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In Praise of Doing the Dishes


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#1 Busboy

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 07:02 AM

The guests are gone, it’s past midnight and I’m standing in the Augean Kitchen, waiting for Hercules to bail my ass out and once again he fails to show.

Most Saturday nights there’s a guest or two or six and they check out between eleven and one-thirty and we put out the candles and bring in the last few dishes and the glasses with a half-inch of red wine and a dead bug in the bottom – we eat on the front porch this time of year – and turn the corner into the galley kitchen to find a pile of dishes that could only be amassed, according to my wife, by somebody who learned cooking by watching chefs with teams of dishwashers at their disposal work their magic.

But there’s something energizing about the aftermath of a good meal – a feeling, sadly, I don’t always get – when course after course somehow comes out just right and the conversation around the table lurches from love to politics to children and back to politics (we do live in Washington) with energy and humor and everyone staggers home talking a little too loud for that time of night. And so, 16 hours after we first stumbled up to the tomato stand at the farmers market, it’s time for my wife and I to finally sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Before I rose to the exalted position of Busboy I did time as a dishwasher. It may be the last job I ever did well and, like Camus imagined Sisyphus must feel about his rock (and nothing is more Sisyphean than cleaning my kitchen), I still feel a comfort in snuggling up to the sink, ratty T replacing my dress shirt or, if I’m feeling particularly manly (or wasted) stripped to the waist, enveloped in steam and the smell of liquid detergent.

There’s music, old people music, like the Stones or the Beatles or the Dead, and as Stephanie fetches in the bottles scattered promiscuously through the house, there’s more wine – a half glass here, a half-bottle there, Sauternes, Malbec, whatever, it all seems to go with the runny cheese and half-stale leftover bread. There’s the analysis and self-congratulation: “The squash blossoms killed;” “I can still taste the ice cream;” “we knocked their socks off, man.” Maybe a humid slow dance there in the kitchen, before glasses are dried. And, throughout, the relaxing rhythm of washing and drying while the wine and food and the glow of your guests’ good humor crawl into your frontal lobe like a high-quality pharmaceutical or the first great day of Autumn.

It’s even better than a smoke.

And, at some point, you realize that the hour spent up to your elbows in Liquid Joy, alone with your wife, with all the hard work done might have be one of the best moments of a great day. Go figure.
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#2 Poffertjes

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 07:45 AM

So true.

The mellow clean up after a dinner party a friend or partner, talking about the evening, washing the dishes at a lazy pace in the summer evening is a great end to a great evening.

Eloquently put.

#3 lamb

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 07:53 AM

What a great read, Busboy!

I could close my eyes and picture myself there; of course not washing dishes too,
just watching the story unfold.

#4 fifi

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 09:43 AM

I never really thought about this much, Busboy. Thanks for bringing it up.

I have to agree that "washing up time" is pretty precious. When the kid or kids are here, that is some really high quality time. If it is just me, I enjoy it as a time for reflection.
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#5 Milagai

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 09:51 AM

to the op:

woo!
how can I entice you and your spouse to my place to
wash my after-party dishes?

i'll feed you great grub of course!

milagai

#6 jgm

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 10:09 AM

Busboy,

Will you marry me?

What else will you do around the house?

This has possibilities. :biggrin:

#7 Chufi

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 11:48 AM

beautifully written Busboy.

Doing the dishes may be the one domestic chore that I don't mind doing (apart from cooking, which I don't consider a chore). The better the meal was, the nicer the evening, the warmer the bonds of friendship and family have felt, the more I feel that cleaning up is a kind of ritual that is part of the whole experience.

Sometimes together with my husband, but sometimes I love to do this on my own.. arrange the leftovers.. think what I'll be doing with them tomorrow.. carefully washing and drying the equipment that helped me make the food that brought pleasure.

When the kitchen surfaces re-emerge from underneath the dirty dishes, and everything is neat and tidy, I always say: "look.. as if nothing ever happened here".

But ofcourse it has.

#8 racheld

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 11:55 AM

Lovely thoughts, lovely articulation.

