Pantry and Larder

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PANTRY AND LARDER. In modern parlance, pantry and larder are used interchangeably to designate a place where food is stored. Historically, the two were once separate areas with very narrowly defined functions. During the Middle Ages, food was purchased in bulk; therefore, storage rooms were required for different types of food.

The larder was originally a cool room or cellar for storing meats, especially meats put down in large barrels or crocks of lardhence the name. It was once common practice to partially cook meats and sausages, and then cover them with rendered lard until needed. Dried or smoked meats were generally stored in a loft or garret away from dampness. This division of function led to the evolution of the terms wet larder (cool room or cellar) and dry larder. The wet larder was used not only for meats stored in lard, but also as a holding room for uncooked meat, game, and vegetables. The dry larder would contain such things as dried fruit, grain chests, and even some types of hard-rind cheeses. Large loaves of rye bread were often buried in the grain chests for long-term keeping.

The term "pantry," and related words like "pantryman" and pannier, derive ultimately from Latin panis (bread). The core idea was a closet or cupboard where bread was stored, as in Old French paneterie, the term that passed into medieval English as panetrie. In aristocratic medieval households, the pantry was a standing cupboard where the bread was kept for the table. The finer sorts of cupboards were often elaborately carved since they stood in the room where dining took place.

The pantler was the servant in charge of the bread and was the individual who actually sliced it for the table. This position attracted a degree of prestige since bread was such a critical part of the medieval meal. For this reason, in households belonging to the high nobility, the pantler was often a member of the lesser nobility. By the eighteenth century this function was more or less subsumed in hotels and large commercial establishments by the pantryman, a paid position whose main function was to oversee the supplying and resupplying of bread and provisions.

During the Middle Ages, two sorts of bread came from the pantry. The best bread was the manchet or dinner roll (normally round) made of the finest wheat flour. This bread was held in the hand and used like a utensil for dipping or scooping, since medieval diners ate with their fingers. The other sort of bread was the trencher bread, a coarse bread usually made from a combination of wheat and rye flours. Trencher bread was sliced and trimmed of crust to make a disposable plate on which the diner placed food, since dishes were only used as serving pieces during this period. Trenchers were changed frequently during a meal because they became soggy; thus it was the pantler's duty to remain vigilant and keep the table well supplied with trenchers.

By the seventeenth century, the function of the pantry had been expanded to include not only a bread storage cupboard, but also a closet or small room in which all sorts of food could be stored together. It was a cold room in that it was unheated and often ventilated with air from outside. Normally this closet stood near the kitchen, and it was common practice to put there roasts of meat, pies, and other items of uneaten food so that they could be reserved the next day. It became the butler's duty in large households to keep tabs on what was in the pantry, and this gave rise to the idea of a more specialized butler's pantry in the nineteenth century. This was a small room normally situated between the kitchen and dining room where fine silver, glassware, and china were stored. Aside from extensive cupboards and shelves, it also featured a sink. It was here that the butler, or his assistant, could undertake the final preparations for many dishes, such as decanting wine, heating a chafing dish, garnishing a roast on its way to table, or preparing fruit for dessert. A subsidiary pantry called the housemaid's pantry also evolved out of this. It was here that the head maid stored her tools. Butler's pantries were a common feature in upper-class American households on the East Coast well into the 1940s. Today, the term "pantry" has devolved into a much less specialized concept. The refrigerator and deep freezer have replaced the old larders of the past, and the breadbox has replaced the pantry. In general, pantry and larder are now applied to any unheated storage room where food is kept, especially packaged foods, canned goods, and pickles.

See also Food Pantries ; Gardening and Kitchen Gardens ; Preserving ; Storage of Food .


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William Woys Weaver