Questions & Answers about The Pantry

Do you have a pantry in your home? What is in it?

We have two adjoining butler's pantries (or china pantries) that we put in our Federal-era home about six years ago. They are built in the Victorian style that was popular for cabinetry around the late 19th century: cream paint, glass-doored upper cupboards, lots of drawers for linens. We collect and have inherited a lot of dishes so we actually had to pare down our book collection to create these spaces that, in a strange sort of kismet, were likely once pantry spaces off two original kitchens in our 1813 home.

It was important for us to have a look of historic continuity and evolution in the house. The "newer" kitchen, added in 1816 in an ell, has matching built-in cupboards that would have been for dish and food storage. Built-in cabinetry was rare in the earlier part of the 19th century. Meanwhile, down in the cellar, we have several storerooms for canned and dry goods. My dream house has a large walk-in farmhouse pantry off the kitchen with a window. So our pantry renovations, or recreations, came out of a long-term love of pantries that I have had since childhood.

How long did it take you to write/research the book?

The book idea initially came from an article I wrote on pantries for Old-House Interiors after we had put historically inspired pantries in our own home. The entire process—from book proposal to final editing with the publisher—took two years working intermittently on the book. As this is a design book as well as a domestic history, I worked with my principal photographers Susan Daley and Steve Gross on selecting and styling many of the photographs of pantries that appear in the book. Other images are from their archive of historic kitchens. We met long ago on a shoot for Victoria Magazine—where, oddly enough, they took several shots of a butler's pantry on that shoot—and share a similar appreciation for old and off-beat spaces. Some of the other images in the book are archival—ads about pantries, vintage illustrations, etc.—that I have in my own collection.

One of the best things about writing this book was the amount of historic information, especially primary sources from the late 19th and early 20th century, that were available on pantries. As these rooms were once essential to every kitchen, back when kitchens were much smaller and had fewer built-in cupboards and counters, if any, entire chapters on pantries were often included in domestic economy books about their design, contents and maintenance. I also took great delight in finding many descriptive quotes about pantries in period literature and poetry, including children's books (some are included in the book). Also no book, apart from cookbooks using ingredients in the pantry, has ever been written exclusively on pantries from the design or historical perspective so it was fun to delve into the subject and have a great deal of available information from all eras. I'm guessing it is also one of the first design books with footnotes, much to my editor's despair!

What did you learn that you didn't already know about pantries?

Pantries were important ancillary kitchen spaces, like mini galley kitchens with drawers, cupboards, counters, and fun little nooks and crannies. Up until the 1930s, really, kitchens were utilitarian spaces with just the essentials. They were undecorated workrooms. What happened as the 20th century progressed is that the pantry literally came into the kitchen as that space expanded and built-ins and cupboards were added, until the pantry all but became obsolete. This was not a new idea but one that had been generated by Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe in their highly influential book, The American Woman’s Home, written in 1869. It just took a while to happen.

The pantry's rise and fall really corresponded with how the American kitchen has transformed. Ironically, we now have the largest kitchens of any era and yet pantries are making a comeback. People want them again and I think for reasons to do with wanting to store a lot of extra food or dishes as much as for nostalgic reasons.

Many of us remember a pantry from a long-ago relative but few of the "Baby Boomer" generation had them growing up, as houses—and kitchens—became smaller throughout the 20th century. My first "pantry experience" was in my grandparents' suburban home, built in 1923, where their serving pantry was as large as their kitchen: it had glimmering glassware and always a tin of homemade cookies (in fact, many past images and literature conjure up "pantry raids" on jam and cookie jars—even Tom Sawyer had to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence for his own pantry raid). There is a nostalgic bent to pantries and as I am a nester from childhood—I was always organizing my mother's cupboards and closets—I realized, too, that I was writing about a place I loved and always wanted.

Anything you would like readers to know—about you, pantries, the book?

I wanted to convey in The Pantry—Its History and Modern Uses that anyone can create a pantry for food or dishes, collections or what-have-you: out of a small room, a closet, even a cupboard. I think anyone who loves kitchens will enjoy this book and hopefully be inspired by it. I also like the book's size: it is 8-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches, diminutive and just right, just like a pantry.

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