Looking for a box of kitchen matches this morning I discovered three, no, four containers of Hershey’s Cocoa powder in the shadowy depths of our pantry, on the highest shelf. This is a luxurious problem to have — the only conceivable downside of an old-fashioned walk-in pantry: Its shelves are so commodious that you lose track of your bakery supplies and, living always in anticipation that there will be a need for cake, overstock yourself. My pantry is so large it even has a window. Through the window is a view of the lilac bush — bare in January, and spare, having lost half its bulk in a recent storm — and the barn. You can stand in the pantry when the sun is going down in shades of purple behind the barn and fully convince yourself it’s 1945 in there. War is almost over, F.D.R. is on the radio, and there are endless parking spaces on Main Street.
Our family has an overdeveloped muscle for nostalgia, and the kitchen is the epicenter (the gymnasium, as it were, in this rather humorously tortured metaphor) where we exercise it.
Many years ago, my mother wrote a column about all the funny-looking antique kitchen implements still in use in our kitchen, doodads and gadgets that other families might long before have either thrown out or hung on the wall as quaint “décor.” All the old stuff she enumerated is still in the kitchen, and still in use: egg beaters with chippy wooden handles; not one but two hand-crank meat grinders that come out twice a year to chew up cranberries or clams; a white-wicker breakfast tray with a top that you can raise and lower to read your newspaper in bed; ceramic pie plates from the Lincoln administration, aluminum pie plates from the Hoover administration, Pyrex pie plates, a history of America in pie plates.
You should see what’s inside the blue enameled bread box where I keep the cookie cutters. You’d be agog. Some of the animal-shaped cookie cutters are so old that no one knows what the animal is anymore. Is it a goose or an ostrich? It’s a forgotten animal we no longer recognize that went extinct with the dodo. A passenger pigeon. An Eskimo curlew.
Even our Cuisinart is a relic of the 1970s, a stout old trouper who chopped his way through the gazpacho years. There’s a museum piece of a black metal popcorn maker, too, with a crank on top, greasy with the peanut oil of another century, that I think was actually invented by Benjamin Franklin and is in fact electric, although the heavy black cord is as thick as a garter snake and would probably blow up the house if I plugged it in one last time. Our half-dozen baking sheets are black with age, too. (And I will take this opportunity to ask, rhetorically, why it was necessary to stop calling them “baking sheets” about 15 years ago and start calling them “sheet pans”? This evolution of the language irks me irrationally. I won’t say “sheet pans,” and I refuse to call a knit cap “a beanie,” and I will only use “landline” in the sense of a household analog phone under strong duress.)
Now, when I say that my mother wrote a column cataloging all those curious vintage kitchen implements, I was only being half-truthful, because by that time — around 10 years ago — her good brain was already in slow decline and she was showing the first signs of dementia, and I alone knew this, because I was her editor, the editor of her weekly newspaper column. She would write something and I’d revise it, to give it a bit more oomph. This went on for maybe nine years. My mother typed up her “Connections” column weekly, without fail, from the 1970s until 2019, but toward the end she started to have very little to say that she hadn’t said before. She kept writing the thrilling tale of how she liked to meander of a morning into the kitchen in her bedroom slippers to water the plants and watch the jays and cardinals at the birdfeeder. She wrote about that rather dull scene maybe 20 times, so I felt I needed to embellish her columns a little light bit, to make the storyline have more of a point.
“It has to have a point,” I’d tell her, using that angry-at-you-for-no-good-reason tone that daughters take with mothers. “It can’t just be a description of your morning in slippers.” So it was sort of me, actually, who half-wrote my mother’s catalog of archaic, antediluvian kitchen knickknacks, marvels, and geegaws a decade ago and is doing it again now. I sincerely hope this isn’t a sign of the onset of early dementia.
(How’s that for a mother-daughter story? I think I’ve worked in a point?)
Anyway, back in the pantry, it’s nearly time for a springtime clear-out. With one child away at boarding school and the other a strapping eighth grader with ideas of his own about what constitutes a proper school lunch, the hour has probably arrived when I have to do something about the stoopidly huge stack of metal containers, lidded cups, thermoses, and water bottles that form a perilous pyramid beside the pet food and crash to the floor from time to time, late at night, when the cat is chasing a mouse, waking me, waking the dog, and waking Teddy. Yes, we get a mouse in the pantry approximately every third year. This being a leap year, 2024, the pantry is, I believe, now in a non-mouse era.
The spices are better organized than the thermoses — alphabetically, actually, on those little bleacher-style shelf racks, so you can see the labels. Houseguests may laugh at the alphabetized spices, but I stand behind this system. It’s difficult to find the za’atar in a timely fashion among some 63 other small jars, when there is a za’atar emergency.
The most ridiculous antique item in the entire kitchen can be found under “F” in the alphabetized spice racks. I may have mentioned this before. It is a jar of Spice Island fenugreek that is actually and literally from the 1960s and belonged to my father — a great cook, ahead of his time, who, in my opinion, invented locavore cookery about 30 years before the word “locavore” was invented — and that my mother didn’t have the heart to throw away after he died in 1980. I kid you not! There is a fenugreek memento mori in my pantry.
One collection of items in the pantry that will survive the spring clear-out are the vintage tins that contain all the party decorations. I probably have 15 vintage tins in there, decorated with the faces of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, with American Beauty roses, with the tutti-frutti-colored labels of ye-olde-time-y candy brands (Chase’s Cherry Mash). Inside the tins are all the things I need for all the celebrations and holidays of childhood: waxed-paper treat bags with witches for Halloween, peppermint-striped cardboard treat boxes for Christmas, pastel-foil cupcake liners for Easter, Valentine doilies and sticker labels, and a half-dozen different styles of bunting. Bunting with the Union Jack from the last coronation, bunting spelling out birthday messages, bunting made of cloth quilting scraps from the 1970s. Et cetera. Being realistic, most of these party supplies won’t be needed again until I’m a grandmother myself, but the party supplies will be saved.