Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hot Cockles in the Pantry

[Here’s Eberle’s examination of pantries!]

In kitchens without plastic wrap, bags, or containers, without refrigerators and freezers, food storage took up a great deal of time. It took up space too. Instead of a single room housing all kitchen activities, several rooms were designated for food storage and preparation: larder, buttery, pantry. Each had a different purpose.

The larder originally served to store meats—
salted, smoked, or partially cooked and kept in barrels of lard. In Medieval times, huge quantities of preserved meats were kept in multiple larders. As the need for storing large amounts of meat disappeared (few nineteenth century households anywhere were storing 50 – 100 deer carcasses at a time) larders changed their nature to some degree although they kept their name. Rural families still butchered in the fall when the weather was cold and the meat would keep the longest. They made use of traditional preservation methods—salting, drying, smoking, storing in brine or lard, and sausage-making—but on a smaller scale. A single farm family could not consume all the fresh meat from a large slaughtered animal before much of it went bad. However, in urban areas or places with large regional markets, animals could be slaughtered and the meat sold fresh before it spoiled. As meat became regularly available year-round to separate family residences, the larder shrank and became home to other food items such as cheese as well as meat. To keep the larder cool, householders located it on the north side of the main dwelling. Sometimes the larder, as a small room or simply a cupboard, contained a screened window open to the outside to allow for air circulation.

The word buttery originally referred to butts (or pipes—units of measurement) of ale and wine.
Casks of cider, ale, and stronger spirits were kept, ideally, in a cool, dry, dark place, and by the nineteenth century, the buttery had become the wine cellar. Here the master of the house could pride himself on his knowledgeable choice of wines —and demonstrate the length of his purse to his dinner guests. The rather pig-headed archdeacon in Barchester Towers is not shy about holding forth on the subject during a visit that included a tour of the wine cellar: “This cellar is perfectly abominable. It would be murder to put a bottle of wine into it till it has been roofed, walled, and floored. How on earth old Goodenough ever got on with it, I cannot guess. But then Goodenough never had a glass of wine that any man could drink."

The cellar makes special appearances in gothic tales as well. In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, a host murders a guest by luring him to the cellars beneath the house, promising a taste of a rare wine and pretending to want the guest’s opinion of it. Instead of presenting him with the promised sherry, the host walls his guest up alive in a niche in the cellar, stopping his work occasionally to listen to the doomed man’s screams.

Things like this just didn’t tend to happen in the pantry. The nineteenth century home provided
an architectural division of the sexes, and the cellar was excluded from the female realm. The housekeeper held the keys to many doors and cupboards, but the butler kept a firm grip on the keys to the wine cellar. The pantry, the larder, the linen closet—this was the province of women, described by Susan Ferrier in Marriage: “Their walk lay amongst threads and pickles; their sphere extended from the garret to the pantry.”

The word pantry comes from the Latin word for bread, panis, and originally the pantry was the room where bread was kept. Also the ingredients for making it and for waging the battle against mice and rats that inevitably ensued. Over time the pantry took on multiple identities—it could be a cool room separate from the kitchen where some food, especially leftovers, were stored, and it became a storage area for china and glassware as well. Pantries were not merely shelves for storage, as they often are today, but self-contained rooms where a variety of activities could take place. Provisions could be unpacked there and a housekeeper could sit and have a snack in comfort. A festive treat for a housemaid in Lady Morgan’s Wild Irish Girl is “a game of hot cockles with the butler and footman in the pantry.”

The Game of Hot Cockles
A Penitent chosen by chance, or by his own choice, hides his face upon a lady’s lap, which lady serves as Confessor, and places herself in an armchair in the midst of the company. The Penitent places his hand behind him, —not on his back, which might be dangerous if the person who is to hit it should forget the proper moderation, but on his hips. Then a lady or a gentleman hits this hand and the owner of the hand has to guess who struck. If he succeed, the person he guessed is to take his place; if he is mistaken, he goes on till he has shown more penetration.
Catharine Harbeson Waterman, The Book of Parlor Games 1853

A specifically masculine version of the room evolved in the nineteenth century, distinguished
from women’s territory by its name: the butler’s pantry. The butler’s pantry served mainly as a storage place for the more valuable china and silver, and also as a staging area near the dining room where the butler could decant wines, add last-minute garnishes, and heat chafing dishes. A good arrangement of these storage and preparation areas was essential to the harmony of the household in Jane Austen’s opinion. In Emma she mentions the “inroads on domestic peace to be occasioned by no housekeeper's room, or a bad butler's pantry.”

