"Pantry - the crisp, even tidy, sound of the word conveys a sense of order," writes Catherine Seiberling Pond at the beginning of her photo-laden book The Pantry: Its History and Modern Uses. But order is just one of the many things that the pantry has represented since its origin as a place of bread storage in the 14th century. Nostalgia, preparedness, domestic practicality: these are the hallmarks of the modern pantry.
Ye Olde Bread Closet
Because of the centrality of bread in the medieval diet, the panter was a figure of some importance. Oxford cites a reference from 1300 in which an abbot makes a man the "maister of panetrie." As the pantry's usage extended into the storage of plate, silverware, and foods, the role of panter was subsumed into that of the butler.
The Pantry in America
Around the time that panters were becoming extinct, homes in the New World were making the pantry a fundamental part of a housewife's daily routine. Household journals kept by American women often recorded pantry-related tasks. Some of the earliest New England pantries are still available for viewing, including one at the Theron Boyd Homestead in Hartford, Vermont, which features a pantry built in 1786 that's never been altered or renovated.
Pantries started to become pantry cabinets in the 19th century. For example, Pond's book features a photo of a built-in pantry cabinet from 1816.
The Modern Pantry
"After a long century of pantry decline," Pond writes, "many American households are once again returning to the pantry to store their foodstuffs, dishes, unusual collections, and memories of their own making." That trend is due in part to the perception of the pantry as a symbol of domestic memory and old-fashioned simplicity. For example, kitchen pantry cabinets are a perfect match, both practically and symbolically, for homes that make use of a pressure canner, another one of Grandmother's kitchen devices that's enjoying a surge in popularity.
But the pantry's resurgence is also a sign of the economic and security issues being experienced in our time. Where a bare pantry was once an instantly recognizable symbol of poverty and want, a full pantry today speaks to a need for forethought and emergency preparedness. More than just a shelf for fruit preserves or jello mix, a kitchen pantry cabinet can be an ideal place in which to store long-term food and water supplies - it kind of gives "comfort food" a whole new meaning.