A kitchen in Seattle

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Self catering at Goudhurst youth hostel using primus stoves (undated image courtesy YHA Archive).

Youth hostel style is about freedom and sharing and their approach to food shows it.

Landed in Seattle after a long flight from London we got lost. It’s easy to do in a new city.

Seattle is the city of aircraft and software. Once the headquarters of Boeing, the city is the home of Amazon and Starbucks coffee. Grunge music and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam began here.

When we visited, there was coffee. Like any city today, Seattle had plenty of Starbucks shops but there was no sign of grunge music, no sign of Boeing and we missed Amazon Go, the first Amazon shop on a street.

From the airport, we took the light rail. I shook my head to work out the day and time and, though it was late afternoon and mid week, the train was nearly empty and the city felt deserted. My day had become ten hours longer. The weather was hot. Maybe everyone had gone to the beach.

We found our way after circling a few blocks and reached our youth hostel in an old hotel. Our room was up stairs, down a wide cool corridor, like being in a painting by Edward Hopper.

Still disorientated, having thrown down our bags, we explored and found the lounge and bathrooms. The hostel kitchen was in a big room with windows on two sides looking out at the streets and houses of Seattle’s Chinatown.

Most of the guests had gathered there. People studied phones as they do. A mother, her daughters and their friends played a board game beside us while we ate sandwiches, bought from a nearby drug store, and drank the English tea we had made to help us feel at home.

It all began to work. In a hostel kitchen I feel at home. Only a week before we had been in the kitchen at Ambleside in England’s Lake District and it felt the same.

Downtown Seattle

The kitchen in Seattle’s HI hostel was a little like sharing a student kitchen. In a kitchen you can share tips, borrow a knife or a spoon and ask if the salt belongs to anyone else. When you share space and purpose, it’s easy to engage a stranger in conversation.

Self catering kitchens makes hostel accommodation unique and they also mean that wherever I am, wherever I travel, in a hostel I’m no longer lost. In a hostel I can feel at home.

When youth hostels started in Britain in 1930, they copied their ideas from Germany. Self catering kitchens were an integral part of youth hostels when a German school teacher opened the first youth hostel in 1909. Self catering kept down costs for the traveller but saved on the need to carry pots and pans.

In Britain, the first secretary of the new hostel association, wrote in 1930 to those who might be able to help start hostels. He asked if “in connection with your establishment you would find it possible to set aside a portion or perhaps, some rooms in a granary or other outbuilding on your premises, which could be utilised by our members.” They would need two dormitories, one for women, one for men and “a further room very simply furnished… where facilities could be provided for simple cooking.”

Early users found kitchens fun if unpredictable.

Bertha Gough, who left a diary recording some early hostels, used the self catering kitchen at a youth hostel in Holmfirth, Yorkshire, in 1935, where the self-cooking place “was in a cellar where one could hardly see.” At another “We had some good fun. We cooked all our own meals, as it is a self-cooking only hostel.”

Some of those who answered the call and opened hostels in Britain were less interested in self catering. The owners of one property, a Mr and Mrs Carthew in Cornwall, provided meals for sale. They were only interested in the members purchasing meals from the café which was under their control.

Standards varied a lot and the most people cooked on primus stoves, small paraffin burners invented about 40 years before for campers. They were reliable, durable and efficient until calor gas replaced paraffin.

As hostels struggled to finance themselves, self catering kitchens became a kind of battleground. The hostel managers of those days, called wardens, resented those who saw youth hostels as a kind of indoor camping and did all their own cooking.

Hostel staff, looking to make every penny they could to pay for expensive buildings, pushed to sell meals and increase the hostel’s income.

They saw every self caterer as income lost. A fee for the use of the self catering was introduced and then swept away in the argument that followed.

Some wardens found other ways of discouraging self catering. They neglected the equipment provided and by neglect hoped to drive the sales of the meals they sold. Equipment declined and members were left to cook in battered saucepans without lids and warped frying pans.

In England, the conflict between self catering and the professionally provided meals reached a head in the 1990s, when a new city hostel at St Pancras in London opened without a self catering kitchen.

Some feared that they would lose the self catering kitchen completely as youth hostels modernised.

But things never went that far. Reason and self catering asserted themselves. Self catering kitchens again became a part of youth hostels.

I love the freedom of hostels, that I can cook my own food or take a meal at the hostel bar. Groups still love having their meals provided too. Who would want to cook for 60 starving young people in a self catering kitchen? Some do because youth hostels are about that freedom and choice.

Like travel, like so much in our lives, self catering has changed. It has moved from heating baked beans in battered pans or blackening sausages. Supermarket ready meals and microwaves have replaced tins and kitchens have survived. Most offer microwaves, ovens, grills, toasters, fridges and freezers.

Today their place is secure. You can even find advice on how to use a communal kitchen on line.

It was cookie and cocoa night at the hostel in Seattle when we stayed there. The hostel staff laid out cookies in the kitchen and made cocoa for everyone staying at the hostel. They’ve learned that food is a great way of bringing people together. Everyone mingled.

The next day at the hostel’s buffet breakfast, served again in the big kitchen, we sat at a table and talked with a visitor from Baltimore. He lived on a yacht, was a software engineer and had come to explore the west coast of his home country for the first time.

Chatting with him reminded me that sharing is at the heart of the youth hostel experience. Food, kitchens and choice are part of that.



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