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First light, first pantry, first soup, part one


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.]

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


What a neat letter. I had to laugh at the part where she was happy her family didn't accidentally use the laxative tea...now that would have been funny. :)

What a story! Welcome to 'blogging', Arlo. You're a natural storyteller, perhaps you'll share more! My own spices remain mostly inside red and green Tones tins from the early 1980s. I wouldn't give them up for the world ...

What a beautiful letter. My best wishes to Arlo and her family. Lydia, here's to the power of food-blogging! :)

So many nice things to think about in this post, Lydia, but the one that grabs me right away is your "First Light" tradition. My husband and I have been debating how we want to spend the New Year -- can we stay awake for a great sounding party at a local restaurant (doubtful) or should we celebrate a deux? But the First Light idea hits home -- I love the dawn and I really haven't seen midnight for a long, long time. Maybe we'll go to bed a a decent hour and get up early and drive to the beach with the dogs and some hot coffee and wait for the First Light together. Lovely. Thanks. Best wishes for the new year to you!

What a lovely letter. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Blessings to one and all,

I absolutely loved this post Lydia. Thank you for sharing Arlo's letter with us. What a truly cool lady. Have you or she ever seen the film Hideous Kinky with Kate Winslet? Arlo's letter reminded me of elements of the film. As I'm bed bound I'm going to finally get some time to read a lot of your older posts. I liked your idea of the bell in your comment on my blog, so much nicer than the sound of a mobile phone. Old things are usually the best!

Have a wonderful New Year - your first light celebration sounds magical!

While I love the idea of ringing in the new year at midnight, your bonfire to greet the first light of the new year sounds very appealing.

Happy New Year to you and Ted and the Perfect Pantry!

Lydia, this is one of your most beautiful posts.My husband and I are driving from Florida to Maine and I read it aloud to him. Both of us had tears flowing. Thanks for sharing Arlo's heartwarming letter and thanks for inspiring all of us throughout the year.We love the idea of First Light and sharing it with friends. May be a bit chilly to do so in Maine but we're always up for adventure. Happy New Year.

Your First Light with friends around the fire sounds wonderful and heart-warming! I enjoyed Arlo's story and look forward to reading more.

Lydia, I love the letter and love your New Year's tradition! I can't guarantee I can follow it this year -- I'm going to be up late New Year's Eve, but it's wonderful and evocative...I'm definitely giving it some thought. Can't wait to read part 2 of this story!

I feel so at home with Arlo's story. I am the fortunate one who still has all the odd jars and ingredients through multiple moves with 4 children, husband, no pets. When I try to look trendy, they still come back to the foreground. I have had other losses through moves, though, so I applaud her reclaiming her own. She's a woman I'd love to hire! I'll think better of first light(s) after this.

What a wonderful story! The pantry does reveal a lot of our life, where we have been, where we are now and where we are going to be. It can't be a sterile environment. There will be sticky bottles (though I'm better with that) and spices from years gone by. Happy New Year, Lydia!

This post is lovely. I was engrossed in the letter, completely oblivious to my mother trying to get my attention about the cookies baking in the oven.

Lydia, thanks for a great blog, and all the cheering on you do for all of us. Happy New Year!

An excellent story - the old phrase, "you are what you eat" could be revised to say, "one's personality can be found in the pantry!" Here's hoping "First Light" is filled with warmth. Happy New Year, Lydia!

What a great post, thank you so much for sharing. And thank you to Arlo for a beautiful letter. It is such a great reminder, as we say goodbye to one year and look forward to another to enjoy the mementos of the past. There's been more than once lately where I've looked at something in my home and desperately wished I could replace it with something new and chic. Now I have this curious idea to rummage through the old and try and feature it as best as possible.

Peabody, I have some of that tea in my pantry, too; from now on I'm keeping it well labeled!

Alanna, I'm so glad you enjoyed Arlo's pantry story as much as I did. I think many of us can relate to it (i.e., all the recycled jars on my pantry shelf).

Nupur, I agree -- the food blogging world is a warm and welcoming place. Without this blog, I'd probably never have met Arlo.

Christine, as I write this I'm looking out the window, where the snow cover will make it perfect for our bonfire tomorrow morning. We love the idea of welcoming the new year at sun-up, with friends and optimism for the year ahead.

Paz, you're welcome. I was sure that Pantry readers would love this story as much as I did.

Amanda, I've seen Hideous Kinky, so I'm giggling now! I'll send some good energy into the bonfire tomorrow morning to help speed your recovery -- back injuries are so frustrating.