In 1869, Harriet Beecher Stowe chided men and women both for wasting so much space in extra rooms like pantries when storage and prep areas could so easily be incorporated into the kitchen itself. Harriet gives detailed plans for how this could be done in The American Woman’s Home. Her designs look very much like one of today’s kitchens, though her concept did not catch on in any general way until the next century.

In spite of Harriet’s pleas, the pantry persisted in being a room of its own—perhaps women had an incentive besides utility in preserving this often exclusively female space. Women could retreat to the pantry with the excuse of household business, and find a legitimate escape from the social or conjugal duties associated with almost all other spaces in the house. A solitary refuge, a place where women reigned, the kitchen pantry was where Emily Dickinson wrote parts of her poems. One of tasks performed daily in her household was filling the lamps with whale oil—a shelf in the pantry was devoted to this use.

As the master of the house might pride himself on his wine cellar, the mistress took pride in her
arrangement and operation of the pantry. Women were charged with preserving civilized order and decorum as well as fruit, and the pantry was guarded as a feminine sanctum that stood for more than jam. Louisa May Alcott describes a grandmother who “stood in her pantry like a culinary general, swaying a big knife for a baton, as she issued orders and marshalled her forces.” The pantry generals were not always successful in protecting their territory from invasion. Pantry raids became a stock feature of nineteenth century children’s literature—and boys were almost always the culprits. One of the most famous of these raids is Tom Sawyer’s theft of jam in Aunt Polly’s pantry; outraged, she assigned him the task of whitewashing her fence as a punishment for his transgression.

Eberle Umbach
© 2007-2010

Pix from Top:
[Note: I realize most of these images all come from a time before the era Eberle's writing about, but has there ever been more magnificent food painting than in the 17th century?]
The Pantry: Franz Snyders, 1620
Stilleleben: Albrecht Kauw, 1678
The Way You Hear It: Jan Steen, 1665
Still-Life with Cheese: Joris van Son, 1650s
Der verlorene Sohn (The Prodigal Son): Gerard van Honthorst, 1623
Besuch bei einem Lord: Pietro Longi, 1746
Stilleleben: Floris Claesz van Dyck, 1618

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  1. Even the word pantry is evocative and takes me back to my youth and our house before we got our first fridge. The pantry was almost like an altar room and so much of day-to-day life revolved around it. Such an informative and interesting post. Thanks.

  2. Fascinating stuff! I don't think I'd want to play that game, somehow.
    Also, I'd imagine some of those larders were pretty odoriferous when the meat went off, wouldn't you?

    There was a Jeopardy! question the other night about the Cask of Amontillado. I have always been delighted by that great irony of Poe's choice of the name, Fortunato.

  3. Please tell Eberle that I think she did an amazing job on this post. I have a growing interest in food history and this was a fascinating read.

    I think I'm going to start doing link roundups on my food blog and I will include a link to this article for sure.

  4. Hi Alan & Kat & Raquelle

    Alan: Pantries really are rather magical places; I remember the large pantries in some of the old New England houses. Glad you enjoyed this.

    Kat: The game of Hot Cockles seems more than a little kinky! Yes, the Cask of Amontillado is a great, great story.

    Raquelle: Wow, thanks! & yes, I'll pass your comment on to Eberle (assuming she doesn't see it herself first!)

  5. Let me get this straight: I express my sorrow and remorse by "hiding" my face in a lady's lap. I'm down with that game!

  6. Hi K: I see your point--of course, there's the hitting/slapping part in which people might occasionally "forget moderation"....

  7. We lived with my grandparents when I was a boy. They had a larder which was a small room and many devices for keeping food: eg a meat safe made mainly of wire mesh and a stoneware bowl in which the milk jug stood. The bowl was porous and filled with water, so that as the water ozzed out and evaporated the milk was cooled.

  8. Hi Dave: Interesting details, especially about the milk cooling system! Thanks.

  9. Fascinating! Years ago on a Girl Scout field trip, we visited the "old" part of Fort Riley, where we toured officer's living quarters set up as they would've been in the late 1800s. One dining room table had "food" on it. and the guide told us meat dishes and such weren't put away between lunch and dinner, merely "covered" with a dome of wire mesh (think window screen) to keep out flies and other insects. Average temps in the summer on the prairie would (and still do) hit 90-100+, and I couldn't help but wonder how many of the fort's residents died from eating tainted food!


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