The Pantry

The ornament that once hung in our pantry.

Our family had no cabinets in our kitchen. The room where we ate breakfast and lunch (but usually not dinner; we had a dining room for that) did have a perfectly round wooden table with four chairs, a white upright refrigerator with the freezer on top, a 1970s harvest gold four-burner gas stove (it stuck around well into the ‘90s) and an old-fashioned exposed white sink with a short, rectangular radiator underneath. Eventually, we’d also acquire a wooden cart with wheels upon which our first, relatively massive microwave sat.

Mom decorated the cabinet-less walls with various copper and metal molds; apart from those for making curiously bland Bundt cakes, we rarely if ever used them (one was in the shape of a fat fish.) A row of painted ducks later joined the molds during a stenciling phase Mom went through in the late ‘80s which nearly extended to my bedroom: “Chris, I could draw something more masculine like bicycles on your walls,” she offered before I put my foot down and respectfully declined her services.

We didn’t need cabinets in our kitchen for we had them in our narrow, walk-in pantry off to the right of the sink. They sat along one of the longer walls, down to the floor beneath deep built-in shelves. The opposite wall was bare; between them at the end of the room, a skinny window overlooked the backyard, our garage and the alley. When visiting the homes of friends or relatives or watching TV sitcoms such as Who’s The Boss? or The Golden Girls, I couldn’t help but notice how seemingly everyone else had kitchen cabinets instead of a walk-in pantry.

These days, I often think about that pantry fondly. Despite its window facing east, I remember it as a predominantly dark space chockablock with hidden treasures. Upon entering it was a long, vertical cabinet spanning from the lowest shelf to the ceiling: it housed spices and baking supplies, but also decorations such as a rainbow assortment of sprinkles and sugars used exclusively for Christmas Cookies. On another shelf sat a variety of condiments, some of them ubiquitous like the Open Pit BBQ sauce that accompanied nearly every meat and vegetable my dad cooked on our red circular Weber charcoal grill; others were more obscure like the A-1 Steak Sauce whose ingredients listed in miniscule print forever intrigued me (it had raisins in it!) A higher, barely reachable shelf held items I don’t remember my parents ever touching, like the dusty bottle of Blackberry Brandy that was apparently purchased for (or given to us as a gift from) an elderly relative.

Our pantry, however, was more than a repository for dry goods, flatware, pots and pans and daisy-patterned china; it was a singular space, as much of an individual room to us as any other in the house. As a toddler, it was an ideal place to play Hide and Seek; as a pre-teen, when both my parents were at work and I had the house to myself, I reclaimed the room as one of exploration, browsing deep into the less-used cabinets to see just what I could find (often boring items such as a rusting muffin pan or a forgotten box of Saltines.) The pantry even had its own myths and legends, such as the time (often recounted by my mother) that a portly adult friend of my folks supposedly wedged his bulbous frame on the shelf above the bottom cabinets, scarfing down Hostess Ding Dongs during a party I’d been far too young to remember myself.

When I was ten, I stood in that pantry one September evening, searching for a metal ice cream scooper in the utensil drawer beneath the window. My fingers brushed over an apple corer, assorted teaspoons, a steak knife with a dulled blade. The distracted clinking of flatware filled the air. Glancing up at the window, adorned with a bejeweled hanging ornament (framed by popsicle sticks!) I’d made in Second Grade, I spotted an unusual, almost inviting glow beyond our garage in the dark of night flanked only by a fluorescent white alley light. Within seconds, I could make out flames. Was that our garage… on FIRE??!!

Before I could even think to call out to my parents, a figure whizzed by so rapidly across the alley, I initially couldn’t discern whether it was human, animal or even of this earth. I then caught a flash of nylon jacket, a skinny frame and thinning hair. It screamed “FIRE! FIRE!” as it ran left to right, not doing anything constructive except making the entire block aware of the developing inferno yards ahead of me. Somewhere between confused and delusional, I plainly thought, “This isn’t real; our garage is NOT on fire.”

I was half-right, for it was the garage directly across from ours in the alley that was ablaze. By that time, my mother noticed it too: “OHMYGOD!,” she shouted, running up to me in the back of the pantry. Putting her hand on my shoulder and gazing out the window, she saw what was actually going on. We were then silent, almost awestruck—we could feel the force of the blaze from there, if not the warmth.

A crowd began to form, mostly in ours and the neighbors’ backyards. Mom walked away from the pantry, calm as I’ve ever seen her, not worried about our proximity to the fire. She returned with my denim jacket and her pink windbreaker, leaving Dad in the living room on his tan corduroy La-Z-Boy recliner, obliviously snoring away as St. Elsewhere blared from our 19-inch Zenith.

We stepped out onto our back porch; not one of the twenty or so assembled onlookers noticed us at first. Not everyone was as intently focused on the blaze as we were in the pantry: an trio of old men held longneck bottles of Miller’s Best in their calloused hands, while a quartet of kids ran through ours and the adjoining yards, deep into a game of tag, their mothers barking at them not to get too close to the fire. The blaze didn’t frighten me, exactly, but its sheer force reminded me of what destruction was possible. Still, its cackling insistence almost had a soothing effect.

There’s nothing like a fire to bring a neighborhood and its inhabitants together (no block parties for us, thank you.) A year or two before, there was a small one at the house on the corner of the next block; my parents and I heard the sirens and walked over, becoming part the considerable mob lined up and down our street. Now, it was our turn to partially “host” the Gathering. People eventually came up to us and said hello. Millie, an older woman who lived two doors down, engaged in a bit of neighborhood gossip with Mom of the kind that didn’t require any special occasion—the fire raged on across the alley almost as if it was an everyday occurrence, although it most definitely was not.

It felt like hours standing there on the back porch, although the fire truck arrived and completely doused the blaze within minutes. The neighbor’s garage was a lost cause, a smoldering hunk of concrete and debris. It belonged to an elderly woman living alone, which seemed to account for at least one-third of the residents on our block. I can’t remember the exact cause of the fire—something to do with leakage of gas or some other chemical, perhaps. Anyway, the only damage to our own garage were black marks across its wooden door, which would be replaced with an off-white and rather ugly (but more durable) aluminum one. Our neighbor across the alley, meanwhile, would have an entirely new garage built within weeks.

I’d often think of that fire whenever I stood in our pantry, looking out that window. Nothing so exciting ever happened in that alley again, apart from the pig roast (!) our upstairs neighbors had next to the garage over a decade later as part of their backyard wedding reception that I refused to have anything to do with. In all the apartments I shared with roommates in my twenties and thirties, two actually had walk-in pantries, but they just weren’t the same—they held no intrigue, no crevices where hidden treasures lurked perhaps because I was an adult and therefore directly responsible for all the items I kept in them. The closest thing to a discovery I ever made in these later pantries was a forgotten banana placed on a high shelf. When I next spotted it after a couple of months, it had not only turned entirely black, but had somehow shrunken to the size of a large jalapeno pepper—a far less profound pantry experience for sure.

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