Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pantries Past, Present, and Future

Swedish dish pantry
I am not a good cook. Sure, I can follow a recipe and even improvise a little; I can plan a dinner party and have everything ready to serve at the same time; and I’m told the dishes I serve are quite tasty.

But what I can’t do—or rather what I haven’t yet learned to do—is plan meals ahead of time, creatively use all the food I purchase, and whip up meals based on whatever is in the cupboard. Those skills, in my opinion, are the hallmarks of a good cook! And I feel quite sure that one of the keys to becoming a good cook is a well-stocked pantry.

Prior to this house, I have designed three other kitchens but none of them had a pantry. The closest I have come to a pantry so far in my life are two floor-to-ceiling shallow cabinets in our house on Whidbey Island. For this new house I decided I wanted to have an honest-to-goodness pantry; by this I mean a walk-in space with shelves on three sides and a door you can close.

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed by now that I tend to obsessively research everything. I admit it; I’m kind of a geek about houses. I love to know the history of rooms and objects, and the pantry is no exception.

Fortunately I’m not the only one who is enamored with pantries, and so I was able to find quite a bit of information on them—as well as some lovely inspirational photos! My favorite source is the book The Pantry by Catherine Seiberling Pond.

Not only are the photos wonderful, her writing is a joy to read. She takes the reader through the history of pantries from the early American pantry to the modern day where pantries are experiencing a renaissance.

18th Century walnut and fruitwood panetiere
The word pantry comes from the Old French “paneterie” that itself derives from “pain” the French word for bread, and the person who manages the pantry used to be called the pantler. (By the way, a panetiere is a French cabinet for bread--although by the example below it looks more like a jail cell for wayward loaves! And how does the bread stay fresh?)

Not surprisingly, the history and evolution of pantries in the United States parallels the history and evolution of the American kitchen and family life. There are several types of pantries, each with a distinct purpose and belonging to a specific era. The early American pantries evolved from the buttery (or butt’ry) which housed casks (butts) of ale and wine and were located in the coolest portion of the house.
Old style U-shaped pantry
The butler’s pantry was originally a feature found only in the homes of the wealthy who could afford to have servants. Its purpose was to store all the dishes and silver, and provide a place where the butler—or other staff—could plate food and bring it into the dining room; thus explaining why butler’s pantries are usually situated between the kitchen and dining room.
Butler's pantry focuses on dish storage and room to "plate" food prior to serving.

I found these images of the White House pantry and can't help including them. Even with renovations, the basic layout seems to have stayed the same. I guess if it works, why change it? I love the photo through the porthole window showing the pantry as a beehive of activity. President Obama hanging out in the pantry while waiting to enter a meeting is also a good one!

White House pantry, 1920
White House pantry, 1947
White House pantry, 1952
White House pantry, 2009
White House pantry, 2010

Early kitchens had very little storage and were primarily used for the actual cooking itself—washing up occurred in a scullery, food storage in a pantry, and eating in the dining room. Advances in refrigeration, changes in household size and composition (fewer/no servants), and the availability of pre-prepared foods led to the kitchen becoming larger in order to house all the functions of those multiple rooms from the past.

Pantry/Prep area from the Calvin Coolidge house museum

 Fast forward to today and the nostalgia for pantries, along with a desire for more light in kitchens, has led to a trend of fewer upper cabinets in favor of a pantry within the kitchen.

Walk-in style--but still visible through the screen door!

This one houses a little bit of everything
Pantry Design
If you are building a new house or kitchen, you have more latitude in the design of your pantry. Fitting a pantry into an existing floor plan can be difficult, but do-able, especially if there is a hall closet or a less-used entryway that you can appropriate for pantry use.

The website Everything Pantry provides a overview of pantry design, citing three basic styles--the closet pantry, walk-in pantry, and corner pantry--and shows some vintage floor plans as inspiration. These photos from The Inspired Room show several variations on the basic pantry design.

The "one can deep" closet style. Note the chalkboard door panels.
Deep enough for the microwave and toaster--a mini food prep area.

This article by Jennifer Sperry from Old House Journal online also offers great design ideas and inspiring photos.

Nice cabinets, but maybe too narrow for more than one person to work in?

Stocking and Managing Your Pantry
A good pantry is one that works well for you. It should be a “living” thing—used daily, regularly restocked, and easy to find things in. There are several good books on how to stock and use a pantry, as well as online resources for pantry checklists and shopping lists.

Natural light is a nice touch.

Check out this Keep and Share site for a downloadable grocery list--there are lots of others online too. Any of these seem like a good template to start with and then customize to suit your own family's food preferences. Keep it low-tech by hanging a paper grocery list on the inside of the pantry door. Or keep your list electronically in your computer--or your smartphone! There has to be an app for that, right?

Some things to keep in mind:
  • Label items with their purchase date and store them with the oldest toward the front to be used first.
  • Try not to store more than 1 can or box deep; you want to have all the items visible so you remember to use them. 
  • Keep the heaviest items on the lower shelves for safety’s sake. 
  • If your pantry is cool enough, store your onions and potatoes there too. 
  • Consider keeping canned beans, pickled and spiced vegetables, and cured meats on hand to create an instant hors d’oeuvres platter should you have unexpected guests. 
My Pantry in the Making
With all this information at my disposal, here’s what I ended up designing for our new kitchen: 
  • A little room, 3 ½ feet wide by 4 feet deep, with a 28” door;
  • located to the right of the refrigerator; near enough to the range and island to be convenient, but out of the line of traffic so as to be accessible to others without bothering the main cook;
  • painted a pumpkin/squash burnt orange with mustard yellow shelves (just for fun!);
  • 6 levels of shelves on three sides—6” deep on the left, 9” deep on the right; and 12” deep at the back in order to keep goods visible and no more than 1 can/jar/box deep on the sides and room for bulkier items on the back shelves (even in such a small space, this adds to an astonishing 69 linear feet of storage!); and
  • lit well from above with a pendent lamp.
Some of the other features I’m thinking of adding include a chalkboard or magnetic board on the inside of the door; smaller spice racks mounted on the inside of the door; possibly a small rolling cart (IKEA has some nice ones) to set inside and hold my KitchenAid mixer and larger containers of flour and sugar. The idea of the cart is that I could roll it out from the pantry when I’m baking or otherwise need the mixer. In my other kitchens the mixer has always been on the countertop, but I’m leaning toward keeping sleeker, less cluttered surfaces in this kitchen.  
IKEA "Flytta" cart

One feature I wanted to add, but wasn’t able to, is a vent to the outside as a way of keeping the pantry cooler than the kitchen itself. MTH said it was a building code issue because we would be interrupting the insulation in the outside wall. (I’m not actually sure if that is true. It may actually be an “installation” issue; as in “Honey I don’t want to tear open the wall we just finished!!” That’s okay too.)

Because we also have a mudroom—just outside the kitchen door—the pantry doesn’t have to handle cleaning supplies or pet food or products bought in bulk; those will be in the mudroom along with the cats’ litter pan, pet food bowls, vases and shears for cutting and arranging flowers brought in from the garden, and other miscellaneous items I’ve yet to figure out!

So my little pantry is just waiting to be filled with all kinds of delicious things. I hope it will also be the start of turning me into that GOOD COOK of my dreams!