We entertain from the downstairs kitchen, which is practically underground, with a 2x1 window high over the sink. Right now it's covered with a gauzy haze of curtain inside, and outside, a climbing wild grapevine which lets in little flashes of gold between the gently wind-swaying leaves. And since the view is over my head, so to speak, I have an ever-changing gallery of watercolor pictures, chosen from my huge "art" closet upstairs...flowers and street scenes and fruit and gentle mountains with cloudhats and shady clefts. But mostly flowers, and all art courtesy of the Goodwill framed-section.

And I alternate, as well, between tapes of Jane Austen and Dave Robicheaux, taking my movements from the swaying skirts of Emma and the sisters Dashwood, and my momentum from the dangerous dashes through the swamps and bayous, the Southern backroads and fishcamps in pursuit of blackhats and badmen. A voice soothes, lulls, excites with the words of intrigue and romance, pursuit and languid picnics, manners and mayhem, keeping my mind so enthralled that my hands have swirled and brushed and cleaned and sprayed and wiped all the traces of the party away, started the steady hum of the dishwasher, and turned out the light on another nice evening.

I've always loved the preparation, the anticipation AND the cleanup of a party, almost as the actual HAVING of the moments with friends. I like the putting-together of pretty things, of lovely food, of wonderful friends who sit late, feet tucked beneath, wine swirling in the candlelight. And I like doing the dishes.

The order I can create and restore the next day when I open the dishwasher door and remove all my lovely dishes and silverware and glasses brings order to ME as well, as I stack them on the table, enjoy the colors, smooth my fingers over a pattern or a relief, and put them back into their places until the next gathering. Or until I just decide to set the table special. Or mostly every day, with plates of every description emerging from cupboards and shelves to make a fiesta, a sushi bar, a pasta party just for us.

I wear heavy yellow gloves to do the washing, with the water heater set almost at its limit, and never add cold to the wash or the rinse. And apple Dawn is one of my favorite fragrances.
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#9 Chufi

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 12:35 PM

Yes. I forgot about the music! I always listen to music in the kitchen. In fact, it's the only place I listen to music. When I have a new cd it's sometimes too distracting to listen to it while I'm cooking. But there's nothing better than putting on some new music and doing the dishes.

(this has one major drawback. On a daily basis, my dishes don't take 50 minutes :smile: . So from many cd's I only very occasionally hear the last songs.. and become very well acquainted with the first half hour!)

#10 Chris Amirault

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 02:01 PM

I find that grabbing the bottle of wine before it's fully drained and stowing it under the sink for later, dish-doing consumption greatly improves my mood during dinner.
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#11 Marlene

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 02:10 PM

For me, it's actually doing the dishes with my son, (usually when we are camping), that gives that defining moment. As he moves into young adulthood, and moves farther away from me, those are still the moments we share as mother and son. During those times he actually talks to me about his hopes and dreams and plans for the future.

I hope I will always have my husband to do dishes with, but someday, my son will move out and share those wonderful dishwashing moments with the partner he has chosen.
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#12 zeffer81

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 02:36 PM

I am reading a book/cookbook about turning one's kitchen and body into a spritual sanctuary. After the book discussed the optimal set up of a kitchen using feng shui, the authors moved on to discuss how every action in the kitchen should be engulfed in a sort of zen calm, including chopping food items and washing dishes. I never used to appreciate washing dishes (though didn't hate it) but due to the book and your beautiful words, Busboy, I shall now tackle the dishes with love and appreciation for what they represent.

#13 Busboy

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 02:41 PM

For me, it's actually doing the dishes with my son, (usually when we are camping), that gives that defining moment.  As he moves  into young adulthood, and moves farther away from me, those are still the moments we share as mother and son.  During those times he actually talks to me about his hopes and dreams and plans for the future.

I hope I will always have my husband to do dishes with, but someday, my son will move out and share those wonderful dishwashing moments with the partner he has chosen.

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Actually, washing dishes with my son, especially while camping, brings the exact opposite of the calm glow I described above.
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#14 Marlene

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 03:00 PM

I don't know why it is, because washing dishes with his at home is just a tug of war. Maybe it's the different enviornment we're in.

