Everybody needs a pantry. Not today’s kitchen designer pantry-in-a-box cabinet, but the kind I played in as a child, like the ones our grandmothers had in their old houses. Those spaces were made for kids; dark secret spaces, close to the household action, but where tiny people could hide away, unnoticed, and play for hours, which, of course, is just what I did.
Some pantries were little more than glorified closets, but the grandest were actual rooms, adorned by proud leonine corbels and intricately carved woodwork, occasionally accompanied by swinging doors and stained glass windows. The pantry is the one area of the house with which I most readily identify. It is the place for things that have no place. In our kitchens we have sinks and their accouterments, which dwell beneath – detergents, sponges and plungers. As far as stoves go, a stove is a stove is a…and the fridge, he stands tall, existing for only one commonly accepted purpose, that of chilling food. No identity crises there. Everyone knows their place. But the pantry is a different sort of animal, a creature after my own heart, a room which defies description. Traditionally, it may contain non-perishable food. The word derives from the French paneterie and pain which mean bread.
In early America, a room for provisions was built into the coldest northern corner of a home. Later, as houses became larger, butler’s pantries emerged, some even containing sleeping butlers whose job was to keep the silver safe from pilferers. My pantry, perhaps like its mistress, prefers to remain undefined. It functions as purgatory for intermittently successful herb gardens, ones I refuse to relegate to the basement, that one-way trip signaling certain doom, with all hope of resurrection lost. Upper baskets protect vintage egg beaters and melon scoops which make ceremonious semiannual appearances, other tins hold cake decorating bags and tips which descend upon unsuspecting family members’ celebratory cakes. A host of happy seldom used appliances have taken up residence there as well, a crock pot, blender and even our computer printer.
Filled and empty cans and jars dwell amicably in this most curious catch-all of a closet, situated between naked paper towel tubes which live silent, contemplative lives awaiting craft projects yet-to-be, and a hefty supply of dog biscuits. In addition, the room provides a smashing secret staging area for semi completed centerpieces so they don’t irritatingly rule over the kitchen, reminding me daily of my penchant for procrastination. Pantries can be dark, dusty and disorganized, but they can provide their own light, one much brighter than the incandescent bulb dimly staring over it all.
On a recent, dreary school vacation day, my preschool granddaughter lured me into the pantry to display an old flashlight she’d found. I reluctantly followed her bidding. She snapped the doors shut and we entered a new world of spooky stories, our faces eerily illuminated by her light. Rabbit and monster finger shadows danced by the light of the Eveready. In short order, unaccompanied by Kindles and such, she fashioned a floppy baby from a ziploc bag of sugar which she dressed up with a left-over holiday gift bow. A K-cup transformed itself into another baby diapered with a stray napkin. The mama had humble beginnings as a straw hand broom and the dada, dapper as a pudding tub can be, transported the family from shelf to shelf in the finest of cardboard soda can boxes. Time stood still as her stories grew in scope and adventure. Suddenly – a knock at the door - her real dada calling her home. She wanted to keep playing, this often bored child of computer and electronic devices.
She was pulled away and even though I’d lost over an hour of a busy day, I gained a neverending moment of memory. Like Shel Silverstein’s “Light in the Attic,” we had our own “Light in the Pantry,” which provided every bit as expansive and hopeful a vision. A child’s respite in a tiny dark room proved that if we give them a chance, these diminutive souls skateboarding into our future may save us yet. With their limitless imaginations they may provide the “lights in the pantry” needed to illuminate the future and solve the world’s problems. May children and pantries remain free to give light to the most dimly lit corners of our lives.