Food Storage Revisited

Kitchen spice pantry at the Joseph D. Oliver House, 1946. Photo: Library of Congress.

My post on de-cluttering our food storage hit a nerve proving, yet again, that the most direct path to the deeper issues of our culture is through the mundane details of our daily lives. Through the neglected field of home economics one can address collective vs. individual action, city planning, capitalism and, gasp, even eschatology.

To clarify my original post, I was not arguing against keeping a pantry stocked, rather that our pantry had accumulated a lot of useless items. I also contend that the storage in our house, built in 1920, is adequate for our day to day and emergency needs without having to add more shelves. In addition to the cabinets mentioned in the post on Monday, our house also has storage under the seating in the breakfast nook as well as built-in cabinets and drawers in a hallway adjacent to the kitchen. And there’s another set of cabinets that hold our dishes. I should also clarify that if you live out in the country and have a big vegetable garden you will need a larger pantry or basement. We are urban dwellers with, at best, a tiny vegetable garden (which has been neglected this year while I work on the house).

That said there are some big differences between the kitchens of the 1920s and the kitchens of today that present new challenges. Some of those changes:

  • We have a lot more kitchen gadgets and consumer electronics.
  • With the ascendancy of the personal automobile we have fewer small neighborhood markets in walking distance.
  • Pervasive cable TV food porn that pushes us all to turn our kitchens into the next elBulli.

Helms Bakery delivery truck alerting us all to the dangers of baking at home!

One thing that went away during the mid 20th century and has now returned is food delivery. In the 1920s lots of things were delivered: milk, baked goods, ice etc. Food delivery has returned in the form of services such as Instacart and Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. Unfortunately, many of these new services rely on gig economy serfdom, which has made me uncomfortable about using them, though Instacart was handy when my mom could no longer drive herself to the market. I suspect we’ll see a lot more food delivery in the near future and can see how helpful it is to busy families with young children or elders to take care of. I’d just like to make sure that the folks delivering the food can also afford to buy that food.

I think if I could “immanentize the eschaton” of our 21st century pantries I’d see those shelves holding useful, healthy staples always ready to turn into basic meals. While that sounds simple, it’s not. Can we please bring back those home economics classes and make them co-ed?

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  1. Thanks for the clarification. Personally I too have stocked my pantry with too many obscure items that were never used that I eventually purged. For example, numerous friends became gluten free so I experimented with alternatives to wheat flour for baking. Then realized I could just serve rice, quinoa, and such… so the almond flour and xanthan gum sat on the shelf and festered until I performed triage.

    By the way, I have a small daily pantry that’s in the kitchen and easy to reach and rotate, a medium storage pantry a bit out of the way, and a long term emergency pantry in the basement. Plus lots of water.

  2. One of my favorite discoveries when we moved to CO was dairy delivery! We get our milk delivered once a week, in glass bottles, from a local dairy. Like many small family farms, while they are not certified organic they do follow mostly organic practices and don’t use hormones or antibiotics. They also partner with other local businesses and offer seasonal items, for instance cases of local peaches in the summer, or locally baked breads. I think it would be wonderful if this sort of business existed all over the country again!

  3. I’m old enough to remember milk delivery in suburban California– the thick bottles, the little silver-foil caps, the cream that would rise to the top… I miss that. I don’t live in an area with fresh milk delivery service but if I did, I would sign up in a flash.

    My experience with Instantcart was meh– I used it three or four times and every time I had to deal with peculiar substitutions or items in my order that turned out to be unavailable. On the other hand, where I live now I am able to order online bulk items for the pantry (paper towels, detergent, rice, that sort of thing) to be delivered once a month– which has been working out beautifully, and notably because I find I can shop for fresh food more often because I spend less time per visit in the aisles.

    I agree with you about home economics classes. Back in the day, I disdained them. If belatedly I am beginning to appreciate that knowing how to keep house and cook is actually a vital life skill– for the pleasure of living in a well-kept home and eating good food; for health; and for resilience. I salute what you are doing with this blog.

    • Thank you. I’m not quite old enough to remember delivery but every time I dig in the front yard I find parts of milk bottles. I wish that I had home ec training in school–would be handy now especially when it comes to meal planning.

  4. I remember milk and ice delivery. Yes, we had an icebox.

    When I took Home Ec, I could cook, iron, sew, and knew how to set a table. I hated being in with the people who did not know how to do anything. My mother was the only mother who used a pastry cloth to make biscuits. Shocking. Things went like that all year long.

    A friend who is about the same age said the boys went into a different Home Ec class. Only, they made sweets and desserts and never had to plan a balanced meal.

  5. My mum lives in Central London, England and STILL gets milk delivered every other day or so, on her doorstep first thing in the morning in the little (recyclable) glass bottles with the foil caps. They also get a morning and afternoon mail delivery, too. So while some of those things may have gone in and out of style in the states, in Europe they are still alive and well!

  6. I commend you on a reply post that doesn’t (almost) sound defensive!

    It really depends on where and how you live, doesn´t it? Personally I find it incredibly hard to keep track of the stock – whether I have and where it is stored, so I either buy duplicates or do without (this goes for food, clothing and home items in general). I always feel like an idiot, so correct storage and stock keeping of what it is actually used in my household is very important to me.

    I know there are apps to help one manage, but I´ve noticed that while practical my memory is getting worse every year and I much prefer a mental tool (be it a memory palace, or whatever) to help me think than a simple data repository to make me check my phone time and again.

    Another stray thought, some people (yours truly included) suffer from “Horror vacui” or in other words our possessions, while seemingly solid behave like gas, adopting the shape and size of the container. So bigger house mean more items, not more space.

    To a certain extent, of course

  7. Semi-related: Yesterday, a book I’d requested from the library arrived–one that you’d recommended–Life at Home in the 21st Century. I can’t wait to crack it open tonight.

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