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?

On the Problem of Food Storage and Hoarding

Food pantry before and after.

If there’s one thing that life in this bungalow has taught me is that what we call “minimalism” is simply the way people lived in the 1920s. The original inhabitants of this house made do with one small closet and a few built-in cabinets. If there’s another thing I’ve learned it’s that building additional storage always leads us down the path of over-consumption.

If the Food Network ever makes a foodie hoarder reality show, we could have been on an episode thanks to the shelves we added to the utility room. Those shelves quickly filled with aspirational but never used ingredients such as tapioca flour as well as mediocre food preservation projects that I just couldn’t admit defeat on.

Our kitchen’s ample built-in cabinets.

When it came time for our painters to work on the utility room we decided to take down the shelves and try to live with the storage built for the original inhabitants of this house. Now I’ve noticed that when I go to the market I’m more conscious of the choices I make knowing that we don’t have the room for ingredients that won’t get used much.

Transportation nerds have a phrase for this phenomenon, “induced demand.” Build extra lanes for a freeway and those lanes will fill to capacity and you’ll end up with worse traffic jams than the ones you thought you were preventing. The same goes for storage space. Built it and you’ll end up with a lot of crap you don’t need.

Of course, if I followed this pre-WWII logic to its extreme, I’d have to start dressing more sharply and stop walking around what, in the 1920s, wouldn’t even pass for pajamas. Hey Kelly where did I put my spats?

Saturday Tweets: Screens, Model Villages and Walkable Cities

I Built a Harvey Ellis Dresser and it Almost Killed Me

Harvey Ellis was a gifted architect who worked for the furniture manufacturing firm owned by Gustav Stickley. His tenure at Stickley’s firm was brief but significant, bringing curves and ornament to Stickley’s sometimes blockly designs. He contributed work for the 1904 catalog and drawings for Stickely’s magazine The Craftsman before his untimely demise.

We needed a dresser for our bedroom and Kelly and I really wanted the Ellis model. Unfortunately, not many were made and when they show up at auction they go for around $8,000 to $10,000. So I decided to build one myself and now I know why they cost so much.

In 1904 the dresser sold for the princely sum of $39, over $1,000 in today’s dollars. Stickley simplified the design in subsequent years since the details in Ellis’ design make the dresser a bit of a pain to manufacture. But those subtleties are, in my opinion, worth the effort.

Building this dresser was like being able to inhabit Ellis’ head temporarily to understand his design vocabulary. Ellis was clearly riffing on Shaker style cabinets. What makes it so special are the details. The legs not only taper towards the bottom but also subtlety taper towards the top. Ellis echoes this up and down tapering by changing the size of the drawers–bigger in the middle than at the top and bottom. Then there’s the graceful arch on the base and the paneled sides. All of these details make for a lot more work.

It’s interesting to compare Ellis’ dresser to its Ikea equivalent. Ikea’s dresser isn’t terrible, design-wise, but you can tell that ease of manufacture is a primary consideration. And while I don’t want to romanticize early 20th century furniture work, I think I’d rather work in Stickley factory than Ikea’s. I made the Ellis dresser in much the same way it would have been built in 1904–mostly with machines (table saw, bandsaw etc.) but with hand planes for the fine work (fitting drawers, finishing surfaces). Late 19th and 20th century furniture making involves not just one task all day but a mix of responsibilities as well as aesthetic decisions such as deciding which way to run the grain. The Ikea dresser is made on a post-Henry Ford assembly line where workers either monitor machines and/or do the same repetitive task all day. This makes for a much cheaper product but an unhappy worker.

I made many mistakes building my Ellis dresser. It was, by far, the most complex object I’ve ever built (including nine dovetailed drawers that had to be precisely fit to within 1/32 of an inch). I won’t bore you with the long list of errors, but the biggest one was not having a precise plan for the details of the inside of the dresser. There are many different ways to handle the inside of cabinets. There’s not one right way but it’s good to commit to a particular plan before you begin construction. I also could have done a better job matching the grain on the drawer fronts. If you’re interested in finish methods for this period of furniture I used these helpful directions and the accompanying video.

Much to Kelly’s chagrin, Ellis mania has broken out in the house and I’m ignoring “important” work in order to build an Ellis bookshelf and china cabinet.