A Packed Pantry?

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt | Sep 19, 2012

Actually, I wish I did have a pantry. I’d gladly swap most of my kitchen cabinets for an honest-to-goodness, old-timey walk-in pantry.

When I was young, most kitchens had a pantry for storing foods, providing a work surface and storing small appliances out of the way – and out of sight. (The out of sight part may be the best advantage.) In the open kitchen, most had a wooden work table, where foods were prepared. On the Tucker farm, Grammie Mable had her "side board" that folded up against the wall when not in use, saving space. By the late ‘50’s, the pantry and work tables were giving way to banks of cabinets and miles of countertop. (As I sit here in my "summer" office, a sunny nook in the dining area, a quick glance to the kitchen reveals 15 cabinet doors and six drawers – and that’s just the built-ins. I also have my Hoosier Hutch, which was the lead in, back in the '30s and '40s, between the work table/pantry and the kitchen cabinets setup. (The latter costs thousands more in the overall price of building.) Some of the newer homes today are including a pantry, or I should say, adding, as they still have the plethora of cabinets and counters. But I predict – and remember you heard it here first – that pantries are going to see a comeback with a paring down of cabinets and countertops.

The work tables and sideboards, and then the Hoosier Hutch, is where the biscuits and pies were made, vegetables were prepared, etc. The Hoosier Hutch is a marvel of design. It's a standalone piece of cabinetry, with a top tier of cabinets that includes a flour bin sifter, a sugar bowl that tips for pouring, a spice rack with glass jars and shelves for storage. At counter level, it has an enamel-top work surface the size of a kitchen table that pulls out for added work space when using. And mine has an open shelf space at the back of that. On the lower half, There’s a vegetable storage bin, a bread box, two utility drawers and then two cabinets for pots and pans and two inner door racks for lids.

My “Hoosier” isn’t the big oak cabinets that sell for a small fortune, but it has all the functions and could be all one needed, when it comes right down to it. For sure, the work surface is all that’s needed. Miles of countertop are only too likely to collect things.

Now, back to my original idea for this week’s column: food storage. (I do go off on tangents, as you may have noticed over the years.)

We are feeling the tinges of winter that will be upon us soon enough. As folk are busy gathering in the last of their garden crops and canning and otherwise putting up stores for winter, it’s time for taking stock of our stocks. We never know, with our Maine winters, when a blizzard will hit or when – or for how long – we may lose power. This will be 15 winters from the infamous Ice Storm of ’98. Most people were power-less for a week or more. I had no power for 19 days – almost three weeks.

Of course, I lost everything in my refrigerator. But I was fortunate to have my wood stove and lots of kerosene lamps. Once the roads were passable, I was able to get to the fire station for hauling water. But the whole thing got me to thinking about how we lived up on my grandparents farm on Tucker Ridge in the ’30s and '40’s, before electricity was brought into the “the Plantation.” I thought: How would this ice storm have affected people on the Ridge back then?

Well, they heated with wood stoves in the kitchen, ‘sitting room’ and bedrooms, they cooked with the wood cook stove, they used kerosene lamps and had the hand pump on the side of the soapstone sink for sweet well water. Nothing required electricity.

And they had pantries and cellars full of food, milk (and butter) in the barn and eggs (and roasting chickens) in the coop, etc.

So about all that would have changed would be, for those who didn’t have the barn connected with the house through the wood shed/granary, it would’ve been slippery getting down to milk the cows.

Indeed, back then, folk always had a year’s supply of food on hand. In the summer and fall, there were the gardens and orchards, along with beef critters and a porker and deer season coming up. Fall was a bustling time with gathering, canning, butchering, salting down barrels of meat, smoking hams, bacon and sausage, storing apples and root crops and otherwise “putting by stores.”

Today, if the weatherman says: “storm tomorrow,” the grocery store is overrun with shoppers rushing to get food to make it through a day or two. We have become too complacent with our modern conveniences, most of which are rendered useless the minute the juice is shut off.

Since the shock of the Ice Storm of ‘98, I have developed a list of basics that would carry me through for a couple weeks or more. Of course, there are other things that can happen to us that would make some emergency stores come in right handy, like a temporary loss of income, illness, a truck strike, etc. When it comes to food, we should all be good Boy Scouts: Be prepared.

I have a list of basic staples and I only store what I normally will use or that will store good for years. That way, I can rotate stores to keep them usable.

I don't stock up on food that needs refrigeration. I learned that the hard way after having stocked up on roasts, chops, chicken and such in anticipation of being without power for a few days or so, not three weeks, with the coming ice storm.

Keep in mind that the stores all have enough food for the local communities for one day. If the trucks can't get through or you can't get out to the stores, you'd best hope you have a loaded pantry.

Nowadays, I never have to go running to the store the day before a storm. I can go for weeks, if need be. (And be fine with refrigerated stuff if we’re not out more’n a couple days. For example, milk and eggs. I get organic whole milk that stays sweet and delicious for a good five weeks -- and organic eggs from a local farmer that will also keep fresh even unrefrigerated for over a week.

My staples are things I can make soups and chowders from, like jars of Better Than Bullion paste, cans of clams and oysters and corn, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and garlic. From those few things, I can make clam chowder, oyster stew, corn chowder, tomato soup and potato soup.

I have plenty of dry beans, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils -- also packs of dried vegetables for soups and sprouting seeds for jam-packed "green" nutrition. (All of those, as well as flours (I use mostly gluten-free flours), rice and other "dry goods" can be dry-canned in the oven, in glass canning jars, which will keep them good for up to 20 years!) Chia seeds for putting in all foods or just chewing – super source of the vital Omega-3 fatty acids … sardines the same.

I have jars of homemade, organic lard -- great for all cooking, frying and baking. I get organic fat-back and render it in the oven, then store in eight-ounce canning jars. I make ghee, made by separating milk solids from the butter – unsalted organic. I store this in four- or eight-ounce canning jars. This will stay good for months. I use it daily. It’s delicious, nutritious and has a higher burn point than olive oil. (Indeed, I don’t even use olive oil. It goes rancid too fast. I use coconut oil, lard and ghee.)

I have couscous and quinoa for grains ... and boxes of dry mix for stuffing. Stuffing with chicken broth is a great addition to a meatless meal. And I have lots of cans of baked beans and spinach. Beans are packed with even more protein than meat and spinach, besides being one of the healthiest foods, is the one vegetable that is more nutritious cooked than raw.

And I like to have a couple canned hams on hand.

Well, you get the picture -- I only stock what I use regularly. (And that includes cleaning supplies. I make my own laundry soap in four- to five-gallon batches. I have an extra bottle of dish soap, boxes of baggies, bags of sugar, etc., on hand and as soon I reach for that stored one, I replace it. Sort of my own little grocery store. It took some time to build up the storage stocks, a few dollars here, a few pennies there, but it was well worth it, for the peace of mind and the convenience of not having to run to the store for something I just ran out of.

A packed pantry is a great tranquilizer.

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, is a Maine native and graduate of Belfast Area High School now living in Morrill. Her column appears in this paper every other week.

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