By Suzanne Pollak
After decades of being told that only “local” ingredients would do, suddenly COVID-19 had people hoarding canned beans and flour. This brings up the importance of the pantry in American domestic life—not the domain of celebrity chefs and cookbook authors, but of the everyday home cook.
My pantry is my jewel box full of treasures, not perishable but ephemeral. It makes my culinary life easier and more interesting. The pantry was the foundation of feeding my family when six of us lived together and four were eating machines. It is still the foundation of my dinners now, living solo.
To help understand the pantry’s value, here are some ABCs, one part history (as the pantry outlasts any trend) and the other part showing how specialty food items are our new staples.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) begins with Tom doing penance for raiding Aunt Polly’s pantry full of jam by having to whitewash her fence.
The period between the 1920s and ’30s saw the popular “breakfast nook” replacing pantries in kitchen design. The pantry began to merge with the kitchen through the use of extended cabinetry and cupboards.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a typical New England house would have a small northern room called a buttery (often shortened to “butt’ry”) off the kitchen for food storage. America’s oldest intact buttery, built in 1786, can be found in the Theron Boyd homestead in Hartford, Vermont.
Jars of olives, bottles of bitters and maraschino cherries, cans of specialty fish, and boxes of crackers are lovely bits to offer with an end-of-day cocktail ritual and surprise guest visits. Even if you do not drink, drops of bitters sprinkled into seltzer make the most delicious low-alcohol beverage.
Check your pantry! Every so often, your pantry needs a deep cleanse. Stuff gets hidden and forgotten in the back, so check those dates. If you have soda water with a decade-old date, throw it away. Dust off bottles and jars too. A reordering gives new energy to the pantry; it’s a chance to update and take stock of what is in there—front, center, and hidden. Well-organized pantries are similar to collections of wine with a full inventory of bottles and vintages. The pantry deserves that respect too.
Dried fruits are fabulous snacks—way better than things like fake-cheesy Cheetos, which may as well be kept in the garbage. Apricots and lamb are a combination that belongs in the higher realm of culinary delights.
Keep San Marzano tomatoes, Carolina Gold rice, pasta, and risotto rice too. (This reminds me of my Spanish friend Victoria. Her father, a bull raiser, used to tell her: “Too much rice for that little chicken,” as in, a woman who is too much for a particular man.) Crackers are essential. I can live on crackers. When I was a nursing mother, I ate a box or sleeve every day. I could not help myself. I must have needed the salt and fat and crunch. I live from the contents of my pantry for days and weeks. With access to fresh herbs, a few veggies, a fish or two, you are good to go with magnificent meals, simple and fast.
The freezer is an extension of the pantry. I never used to believe in the freezer or the microwave. For me, it was Buy today to cook tonight. That logic has gone out the window for obvious reasons, most importantly because it doesn’t make sense. Not only is it impractical, but it’s also wasteful, time-consuming, and energy-draining. Let’s face it—the pantry’s best friends are the fridge and the freezer. Open jars need a different storage place, preferably cold.
My favorite gifts from friends are pantry items: Kamal’s Christmas bounty of apricot paste, a bag of huge white beans, and chocolate ginger; Sandy’s limoncello; Pat Altschul’s twelve-gallon garbage bag filled to the brim with her bounty of Meyer lemons; Sam and Jason’s wooden box, so full of jars of jam and jelly and peanut butter that their arms almost broke carrying it over. The wooden box has turned into my pantry number two—the tiny pantry. My friends filled my pantry in 2020.
With access to fresh herbs, a few veggies, a fish or two, you are good to go with magnificent meals, simple and fast.
Around 1900, the Hoosier cabinet’s invention in New Castle, Indiana, was regarded as a pantry and kitchen in one. The Hoosier went on to become an enduring icon in American kitchens.
Vindaloo, Madras, or biryani, we all need condiments and accoutrements from around the world. Also, keep chutneys, both hot and mild, and coconut flakes to keep things interesting.
This is how I cleaned and fed one four-year-old, two three-year-olds, and a one-year-old. It was dinner in a jiff! Start by boiling a big pot of water and run the bath at the same time. Ask yourself, what in your pantry can be simmered or boiled for dinner—pasta, rice, tomato sauce? Within a half-hour, a gaggle of toddlers can be washed and fed. The key is hot water on the stove and buckets of water to splash on shampooed heads in the bath. It’s about getting the job done efficiently, perhaps a bit abruptly, but everyone gets cleaned up and fed. Sometimes that is what the five o’clock hour needs: multitasking at its finest. Get a little peace and quiet by six thirty.
Korean red chili paste and Kaffir lime leaves
These sit in the pantry, patiently waiting for my experiments in using them.
Jars of preserved lemons are that brightener in so many dishes and salads. They pack a punch, so just a tiny slice is needed (unless you are making a tagine, then go wild!).
Milk chocolate and Mixed nuts
No pantry is complete without a snackable stash of chocolate for desserts and nuts for cocktail hour.
Protein + fat, vegetarian, budget-conscious, makes for a quick meal—what’s not to love? Health in a jar!
Green, black, and purple, with and without pits, olives are a collection within a pantry collection.
Never use preground pepper! That is the same as dust. A pantry must contain whole peppercorns ready for grinding.
Now it’s considered a “superfood” and used like a grain, but really it’s a seed.
The spice-filled pantry can teach geography lessons to the youngest family members through the world of flavor.
Ras el hanout
The literal translation from Arabic to English is “head of the shop,” and this glorious blend of spices is a staple of Moroccan cuisine. Use it for specialty dishes like tagines.
Size matters. In 2005, a survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that walk-in pantries were the most requested kitchen feature in American homes. When my teenagers lived at home, there was no pantry big enough. I needed a dedicated room with floor-to-ceiling shelves, so much food did these children consume. Three pounds of pasta at one sitting and then they were all hungry thirty minutes later. That dedicated pantry room was not available to me. Instead, filling the shelves involved a trip to the store every day for restocking.
Since I no longer have to feed a hungry hoard of huge teenagers nightly, my pantry is tiny and sustains me for weeks. Especially with my friends’ generosity (see Gifts)!
Tinned sardines or anchovies on Triscuits, creamed herring on toasts, lemon preserves for tagines—these were my go-to college hors d’oeuvres. Cheap for a college budget and daring too. Most young people have not been exposed to tins and jars of concentrated flavors. A little bit goes a long way, and these make for the perfect pairing with a potent cocktail before dinner.
Visit the world through your pantry. Traveling by way of imagination, education, and cooking is an option open to any family without the hassle of plane tickets, passports, and long immigration lines. The spice-filled pantry can teach geography lessons to the youngest family members through the world of flavor. Flavor is a memory bank too; certain foods can transport us instantaneously to another time and place.
The core qualities detectable on the tongue are sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami, or savoriness. (All these things are tastes and not flavors, which include the sense of smell.) Umami means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese. Tomato paste, dried mushrooms, anchovies, fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and Worcestershire sauce pack a lot of umami qualities into food.
The pantry brings sustenance, flavor, and the faraway world into your life.
Thomas Keller says that salt enhances flavor where pepper adds or changes flavor. White peppercorns are fully ripe berries that are fermented. White pepper does not have the strength of black pepper. It’s great for white sauces or when you just want a nudge of pepper.
Oops! That’s supposed to be in the medicine cabinet (the bathroom pantry) . . .
A go-to spice to bring my Middle Eastern childhood back into my life.
The next time you’re ready to fill (or clean out) your pantry, just remember your ABCs!
— V —
Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.