by Sarah West
Somewhere in your kitchen, you have a larder. Although the word stems from a Latin term for rendered pig fat (morphed through old French to signify a cool, closet-like space where meat was held between killing and cooking), larder has come to mean, quite simply, the place where we keep our food. Sometimes it is the kitchen counter or pantry. Often it is the refrigerator, the cabinets, the basement or garage. It can be ornate, utilitarian, cluttered, beloved, or irrelevant.
Popularized again for its game-strewn associations of still-life-worthy abundance, the larder is called upon by today’s restaurants, specialty grocers, and food writers to signify an older way of eating, when food came from a specific place and belonged to a certain point in time. Unlike the shelves of a modern grocery store, the larder was a portrait of the season—pheasants, apples, squash, carrots, cabbage—it was a clock, a calendar, an edible phenology. And, in this way, its shelves were draped in simple, ageless poetry no refrigerator can rival.
In a technology-induced reversal, we are now more familiar with food in stasis than food in gradual decay. The larder embodied pause, an extra day or two before the meat or milk really lost it. Modern-day canned goods keep for startlingly long, stamped with expiration dates that evoke distance and unimagined futures. The metaphor is palpable—the historic larder kept us close to the limitations of the world as we have known it, the 21st Century canned goods shelf links us to a future that will have technologies and words we have not yet dreamed of. Times change.
Though our own larders may seem dull by comparison (stone slabs and heavy wooden doors replaced by flimsy prefab cupboards and magnet-speckled refrigerators), they maintain their role as the place where our food waits. We put it there and it waits for the moment, sooner or later, when we will call upon it. We will snack on it or cook it or give it away. In the meantime, it expresses, as any collection does, a fragment of our inner lives.
If you have ever tried cooking in someone else’s kitchen, you know instantly what I mean when I say it’s like trying to speak a new dialect. Ingredients, like words, come together to tell a story. We all have our favorite words, the stories we tell best. Our personal larders reveal them: our preferences, aspirations, habits, and routines. An ingredient essential to your kitchen may be absent from your friends’. We take our own truths for granted and, faced with unfamiliar cupboards, we come to know our own with renewed devotion.
By extension, our neighborhoods, cities, regions, and ecosystems are shared larders, places we are drawn to for the flavors we identify with or are captivated by. Cuisine itself is a larder—a conceptual storeroom in which we keep the cherished foods, those we’ve sustained by necessity or design, that symbolize the abilities and values of our landscape and palates.
For farmers and gardeners in our region, the field itself is a larder; seeds started late summer are now grown to size or near enough, waiting in the dark cold of December and January, standing by to feed those who still prefer the freshly plucked over the nationally (and internationally) distributed. And though they must settle for less in the way of variety, the curators of such a larder keep an anchor in the same harbor from which that word came, a world where food belongs to a place, where it exists in the same time as our breath and our thoughts, where its story is not anonymous.
There is no better or worse larder than the one that fits your agenda and helps you live the way you’d like to live; it’s there whether or not you keep it with intention. And though our larders will, inevitably, change in form over time, it remains true that food is a vessel of culture. Our choices shape our story; what we grow and cook and keep keeps us.