Ted and I celebrate the dawn of the New Year with friends who live nearby. We light a bonfire out in the middle of their field at sun-up, and greet the First Light with warmth, good wishes, occasional poems and abundantly hot coffee. Most important, though, are the friends, old and new, with whom we welcome each new year.
This year, I'm so pleased to start the year with Arlo, a Pantry reader who sent the following to me in November. Since then, we have shared many thoughts and memories, and a new friendship. With her kind permission, I'm happy to share her letter with you. (The photo is of my own spice rack, which Ted built from an old door we found in our barn.)
Greetings from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. I just wanted to tell you how much The Perfect Pantry helped me through a bad time during these past few weeks and to thank you. I will not go through any of the soapy details, but it was not blissful domesticity here for a period of time. I am a mother and wife, with four of my five children still living at home. Every morning, after they all go to school or work, I faithfully look for a job as living in our nation's capital is expensive. After these devotions, I reward myself with exactly one hour of e-mails, visiting my favourite websites and blogs, etc.
Earlier this month, after a particularly depressing morning, I stayed on longer than my 60 minutes. I did not want to do the recycling, find homes for the kittens or ever become employed again. Ottawa can go for days without sunshine in the autumn and this always affects me. So I putzed around following links into many food sites, and not sure exactly how I came across the Perfect Pantry but I stopped surfing after that. Your site made me abandon my morning routine (yikes) and made me smile while doing so.
I love your writing because you share a part of your past, really interesting facts, humour, recipes, alternatives, good causes, a wealth of resources, and above all, pantry items to die for. It is a very satisfying and rewarding read and your photos are truly inspirational. It is these pictures that bring back such wonderful memories. Some of your items I have always had on hand through 30 years of kitchens.
I thought I might share my pantry story.
I was a student and single teen mother in the late seventies; cooking from scratch was a necessity on my thin budget. So, mentored by old and new hippies who knew how to sprout anything that had seeds, make yogurt in glass gallon jars from raw milk, and bake dark loaves that alternated as daily bread or doorstops, I started my first pantry. For the first ten years, my son and I lived like gypsies -- taking classes, working and travelling, but what we always packed first as part of our essentials was what was, and is still, called Mom's Pantry Box.
Inside the pantry box were used jars, colourful tins and unique bottles full of bulk spices and dried herbs, seeds & pods, things such as saffron, nutmeg and whole vanilla beans, extracts and hickory essence. These were things I had spent much time assembling from ethnic markets, health food stores, obscure general stores in the middle of nowhere or had been received from friends and strangers long ago and far away. Not that they couldn't be eventually replaced, given time and money, but I think it was the sentimental value of each piece -- a smooth oval honey jar from my first apartment in Saskatchewan, now used for cloves, a bottle of hot sauce a friend brought back from Guyana refilled with regular Tabasco, a rusty tin of Keens hot mustard powder but kept because it was someone's grandmother's -- that kind of thing. I would see a nice bottle in Chinatown and would buy it, bring it home and promptly dump out its unidentified contents, replacing it with olive oil or syrup. Other things I didn't even open, hoping one day I could read Arabic or Hungarian, but just liked the way they looked on my spice shelf. These all came with me no matter what, and their familiarity comforted me and my son wherever we set up our new home.
As space was always limited when we were moving, I would give away my larger containers of rices, grains, flours, beans, lentils and pastas and shelves of canned tomatoes, preserves, and other condiments. My friends may have been sad I was departing but they always had plenty to remember me by. Did I mention I collect way too much kitchen paraphernalia (junk) and these too had to be left behind in good hands? Many cookbooks, my other obsession, found new shelves as well.
Before I did the big giveaway, however, I would pack up some starter staples for the new place, even though sometimes I didn't know where that would be. In would go small bags (cloth, plastic, paper) of whatever culled from my bulk supplies; who knew if my next corner store or northern outpost would have kasha, turbinado sugar, adzuki beans or basmati rice? Along side I would tuck in tiny cans of tomato paste, jars of honey, dried fruit, nuts, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, tubes of mayonnaise, mustards, wasabi, boullion cubes, sundried tomatoes, olives, canisters of cocoa, custard, yeast and gelatin powder, coffee beans, tea sampler, sardines, pate, artichokes, capers, soy sauce, bakers chocolate -- whatever could fit.
