The Pantry

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Located off the back of the house, down a narrow stair in the basement, or tucked into a corner of the kitchen, the pantry is more than a storage closet. Stocked with food staples and household supplies, it represents forethought, stability, and a kind of practical wisdom. Surveying the shelves bowed under the weight of good things, you breathe a sigh of satisfaction.

 
“Pantry” derives via medieval French from the Latin word for bread, panis, indicating one of the things stored there. Like the larder, buttery, scullery and root cellar, the pantry forms one of the “kitchen offices” that serve the area for cooking. Always functional, it can also be fun. In English country houses, or American estates like Biltmore and the Gilded Age cottages of Newport, the pantry became a showplace, fitted with cabinets, drawers, shelves and hooks, gleaming with brass and ceramic tile, with its own sink, warming oven and quaint method of refrigeration.
 
There are two kinds of pantry. The butler’s pantry, also called a serving pantry, is usually a passage between the kitchen and dining room. China, glasses, silverware, trays, tablecloths, napkins, flower vases, urns and related articles are stored here, and perhaps displayed through glass cabinet doors. In a house that has a staff of servants, the butler rules in his pantry. In past centuries, he even slept here, to guard the silver. Today, an architect may insert a butler’s pantry in a house that has no servants, to be a staging area for large dinners, and a place to store the homeowner’s collection of fine china, crystal and table decorations.
 
The plain old pantry used for storing food in nineteenth and early twentieth century America was typically behind the kitchen—on the back porch, on the north side—that cool, dry place recommended on package labels. Yet in 1869, The American Woman’s Home by Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe advised elimination of the pantry by adding shelves and cabinets to the kitchen. The American Woman sensibly ignored this advice. In new homes today, the pantry is one of the most requested features.
 
The Hoosier Cabinet, called “a pantry and kitchen in one,” combined storage and work surface. It was marketed by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company of New Castle, Indiana in the early 1900s.  Genuine antiques and modern reproductions are for sale, with an array of canisters, fittings and authentic hardware. Planned for efficiency, often finished in natural wood, it inspired the arrangement of base cabinet, countertop and wall cabinet found in modern design.
 
Arguably, the Hoosier also led to the tricked-out pantry, equipped with shelves, hooks, bins, drawers, appliances, and sundry built-in contrivances. Whether lodged in a floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinet or a separate room, this type of pantry can resemble the cockpit of an airplane. Small spaces have a special appeal when they are well designed, so if you are contemplating a new house, consider the pantry. A window, even a tiny one, can make it irresistible.
 
Contemporary design, with its emphasis on the open plan and open space, omits the pantry. Geoff Pitts, owner of Ace Contracting in Charlottesville, says: “When we remodel kitchens, we often remove those pantries, mudrooms and little add-ons to give more space to the kitchen. I think of the pantry as old-fashioned, something once needed for all those canned goods and pickle barrels and fifty-pound sacks of potatoes.” 
 
Exactly. If you belong to a food cooperative, or you buy groceries in bulk, or you like to grow and harvest your own food, a pantry is a must. Urban agriculture is the hot new pursuit. You need a place to keep jumbo-size boxes and plastic tubs, bunches of herbs, tins of walnuts, Mason jars of fruit and vegetables, bags of carrots, onions and apples, jugs of cider, and whole hams hung up to dry. If your home lacks a basement, garage or attic, you need pantry storage all the more.
 
A pantry can double as a wine cellar, with wooden racks, an under-counter refrigerator, and a sink expressly made for cooling bottles. The washer and dryer may hang out here, along with boots and recycling bins and a mountain bike suspended from the ceiling. You can store towels and trivets, batteries and beer, shotgun shells and sunflower seeds. A pantry is personal.
 
It can be neat and organized, a laboratory dedicated to domestic science. Shelter magazines and HGTV show pantries of this type, clean and brightly lit, with fresh flowers on the polished granite countertop. In real life, the pantry may be dusty and cluttered, a culinary cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Those red stains could be blood or Bordeaux—only you will know for sure.
 
Robert Boucheron is a Charlottesville-based architect.
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