Pantry Memories

Katy recalls this romantic room of her youth.

Written July 14, 1966

Dear Nephew Ray,

The heart of the home is the kitchen, perhaps because Mother is usually there. Children flock around the table after school for milk and fat sugar cookies. Father shaves at the round mirror attached by a telescoping arm to a sunny window frame while the breakfast coffee boils. Guests are drawn to this lodestone and happily stir the gravy while final touches are put on a meal. Here, too, are brought heartaches and joys to be comforted or celebrated with coffee, compassion, or cheers.

But, if the kitchen is the heart, then the pantry is the main artery for without it the kitchen could not function. New houses have a supply cupboard. There is no romance in a supply cupboard, but you take a pantry now......

I've known many pantrys in my day. Some were long, narrow, shelf-lined closets while others were as large as some modern kitchens. Ma's pantry was between the diningroom and kitchen and had cupboards that opened into both rooms. You could set the table from the wainscoated cupboards on the dining room side and put the clean dishes away, after washing them in the sink, in the pantry. Two deep linen drawers opened both ways also.

There were two large pull-out bins for flour and sugar and cupboards for other baking supplies. Open shelves held baking dishes turned upside down to keep out the dust, pies cooling for supper, half a devils food cake keeping fresh under a kettle, and the stone cookie jar with a blue butterfly incised on the front. A long line of sadirons and a legless ironing board indicated another use to which the pantry could be put in summer, though it kept me busy bringing hot irons from the kitchen range. Two green-shaded, cheesecloth-screened windows let cool air circulate through the room.

Canned foods, preserves, and pickles were kept in their own room in the cellar. Here in seemingly endless array stood jars of green beans, plain and pickled beets, golden corn, shelled beans, succotash, carrots canned in glowing orange slices, and ranks of pickles, dark green, spicy, sweet, whole, sliced, mustard, chopped, mixed, bread-and-butter, green tomato, and delicate pink and white watermelon. A stone jar of dill pickles stood on the floor just inside thie door and jars of milk and a crock of butter sat in a stone trough through which ran icy spring water.

On hot summer afternoons I would carry scalloped-edged sugar cookies big as a saucer and a glass for milk to the preserve cellar and enjoy its cool atmosphere as I ate. An upended potato crate served as a seat and I could contemplate a custard cooling for supper or a watermelon chilling in the trough with delightful anticipation. Remember, I wore long white cotton stockings, three petticoats buttoned to a ferris-waist and a long-sleeved, high-necked dress which was not exactly an ideal summer costume.

The pantry at the Big Farm was even more inviting. It was called the Spring Room. Grandpa had run water from a spring on the hill through cypress logs so that it ran continually into a barrel and then, through a trough in the stone floor and on out to the dry well. The room was built of stone slabs, nearly all below ground level with two tiny, deep windows for ventilation. Shelves were recesses in the walls and a two-tiered wooden slat table Grandpa had built at Grandma's suggestion.

Crocks of butter, pans of milk with a skimmer and cream pitcher nearby, pitchers of buttermilk, baskets of eggs, a slab of bacon, left-overs from yesterdays dinner, a custard pie, and Grandpa's jar of apple cider shared the shelves. A tin cup hung beside the water barrel from which a drink more cold and sweet than any nectar could be had. The stone steps grew delicate green moss along the edges where feet didn't tread. Crystal water sang a faint echo of the spring's song. The cool air was fragrant with berries, milk, butter, and Grandma's good food. But a refrigerator-freezer is much more efficient.

No matter what sort of pantry she has, any housewife will tell you that the new interesting recipes she finds always call for at least one ingredient she doesn't have on hand. Whether it be slivered almonds, stick cinnamon, cooking sherry, or minced mouse tails for a witches brew, she is always fresh out. So she drags out a batter-spattered card from her recipe file and whips up a batch of the same old thing. Her family eats it happily, never knowing it's a substitute for some more exotic viand.

Even though I follow Ma's and Grandma's rules exactly, it seems the resultant dishes have a different taste. Chicken hasn't the sweet flavor of the hens that ran in Grandma's garden. Uncle Bert would catch, behead, and pluck two or three hens after supper and hang them in the spring room over night. In the morning Grandma dismembered them with a sharp, skillful knife, washed the pieces in three waters, and put them in an iron kettle with just enough water to cover and a bouquet of herbs to simmer until tender. Then each piece was drained, dipped in seasoned egg and milk, rolled in cornmeal, and fried in lard kept at just the proper temperature on a wood-burning range.

Our dinner table would be centered by a platter heaped with fried chicken, napkin-covered bowls of hot biscuits, and steaming hot creamy gravy made from the chicken stock and chopped giblets. Mashed potato heaped high in a bowl and dotted with sweet butter, garden peas or tiny beets cooked with their greens or carrots almost too young to pull lying in a bath of buttery milk completed this meal.

When your teeth pierced the golden crust on the chicken, your tongue curled with delight over the delicate, tender, sweet white or dark meat. Grandma sat at the foot of the table, eating little it seemed, but pressing more on every one else. Her cup was filled with "biled" green tea so strong Pa claimed one spoonful in a cup of hot water made a healthy cup of tea.

To finish this meal we had a choice between berry pie and cake, or both. Grandma made a marble cake, swirls of yellow and chocolate batter baked in three layers and put together with a boiled icing, that I have often tried, unsucessfully, to duplicate. Whether it is the skill of the cook, the quality of the ingredients, or just that food tasted better when I was a child, I don't know. Some things are not given us to understand.

Uncle Jos sends regards as do I,

Your Aunt Katy