Julie, happy new year to you, too! If you're up to see the dawn tomorrow, think of us lighting the bonfire out in a field in the middle of Rhode Island!

Ronnie, thank you so much. By next year you will be "hardened off" New Englanders, and the cold won't seem so daunting. For us, the snow cover provides a welcome opportunity to light the bonfire at dawn and see in the new year, even as we're stamping our feet to keep warm and drinking lots of hot coffee!

Meg, this is the fifth (I think) year that we've celebrated First Light. After many years of staying up on New Year's Eve and joining in festivities with the children, it's now just us old folks, and what better way to celebrate than to look ahead to the new year, the first dawn, the first light? Happy new year to you!

Genie, I wish you all good things for the new year, whether you celebrate at midnight or at dawn.

Susan, Arlo's story really resonated with me, too. My pantry is a combination of old and new, jars and tins and boxes accumulated over many years. But I never imagined that my pantry would be the catalyst for the rebuilding of someone else's pantry (and happiness). When I first read Arlo's letter, I knew I had to share it with you.

Veron, happy new year to you, too. I think that the pantry, more than any other part of the house, really does reflect our past, present, and future (the spices and ingredients we've bought with the best of intentions, but haven't actually used yet!).

Chris, without blogging friends like you, my pantry would be empty. Thank you for visiting. And I'm so glad you enjoyed Arlo's letter as much as I did.

TW, when the sun breaks over the horizon tomorrow and we light the bonfire, I will be thinking of my many new friends in the blog world, and how grateful I am to have them in my life. Thank you for visiting the Pantry.

Erika, the same feeling came over me when I first read this letter -- the urge to rediscover the old and to remember why I've kept whatever it is with me for so long. Happy new year to you.

What a lovely letter. Thank you, Lydia, for sharing. And I'm simply awed by your tradition--what an amazing way to welcome the new year! Do y'all stay up all night, or wake up early? Happy New Year!

Thank you so much for sharing that letter. It was moving and funny. I love your blog, Lydia. Here's to 2008. Have a great time in front of your bonfire! Happy New Year.

Greetings Lydia and Perfect Pantry Readers: Thank you all so much for the kind words regarding my letter and pantry story. I didn't expect it to be shared but I am glad Lydia asked to reprint. This is my first experience with a blog and it has been very rewarding. As I mentioned, it's like all of us sitting around a big kitchen table. I look forward to the New Year and all the goodies (new and old stand-bys) that will be pictured and described in the Perfect Pantry in 2oo8. Although I don't have a field or a pile of wood, I will look south at First Light and imagine seeing Lydia and Ted's bonfire light up the sky!! Best wishes to all and have a safe and Happy New Year.

Like Arlo, many of us have found inspiration from your Perfect Pantry this year. I've been exposed to so many new and wonderful things through your blog. Thanks so much for sharing. Wishing you all the best for a happy new year!!!

Thanks, Lydia, for sharing Arlo's letter. A wonderful story. I look forward to more Perfect Pantry next year.

Link, we'll be lighting the bonfire in just a few hours. It's a wonderful way to start the year.

Lisa, we sleep for a few hours, and then awake before dawn. With flashlights we all make our way out into the field, an acre or so away from the house. As the first rays of light come over the horizon, our friend lights the fire, we all hoot and holler, and the year begins!

Sher, looking forward to sharing the fun of blogging with you for another year.

Arlo, your letter has touched many people and given us all that feeling of being in the kitchen together. What could be better than that?! We'll be thinking of you at First Light, just a few hours from now.

Diane, thank you so much. Wishing you a wonderful new year.

Kathy, I think you'll enjoy Part Two, tomorrow, wherein Arlo shares a special recipe for the new year.

What a lovely, fun story and letter. My own pantry is half and half - half new/half old, half purpose bought/half recycled... mostly interesting!

Katie, my pantry is like that, too. Some old, some new, some jelly jars...

Lydia - I so enjoyed the story about the pantry box (thanks to Arlo). I feel like I know her, like I could sit down for a cup of tea and we'd have a lot of common things to talk about with our love of herbs and spices. I love your stories, Lydia, and have been a fan of your blog for a long time. Your enthusiasm, and your sense of humor are greatly appreciated. I wrote up a blog piece about my herbs cupboard too (after reading yours and Arlo's) - nowhere near as poignant or funny has yours - but I do enjoy my herbs. If you want to take a glance at my blog it's http://tastingspoons.blogspot.com. I posted the herb story today, 1/19/2008.

Carolyn, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Loved your post about your pantry -- so organized, compared to mine!

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