We did stick to one rule, and that was I could pack only what fit in the pantry box. The only exemption I had was a large square tin of olive oil and a 5 pound sack of kosher salt. Over the years, I had learned to buy small containers -- the prettier the better -- of those things which would be hard to find or substitute and therefore would always travel with us and would be the first to be displayed in my new kitchen. A trip to a local grocery store could replace the rest. Our first meals in any new place always leaned toward the exotic, I have to say.
After 10 years of a nomadic but rewarding lifestyle, I fell in love and married my current husband. He was, and still tries to be, a meat and potatoes hide-the-vegetables man. Much of my treasured pantry items became neglected and my global spice shelf became dusty. Four more children did not allow a lot of time for cooking fusion masterpieces, nor permit a budget for pine nuts, truffles and the like. Convenience and cost became the focus of my pantry and deep freeze. Costco, there I went! Despite the pressure to not add anything to family meals but ketchup and cheese whiz, I kept my colourful spice bottles and recycled mason jars of beans, even if only for that whole food ambiance to impress my equally aging activist friends. Occasionally, I would make a barley & dried mushroom soup which I would eat by myself for three days.
Then I did a terrible thing.
The first motivating factor for this regrettable act was when I had a job that required much traveling. One time my family was at home on the east coast, fending for themselves, and I was on the west coast conducting a meeting. I was interrupted by an emergency call from my young daughter and nearly had a heart attack. In which of my encrypted labeled jars was the Italian seasoning mix, she and her dad wanted to know? They were making spaghetti sauce on their own despite all the money I had left for pizza delivery. Only I knew what was in my jars and even then I had to sometimes guess, resulting in many mystery sauces. I was astounded but also relieved they did not use my lavender-based diuretic herb tea concoction!
Then my children became older and wanted to start cooking for themselves. Two of them had part time jobs in the restaurant industry, and were now exposed to meals that weren't called hamburger helper or needed to be cooked from frozen in the microwave. They wanted flavour and zing. It was becoming a nuisance to have to accurately describe which substance was in each jar, so I decided to do a full inventory. Good grief. Plus we were moving to a bigger house with a fancier kitchen and I was embarrassed by my motley assemblage of obscure jars and greasy tins -- the neighbours will judge me, I predicted.
I decided a full make-over was in order and immediately went and purchased three dozen glass and stainless steel square jars of various compatible sizes, and a fancy label maker. In a week I had a spice and pantry unit that could be featured in Better Homes and Gardens.
I had gently rinsed each jar, tin and bottle that had traveled with me for so many years and carefully packed them in their equally ancient wooden crate, just in case I ever needed them again. My husband later removed the box of them from the kitchen floor, where they had remained for a week, and said he would store them in the garage, safely he promised. He knew I was stoutly determined but grieving none the less. There they stayed until moving day where they were placed, by movers yet to identify themselves, on the curb for recycling, which they were.
Neatly organized, I became more efficient when cooking and the family began to help make more meals but I felt that part of my kitchen's soul was missing. I had tall sleek bottles with precision metal nozzles for my various oils, imported cruets for vinegars and neat wire baskets for everything else, but I missed my little clay jugs and random mustard crocks. My herbs and lentils looked bereft in their sterile cubes, like they were patiently waiting in a bulk food store to be scooped up, taken home and placed lovingly in cork-topped mason jars with handwritten labels. When I saw the many beautiful pictures in The Perfect Pantry, I had a good cry and then gave my head a shake.
I went for my wife-sized crowbar.
As I write this, I am composing how I will explain the absence of the custom shelves over my trendy antique farmer's sink when the owner returns next year for his inspection. I will not mention how many screws it took to mount my old open-faced spice cupboard or how much walking I had to do in Chinatown and Little Italy to gather enough items to display that would make me feel like my kitchen had its heart restored.
My pantry closet, so tidily stacked with generic plastic tubs, is being gradually replaced with huge pickle jars and a hodgepodge of other canisters, colourful products and boxes, and recycled tea and coffee cans. The thrift store will soon receive a load of modern Swedish-inspired herb and spice jars, barely used.
My pantry shows my life and I am content. Sorry, House & Garden, I tried. So I thank you again, Lydia, for your inspirational Perfect Pantry. Please keep it up.
Arlo, my new friend, I surely will. And to all of you, dear readers, who bring The Perfect Pantry to life throughout the year, I send wishes for a very happy 2008.
[On January 1: First light, first pantry, first soup, part two -- the story of Arlo's New Year's Day traditions, and her recipe for bullets. Really.]
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