asked rhetorically: "What is this, a national exhibit of a great country, or a branch department store?" Many Soviet visitors had, in fact, expected to see American industrial and technological accomplishments displayed -- what Soviet organizers of that summer's New York exhibition had emphasized for their American audience. But the U.S. emphasis on the individual American's lifestyle and well-being was "not accidental," in the words of a common Soviet-era phrase; it was in fact a carefully considered strategic choice made by high-ranking officials in Washington.

However many Soviet housewives were swayed or dismayed by all those "labor-saving devices," attendance figures showed that the Sokolniki kitchens were among the most heavily visited sites within the exhibition -- and the aroma of Betty Crocker cupcakes in the oven was almost certainly only part of the appeal.

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