HGTV’s 2021 dream home is a three-story “grand coastal escape” in Newport, Rhode Island. It combines quiet, seaside charm (classic white window trim, antique-style bed frames, and countless nautical details) with loud, metropolitan aspiration, such as the European-style main bath and the open spiral staircase leading to a massive rooftop deck. But the most seductive part of this palatial home is the kitchen, which features walnut butcher block counters, massive pendant lights made of twine, and wall-to-wall windows with a water view. The striking navy-painted shelving displays, rather than merely stores, kitchen gadgets and dishware. It’s a kitchen that compels you to imagine who you could be, or become, once planted into the space: a joyful cook with the room and resources to create elaborate meals, a gracious host who truly loves to entertain, or a never-frazzled mother who gazes at the water as she wipes already-clean surfaces and helps darling children seated at the island with their homework.
Meanwhile, the kitchen in our current rental house has textured, black-and-blue laminate countertops, a 1990s white fridge, and thick-doored cupboards that don’t quite close all the way on a humid day—which, in Oklahoma, is rather often. It’s not my favorite kitchen, for both stylistic and functional reasons. But an outdated kitchen stings sharply, since kitchens are supposed to reflect who we are and desire to be. Searching “kitchen personality quiz” online returns millions of results: classic and traditional, contemporary and modern, bold, quirky, or perhaps a little bit country. Even for folks who rarely cook, a kitchen—particularly an aspirational “trophy kitchen” with high-end, well, everything—has become a must-have status symbol in the last twenty-five years. But it’s not simply the work of HGTV or Nancy Meyers—the notion of selling hyper-specific cookware to men played a part, as did MTV Cribs.
The idea of a trophy kitchen first took off after 1995, reaching a first peak of popularity around 2003, a rise some have credited to the program. MTV Cribs began airing in 2000, showcasing celebrity mansions, for an audience of fascinated older-millennial teenagers like myself. A special episode of the show in 2007 featured rapper 50 Cent’s mansion and his expansive kitchen, one of six (yes, six) in the home. Jill Notini, spokesperson for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, claimed MTV Cribs contributed to increasing sales of high-end refrigerator brands specifically, saying, “When they showed the kitchens, it was all about the fridge.” As if on cue, 50 Cent began his kitchen tour by opening his refrigerator, revealing nothing but rows of Vitamin Water, for which he was a spokesman. He next opened the double wall oven, showing it full of cardboard boxes, and laughed, “No one’s touched it.”As he moved from room to room, it became clear that the kitchen was a trophy on par with the platinum records and expensive furniture throughout the home. Showing a wholly unused kitchen, as an ornamental trophy kitchen, was the ultimate display of status—a common trope on the show.
The aspirational norm for American middle- and upper-class kitchens hasn’t always been the lavish, open-concept spaces they are today—at least, on HGTV and Instagram, or in Hollywood movies and architectural magazines. For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the kitchen was simply part of one large room with a fireplace for hearth cooking and home heating and a large wooden table, used for food preparation and a slew of other purposes. It was an all-purpose room for cooking, eating, working, and living. It’s not until the later eighteenth century that the kitchen became a separate space, designated specifically for cooking. In wealthier homes, this cooking room was detached, but later it was integrated into the architecture of the home, though often staffed by enslaved people or servants.
The early-twentieth century ushered in a host of kitchen changes: the decline of servants, the addition of modern conveniences like running water and electricity, and a full menu of new appliances, devices, and decor. By the middle of the century, as the white suburban ideal expanded, the walls around the kitchen increasingly came down. This put the kitchen’s specialized contents on full display to every member of the family—but also to guests. Though sometimes still divided from a living or dining area by a counter or pass-through window, many designs reintegrated the kitchen, and the house-wife, into the home. Ever since, the kitchen has become the nucleus of domestic operations, the room that sells a house (or not), and a high-stakes space for asserting status, for proving that you’re keeping up, and that you’ve made it.
But it was men cooking at home, and branding the act as a masculine endeavor, that further inspired investment in a blowout kitchen. Society still praises a man who regularly cooks to feed a partner or family as something special and laudatory, much like dads who rise to the occasion to “babysit” their own children. For women and mothers, these duties are expected, minimum standards. Despite this frustrating inequity, men’s cooking thus demands, and somehow deserves, bigger and splashier spending. In 2002, near the height of the trophy kitchen’s first cultural peak of popularity, Hugh J. Rushing, the executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association, said, “Growing male interest in cooking is one of the bright spots in the kitchen retail market. Men tend to have no problem,” he continued, “buying a special pan for paella, if the recipe calls for it, whereas women will make do with a regular skillet or pan.” That’s right, women will make do. Recognizing this, kitchen suppliers have leapt at the opportunity to court more (and male) customers, particularly with specialized equipment and gadgets with “masculine” design details like black matte finishes, not unlike cans of Coke Zero.
