My forays were often in the deep of night when the light of the moon or a street lamp cast shadowy forms on the walls and the ticking of a clock kept the rhythm of my heartbeat.
I’d pause to listen for sounds of other human stirrings. Occasionally the whiskers of a cat or dog would brush my ankle as they silently accompanied me on my nocturnal errand.
My hands would brush by familiar objects as I crept toward the door and my feet would be chilled – especially in the fall and winter – as I reached for the doorknob.
Slowly I’d turn the knob and ever so carefully inch open the door to an Aladdin’s Cave of wonders. I was a stealthy thief who planned a heist.
As I pulled an old dangling cord and dim light illuminated the treasure, my eyes would widen at the sights .
Smells like luscious sweet perfumes floated in the air: the yeast of baked bread, the chocolate of icing, the vanilla of sponge cake, the pungency of onions, the slight vinegar of apples.
The shelves in my grandmother’s pantry also held tins and packs of dried herbs and spices and Mason jars of preserved vegetables and fruits.
I plundered like a pirate, dipping a finger into an uncapped jam jar; running a digit around the bottom of a cake for the frosting, grabbing the smaller leavings of Sunday’s baked ham.
My marauding was not about hunger; It was delicious, wanton gluttony. And I was careful in my plunder so any absence would be attributed to mice clever enough to avoid the traps laying in wait for them among the food.
It was always cool and quiet in that pantry so it didn’t surprise me when years later I learned that Emily Dickinson sought out the peace of her family’s larder to write some of her poems.
My raids continued into my teen years when I would rifle the sweet goodies stored for the big family Christmas party in a large multishelved pantry. Boxes of petit fours, chocolates and ribbon candy on the highest shelves reached only by a ladder didn’t escape my grasp.
Pantries were common in the days of my youth. Long dark narrow rooms always on an outside wall so the temperatures of colder weather helped preserve the contents. Sometimes there was a window, usually open in the good weather with a screen keeping out the flies.
I was afraid of one pantry – it was a low-ceilinged, long, narrow one built under the stairs in my great grandparents’ house. On a muslin curtain over the tiny window resided a big spider. He wasn’t real, having big twig legs and a cotton boll body with large brown spots, but he was scary to a little girl who was cautioned that he was the pantry’s guardian. I never raided that larder at any time of the day or night.
I once had an old-fashioned pantry of my own in a big old house in Niagara Falls. It held all manner of good things to eat, especially from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
Heading into Christmas, it housed about a half dozen plum puddings wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth awaiting their holiday gifting. And, of course, boxes of petit fours, chocolates and ribbon candy.
When I tour historic houses I gaze longingly through the Plexiglas that often shields the larder, buttery or pantry from visitors and wish those old shelves could talk.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in “These Happy Golden Years” of her farmhouse pantry:
“All one wall was covered with shelves and drawers, and a broad shelf was under a large window at the pantry’s far end … a deep drawer was full of flour, and smaller ones held graham flour and corn meal. You could stand at the window shelf and mix up anything, without stirring a step. Outside the window was the great, blue sky, and the leafy little trees.”
Alas, today’s floor- to- ceiling sleek pantry cabinets with pull-out shelves have no space for private marauding, shelter no poets and inspire no nostalgic prose. I miss those pantries of old.