The portable pantry

I'm away this week with my family on Lake Michigan.  As I prepared for our trip, I stumbled on a question all us cooks on vacation have to ponder:  what to pack?  I don't mean the usual stuff: swimsuit, sunscreen, a cheap novel or two.  I mean:  what to pack from the kitchen?  knowing that kitchens away from home are full of surprises and--even more so--deficiencies. 

Usually I bring a good knife, but this time I couldn't be bothered.  Instead, I grabbed a battered old shoebox of my daughter's, knelt in front of the spice cabinet and asked: "What can I not live without?"

The first answer was obvious: cumin.  I think whole cumin is the first spice you will not find in a summer rental--although there might be an aged, odorless bottle of ground cumin from 5 years ago gathering dust on the shelf.  Next I grabbed some Aleppo pepper and some hulled, white sesame seeds, because even the dullest, plainest dish will seem more interesting if I've got one of those.

As I packed, I got increasingly paranoid and biased.  What if there are no fresh herbs in the Midwest?  I threw in the dried thyme and oregano.  What if I need to make something with white pepper?  What if I don't have bay leaves?  I always don't have bay leaves when I need them, so it follows I will need them on vacation.  And it's always impossible to find the dried chile you want.  So I grabbed a fistful of arból chiles and threw them in the bottom, with the Wet Ones.  I might not find the chiles I want, but at least I'd have some chiles I like.

I didn't bother to bring any baking spices, because if there's any spice at a rental, it'll be cinnamon.   In a final act of folly, I threw in the onion powder, which is ridiculous because if there is a second spice at a rental, it wil be onion powder.

As it turns out, our temporary home is pretty well provisioned.  At least one of the knives is good and sharp, and there's a big cutting board and plenty of counter space.  There's even a blender, which was probably too much to hope for.  

On the other hand, I forgot the sunscreen.

What's in your portable pantry?  What spice can't you live without?  What lengths will you go to to make sure you eat well away from home?


  • chris08226  on  8/7/2012 at 11:16 AM

    I love this post! My family almost always vacations at a rental and my aunt who doesn't cook much, loves when I am joining them because I DO cook. Without fail, she calls me up beforehand to discuss what might be on the menu and ask what spices I want to bring because "we can buy veggies and meat and everything else we need at the store or market, but who wants to spend $5 a pop on spice jars?" Besides, the jars we have at home are more likely to go stale before we ever finish them, forget trying to use up duplicates! Since coming up with meal ideas everyone will enjoy can be a difficult exercise, I often end up making Italian or Mexican. So my answer to the spice question is always a variety of spices from these cuisines, depending on what I'm planning to make. I am, however, also known for packing a cooler with a large container of homemade pesto and trust me, I'm always glad to have it with me -- it gives me a big head start on (at least) one easy and delicious meal!

  • srushton  on  8/9/2012 at 2:52 AM

    Great post! I always travel with at least one sharp knife and a good corkscrew. And if I have made a meal plan, I bring snack-sized baggies with the spices I will need, along with one full of Maldon salt. If we are traveling by car, I have been known to travel with a cooler full of frozen brisket and other meats and poultry from my local farmers' market. My favorite family vacations include time spent in the kitchen, everyone with a glass of wine, chopping and mixing and cooking together. If the day was spent on the beach or picking berries first? Pure joy!

  • Anne  on  8/9/2012 at 4:56 PM

    Just came back from Vacation and this is so on my page. I gathered a large square container with a handle on the lid and locks on the side. I believe it if for cupcakes, really. Loaded it up with utensils that I have wished I had a our rentals. Knives, spatulas, whisks, my special garlic grater. You are getting the picture. Then there are the Tupperware spice containers that are great for my cumin, chili powder, rosemary, thyme, oregano , etc.... Large freshly ground pepper and kosher salt. Then I start looking for the things I already have that will be in our recipes and grab those. Most of all this fir in my large container and when we were at the rental the container even came in handy for a large salad. I even remember the time at a girl scout camp out that I brought my own spices. Yep, I am right there with you all.

  • Splendid Spatula  on  8/11/2012 at 6:15 AM

    Great thread! I think about this every year when we head to Martha's Vineyard. I like to bring good finishing olive oil - I can get regular for cooking locally, but don't want to spend so much (for something already expensive!) and a good vinegar for salad. Soy sauce, whole grain mustard, fennel seed, sesame seeds, wasabe, good parmesan cheese. I also have a folder of recipes that I like to make there, and that is the guide. Finally, if I have time, I'll make some pie and tart crust dough ahead and freeze it, along with some cookies and one year even a pound cake. Equipment is my favorite pie tin, tart tin, a couple of good knives, and a cheese grater that can handle some volume.

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