I just know that I treasure those moments. Few and far between that they are. :biggrin:

btw, your post was beautifully written. :smile:
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#15 ruthcooks

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 03:11 PM

Having been without an automatic dishwasher for over four years, I don't feel the magic. What's better than having a companion to help you with the dishes? Someone to do them INSTEAD of you.
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#16 zilla369

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 04:32 PM

I read Charles' initial post in the thread right before I walked out the door to work this morning, and I realized when I got in the car that I had tears - actual tears - in my eyes while I was turning the key. Just so perfectly spoken, Charles.


I am reading a book/cookbook about turning one's kitchen and body into a spritual sanctuary. 

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oooh, zeffer...I'd like to know the title of that book!
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#17 Priscilla

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 05:10 PM

Just an ass-kicking piece of writing, Charles.

The imagery is startling in its familiarity and intimacy, the slightly too-loud guests taking their leave, the near-24-hour window from tomato-foraging to dish-doing, the idle consumption of ends of cheese and bread and wine. Wowee. Surely a little room-temp mineral water kicking around too, a hedge against dehydration.

Best thing I've read in ages and ages and ages.

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#18 hjshorter

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Posted 14 September 2005 - 05:50 PM

Beautiful.

Maybe it's your kitchen? :smile: I had a pretty good time in there all by my lonesome after the chicken brining event.

I don't usually do the everyday dishes in my house, that's my husband's job because I do all of the shopping and cooking. But when he's away on business (like he is now) I save it for after the kids are in bed, with the music turned up.
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#19 Rehovot

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Posted 15 September 2005 - 12:26 AM

Having been without an automatic dishwasher for over four years, I don't feel the magic.  What's better than having a companion to help you with the dishes? Someone to do them INSTEAD of you.

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Amen. Rinsing dishes and putting them in a dishwasher? Relaxing.
Doing them by hand? Night after night? After having made the mess that produced the dirty dishes? Annoying.

#20 Abra

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Posted 15 September 2005 - 02:24 AM

At home, my husband mostly does the dishes. At work, in my incarnation as a personal chef, doing dishes and leaving my clients with a "how did she cook all that and the kitchen looks so clean?" experience is part of my service.

After a party at home, though, I'm always glad that my husband hates washing by hand. He never does the wine glasses after a big party. leaving to me the exquisite squeak of the soft white glass brush, curved, chenille, kissing the rim both inside and out. I wash those glasses and think of the lips they've touched, and the things those lips said. I stand them gently upside down on a clean towel, and think of how happy my husband will be when he sees that I've done his "job" for him.

#21 bleudauvergne

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Posted 17 September 2005 - 02:28 AM

Busboy's post gives me insight on what I have considered until now my husband's strange affinity for dissapearing into the kitchen to do dishes. Me, I drift from place to place gathering them, plus the glasses, and bottles, looking at evidence, perhaps too involved in analysis of remainders on a plate, carefully recalling each course, noting in my mind what I might do to improve or what I might do again. I line the glasses up in rows by course and bring the stacks of plates to him as he silently works his way through them. I'm the one who enjoys the dregs of that night's selection from the cave if there are any, and I put my feet up to reflect on what worked, sip wine, and note any new recipes in my book, listening to Loic washing the glasses and his careful way of stacking them to dry.

When we put this kitchen in, I was the one who insisted on a dishwasher. Loic said 'but do you think that will be fair?' I struggled to understand his meaning, and he said 'if we have a dishwasher, I won't be doing so much work." I smiled and said, 'don't worry my dear, between the two of us we can find some other work for you to do to make it even.' :smile:

It still amazes me that Loic considers my job of keeping us fed to be such an important part of my share of the work, and I guess it amazes him how much I cherish that quiet moment after the meal, assured that tomorrow, my little workshop all be in place, tools clean and ready to use. It is a great motivator. I wonder if he knows how much I appreciate that. I think he does, but just in case I'll be sure to thank him again.

#22 srhcb

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Posted 17 September 2005 - 07:31 AM

This is the type of Thread that makes reading eGullet worthwhile. :smile:

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#23 Carrot Top

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Posted 18 September 2005 - 09:57 AM

Of course an alternate view on the dish-doing with your hubby or wife idea is to not be married and instead to have a paramour come to visit when there are no children about.

