I have had a love of cooking and food in general since I was kid. For decades, my approach to cooking has been to use what I have on hand, what is given to me or what is on sale (especially quicksale) at the store or market. This goes way back to my college days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My senior year I worked for Dr. and Mrs. S.T. Burns as their lawn keeper/gardener and reaped an amazing array of vegetables from their garden as part of my pay. Mrs. Burns had trained as a botanist and loved her garden; she would scooch herself out to the patio in her wheelchair in between giving violin lessons to help me weed. She would give me a thumbs down to pull a plant that she deemed a weed and a thumbs up to let one grow into something.
From her, I learned to make sauerkraut by placing thinly sliced fresh green cabbage along with a handful of salt in a large bowl, massaging it and then packing it into quart canning jars, pressing down as hard as I could until enough juice had accumulated to cover the cabbage. Those jars we left on the counter for days until the liquid started to bubble. Then we sealed them up and stored them in the basement root cellar. I rarely shared a meal with the Burns but they did give me a jar of that delicious kraut to enjoy on my own.
Mrs. Burns also kept a dish next to the stove that she poured any and all rendered fat into. When she wanted to fry something a glop of this fat would go into the pan. That’s become a thing among chefs recently. Ha.
I moved to Nederland, Colorado after college and soon found myself living in a log cabin in the tiny mountain town of Eldora with electricity but no running water except the water I ran and got from the pumphouse above the outhouse. I had one of the best jobs in town as the manager of the Nederland Liquor Store, which was about four miles away from my cabin. Eventually, the store was sold and I chose not to work for the new owners so there I was living at 8500 feet and unemployed. Let me just say, I ate a lot of fresh-caught brook trout and learned to appreciate the flavor of pine squirrels.
Thankfully, I had volunteered for the Mountain People’s Co-op across the street from the liquor store and learned about their Free Basket (one of my favorite features of the store—where they put produce past it’s prime). I still will not discard any apparently rotten produce until I have gleaned every single part that may still be useful. It provided me with an incredible opportunity to get creative with what was on hand. I still remember a cream of celery soup that I stirred up in an old cast iron pan on the wood stove from the still-delicious heart hidden among the rotting stalks of celery. The difference now is that our chickens get some of our less-than-perfect produce or it goes into one of our compost bins. But we never waste it!
After Colorado, I ended up back in Wisconsin and had the opportunity to live with my Grandpa Ernie Peterson in Viroqua. It was an amazing experience to get to spend so much time with him during his last year as he stoically battled lung cancer. The challenge for me was to feed us both on the little money he gave me to go grocery shopping. Being the tight Great Depression-trained Norwegian American he was plus his never having to go grocery shopping, he really had no clue as to what food cost. My Uncle Steven finally intervened and the purse strings were loosened. But ‘til then I made some awesome meals on a really tight budget!
Fast forward about four years after Grandpa died. I had purchased a small house in Viroqua which I still call “the Palace” and am still remodeling. The first area I fixed up at the Palace was naturally the kitchen, and I turned the small walk-in closet into my first pantry. I happily stocked it with all sorts of stuff including different flours, pastas and anything I saw that looked like it could be fun to use. My pantry was begun.
At that time I was working at Nate’s Supper Club in Viroqua for my friend Mark Johnson when I had an ”Aha” moment. I know the day, date and approximate time it happened. I realized cooking was a passion and not just a hobby. After all the years of fighting the thought of going to cooking school, I realized it was time. I decided to go to culinary school.
That was over twenty years ago (tho I’m not saying exactly how many over). I still have the Palace and I still have some of the jars that I filled years ago on those pantry shelves. Most of them have new ingredients, but I keep a few as mementos (like the old jar of rice with my Dad’s favorite recipe written on the lid). My pantry at home in Madison now is ever growing and changing. Through the years since culinary school I have accumulated a lot of pantry items. Whenever I read an article or recipe and it mentions an ingredient I don’t have, I put that on a list and make a point of trying to get it.
So my pantry as grown along with my culinary repertoire. Cooking is still both my passion and my hobby. And now that I am technically (temporarily) unemployed and cannot share my love of cooking in person in my classes, I will be sharing my culinary tips for making something out of what is on hand as well as my pantry creations.
Out of necessity and full of thanks that I have it, it is time to embrace the “Life of the Pantry” and see what the new cream of celery soup will be.