The phrase “trophy kitchen” makes me wince, considered in this light, because of how it echoes another phrase bandied about regarding successful men: “trophy wife,” a phrase which slightly predates the real estate term. Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance of words and phrases within a large corpus of books over time, says it first appeared in the early 1980s and steadily increased in published works until the early 2010s; The Oxford English Dictionary dates it a bit earlier, citing a mention of “Englishmen’s trophy-wives” in Anne Zoltan’s 1973 novel, Annie: The Female Experience. Other sources claim the senior editor of Fortune magazine coined the term in 1989 to name the thin, young, and beautiful, but accomplished and ambitious, second wives of prominent businessmen with cash to burn. Both terms suggest a cultural logic, where successful men both reward themselves for their status and assert it as a way of continuing to maintain it.
In such ways, the trophy status of a trophy kitchen means something different for men than for women, but this dreammaker still speaks to them both. The trophy of the dream home, coupled with the perfect family, is routinely marketed to women, especially through HGTV programming. Kitchens are stars on HGTV, especially on shows like House Hunters, which began airing in 1999. Nearly every episode features homebuyers who consider a trophy kitchen as a minimum standard, rather than aspirational. On the show, even first-time homebuyers consider granite countertops and stainless steel appliances “must-haves” rather than “wish list” items. It’s not uncommon for them to dismiss a home or expect a quick renovation if a kitchen isn’t up-to-date. Even on Tiny HouseHunters, which began airing in 2014, homebuyers often don’t fully downsize the kitchen in their quest for a simpler and more affordable lifestyle. Sometimes they choose regular-sized appliances, rather than a tiny cooktop or mini-fridge. They often maintain trophy kitchen features like significant counter space made from expensive materials.
Others credit film director Nancy Meyers’ “gracious home aesthetic” for fueling trophy kitchen design trends; the bountiful chef’s kitchen in her 2003 movie Something’s Gotta Give is purportedly one of the most requested and most copied kitchens of all time when it comes to kitchen design and remodels. The set kitchen was even featured in the July 2007 issue of Architectural Digest. For years afterward, it was one of the magazine’s most searched articles online. The phrase “trophy kitchen” declined during the Great Recession, as the housing bubble burst, but trophy kitchen’s cultural meaning didn’t wane. After 2010, the trophy kitchen’s trifecta of expensive and expansive countertops, custom cabinetry, and high-end appliances skyrocketed again.
Instagram has further stoked the cultural desire for “architecture porn,” populating feeds with light-colored, airy kitchens. The hashtag #kitchenporn brings up more than 33,000 posts, featuring gargantuan, sun-kissed rooms. There are even game apps dedicated to home renovations and design, so you can play out dream home (and kitchen) fantasies on your mobile device. Design Home came out in November 2016, and by 2019 had been downloaded more than 50 million times. Though winning proves difficult without in-app purchases, the game provides digital reverie, particularly for older millennials for whom trophy kitchens may feel (or be) financially out of reach.
Even if a trophy kitchen isn’t in your budget, you can own a piece of one. KitchenAid makes a full slew of culinary products, but the brand name primarily connotes their stand mixer — that queen of the wedding registry that retails for more than $300. Type “KitchenAid” into Google; the stand mixer pops up first, in colors like almond and avocado creme, copper pearl, and aqua sky. First launched in 1919, the stand mixer evolved into a device so purposefully pretty that it’s meant to be left upon the counter top, to be displayed rather than tucked away in a cupboard. This is particularly true on Instagram where #kitchenaid draws more than 900,000 posts and #kitchenaidmixer another 145,000.
I didn’t grow up in a family with a KitchenAid stand mixer. I recall a small handheld mixer with two humble beaters attached. My mom can mix and make anything with just a fork and some elbow grease. Notably, the KitchenAid stand mixer isn’t marketed as a labor or time-saving device. According to their website, it’s about “creating possibilities” and “unleashing creativity.” Just like a trophy kitchen, this small appliance is meant to “inspire” and “imagine.” If you’re a chef, baker, or food entrepreneur, such promises make professional sense. If you’re a home cook, and particularly a woman, this sales pitch isn’t too different from that of Weight Watchers, or, um, WW: that there is a better woman, wife, and mom within you, if only you let her out. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the stand mixer so often dominates the registry lists of engaged couples. It’s the mechanical ingredient for the sort of wife you’re supposed to be, the life you’re supposed to want.
Some women love to cook and a KitchenAid stand mixer poses a delight that can be further enhanced with myriad attachments. For others, cooking is a chore; and the kitchen is not a space for dreams, but the site of considerable labor. It’s worth noting that some first-wave feminists campaigned for kitchenless living quarters. Dolores Hayden wrote the history of how these American material feminists sought a domestic revolution to free women from the gendered (and unpaid) burden of daily cooking, and childcare, too. They proposed making such labor collective, led and controlled by women, but performed on the neighborhood level, without the need for a kitchen in every home.
Instead, we’ve seen kitchens only grow in social status and cultural meaning. We don’t know what the future holds for trophy kitchens, but a minor kitchen renovation (costing about $15,000) remains one of the top home updates for the value it returns—and the cultural worth it creates. And this isn’t just about ROI. We haven’t quite shaken the historical view of the kitchen as a key site for producing dutiful housewives, unified families, and daily, private sustenance. Even for those who don’t cook, a kitchen remains necessary, valuable, and even inspiring. But it’s still not clear what the trophy is, or for whom it’s intended.
Emily Contois, PhD is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture and the co-editor of a book on food Instagram.