When we bought this weathered house you could open any seven of the deep closets and discover unimaginable amount of stuff: empty glass jars and bottles; cookie tins; bolts of wire; yarn; brown wrapping paper; balls of string; vintage household cleaning products. The deep corner closet in the furnace room was jammed with vases; flower pots; kerosene lamps with a life-time supply of wicks; candle sticks; candles; kitchen utensils; two stove-top coffee pots; several pots and pans; a large cut glass punch bowl with a dozen tiny cups inside; one large stock pot; an early model pressure cooker; and, best of all, a sewing basket filled with threads, remnants of needlepoint, ribbons and buttons. Shelves lined the basement walls arranged with cans of vegetables; fruits; Spam; sardines; and Viennese sausages. Under the windows squatted a casket-size freezer filled to the top with frozen mysteries.
“Depression stockpile,” the real estate agent said. “Maybe even World War II. It’s all yours.”
We bought the house from the original owner whose father worked for the city’s building department and saw to it that, when it was constructed in 1899, it would be the largest on the block to fit his family of eight. All these things we were about to inherit represented their survival through the upheavals of the 20th century, a collection gathered during times of want and fear. We found it to be an overwhelming burden, especially since the husband and I had recently cleaned out our parents’ houses after their deaths. Everything in our new home went into a dumpster (except the sewing basket). The freezer was thrown out, too.
The basement shelves are once again packed with cans of vegetables; tuna fish; diced tomatoes; flour; various grains and pasta; sugar; bags of potatoes, rice and onions; large bottles of vinegar and hand sanitizer; pet food. A new, much smaller, freezer squats across from them. It is filled to the top with gallons of milk; bread; orange juice; hot dogs; bacon; pastry dough, meat; fish; turkey bones; broths; stews; and several half-gallon containers of ice cream. With a little stretching and scraping, it’s enough to pull the family through what everyone who knows is telling us will be frightening months ahead. I might even be able to stretch it out to help feed a neighbor or two if things come to that.
Last Spring, I turned to M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, a book she wrote in 1942 that provided much sound advice about how to eat well through World War II privations. Her take on pantry stocking guided my own:
Probably the best way to stock your shelf is to buy two cans of vegetables and so forth when you only need one, if your local rationings [modern revision: if available] allows it. Make a list of what you would like to have, and gradually accumulate it, if you can afford it.
Her shopping recommendations included tomato juice; a box of sugar cubes; a little tea; a sealed box of whole-wheat wafers; some tinned beef; gingersnaps or vanilla wafers; potted cheeses, some she abhorred.
Fisher also instructed to have on hand whiskey and a good stable wine: A glass in your hand makes the ominous sky seem very high above you. I no longer drink whiskey nor gin–I don’t know why, except I suddenly lost my taste for it since this whole mess began. I do, however, have a fair share of middling to cheap wines lying on top of the kitchen shelves.
“I haven’t been to the supermarket in weeks,” the husband said.
“Me neither,” I said.
“That’s good, right?”
“Yep,” I said even though I really miss wandering through a market, not knowing what I want but discovering what I could.
Hed image credit: Vanicha Suwansiri.