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Helen Witty was an editor for Cuisine and Food & Wine before venturing into the world of cookbook writing. Her first effort, written with Elizabeth Schneider Colchie, was Better Than Store-Bought. This 1979 book suggested that, for basic foods, you can do it yourself rather than buy. It was an early take on fresh and local.

Then, in 1986, she wrote this book, Fancy Pantry, which was certainly state-of-the-art in the age before tapas told us “little things” could be fabulous or before the guys at Stonewall began sending their incredible jams and sauces around the country. We ate with less variety and far less freshness.

It was a very different time.

Helen’s vision spans all the ingenious and high-quality treats that we have now come to enjoy as American cuisine has expanded. Many of her ideas are now popular or available in specialty stores. Many are yet to be discovered.

Helen believes that all of us can enjoy wonderful craftsman dishes, made easily in our kitchens with a handful of seasonal ingredients. The recipes here are not complicated, but you will find them flavor-packed. In the days of old, when we had houses with panties, and when we stocked them with homemade treats, we could enjoy these foods year round. You’ll probably consider these ideas to be heritage, foods that were central to our societies generations ago but were lost.

Suzen and I are listening to an audio book about food history that has a section devoted to ketchup. Americans used to ketchups in multiple flavors. Then Heinz came along and ketchup, only tomato ketchup, dominates. Cookbooks once had whole sections of ketchup recipes. Now they don’t have a single ketchup idea. But Fancy Pantry does.

Life changed. Our houses don’t have pantries. We cook less, we buy more and we can only buy what is stacked on our store shelves — jars and bottles from a big factory a thousand miles from our home. Yes, the stores have specialty aisles but do you visit yours first? Every time?

Here are some of the chapters and ideas that Helen offers.

Appetizers include some Old World specialties, a tad heavy in texture and surely intense in flavor:

  • Potted Ham
  • Brandied Beef & Anchovy Spread
  • Potted Mushrooms [Mushroom Paste]

With Gusto & Relish offers chutneys, those ketchups, relishes, sweet & sour fruity things, and pickles:

Four Fruit Chutney

Hot & Spicy Banana Ketchup

Purple Basil & Orange Jelly

Sweet & Tart Pickled Cranberries

Onion Ring Pickles

Sweet Pickled Green Tomato Slices

Seasonings & Condiments suggests mustards and fruit-flavored vinegars:

Chive Mustard

Many-Fruited Mustard [oranges, apricots, peaches, figs]

Blackberry Vinegar

Cherry Vinegar

Desserts here are very British and very sweet:

Compote of Plums & Blueberries in Brandied Syrup

Delicate Arrowroot Biscuits

Strawberry & Honey Dessert Sauce

Plum Cheese

Caramel-Mocha Ice Cream Sauce

You’ll enjoy these glimpses of Helen’s vision. You really can make them yourself. And you can surely find some shelf to be that mini-pantry you always wanted.