The concept involved in this alternate view involves both of you looking at the dishes, him nicely offering to help wash up, then both of you deciding that there are much better things to do than wash dishes.

That the dishes can wait till the morning. Or alternately, till the afternoon. Or whenever.

Just an alternate view, you know.

Not as romantically nor as beautifully phrased as your concept was, Busboy, but nevertheless with some aspects of romance residing within it.

Or so I believe, anyway.

:rolleyes:

Edited by Carrot Top, 18 September 2005 - 10:26 AM.


#24 Fresser

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Posted 18 September 2005 - 10:54 AM

In this same vein, I'm fond of cleaning up the stove.

Lifting up my range lid one day, I found a veritable cornucopia of crumbs, burnt macaroni and year-old peas 'n carrots. Scooping out the detritus and polishing the interior made my kitchen smell better AND gave me a boost.

Something about cleaning enables us to see the fruits of our labour. I think this is what makes the otherwise mundane task worthwhile.
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#25 Grub

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Posted 18 September 2005 - 05:28 PM

That was an extremely articulate post. I don't think I can match its lyrical standards (I had to look up Mr. Camus), but uh, being a nerd (and proud of it), I've got an observation about washing dishes:

It's a simple task that doesn't take long to accomplish, and we can feel confident in our ability to carry it out with complete success. In these modern times, when most people's lives are fairly complicated, such a task can be a nice change of pace.

A novel I once read featured a successful, female lawer as its main character. Her husband was also a lawer, but nowhere near as successful as her, and he was extremely bitter about this. Her friends thought he was a petty, miserable piece of sh!t, and bit by bit, they started thinking of her as a feminist hero. Like, they really put her up on a pedestal. But she had a dirty secret: She loved doing the dishes (and had to hide this from her friends) -- because it was a simple, short task that she knew she could carry out without much chance of failure. In contrast to the extremely lengthy, complicated, and extremely challenging tasks she did at work.

That's why doing dishes can be so therapeutical. Even if I didn't get anything done at work -- and even if I screwed up the dinner itself -- I know that I can still accomplish that one task successfully...

#26 hjshorter

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Posted 18 September 2005 - 05:54 PM

Of course an alternate view on the dish-doing with your hubby or wife idea is to not be married and instead to have a paramour come to visit when there are no children about.

The concept involved in this alternate view involves both of you looking at the dishes, him nicely offering to help wash up, then both of you deciding that there are much better things to do than wash dishes.

That would make my mornings while the kids are in school so much more interesting. :laugh:

Seriously... I agree, there is something to be said for having something on one's mind other than cleaning the kitchen.

Edited by hjshorter, 19 September 2005 - 03:48 AM.

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#27 Busboy

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Posted 18 September 2005 - 06:48 PM

It's a simple task that doesn't take long to accomplish...

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You've never seen my kitchen after a big Saturday night. :wink:
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government.

#28 lia

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Posted 18 September 2005 - 09:05 PM

I've never lived in a home with a dishwasher and I can't imagine it. I find washing dishes relaxing, especially after a holiday dinner at my mother's...when she knows that after it's all over and all the guests are gone, that she can count on me to make the kitchen right. a nice bit of quiet (and digestion) time doing something soothing and helping out my mom who probably prepared a huge feast.

I remember recently reading an item in a NYC newspaper real estate section. It was about an apartment for sale, but the problem was, you had to choose between a W/D and a dishwasher. Now, to me a W/D in my home is a luxury I truly miss from my suburban upbringing. I can't imagine anyone really needing to make the choice.

#29 Chris Amirault

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Posted 19 September 2005 - 12:17 PM

Something about cleaning enables us to see the fruits of our labour.  I think this is what makes the otherwise mundane task worthwhile.

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I think that this is simple yet very true. You know that, by the end, things will be as they should be. This experience is different than, say, my attempts to make bread. :blink:
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#30 Carrot Top

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Posted 19 September 2005 - 12:36 PM

Something about cleaning enables us to see the fruits of our labour.  I think this is what makes the otherwise mundane task worthwhile.

View Post

I think that this is simple yet very true. You know that, by the end, things will be as they should be. This experience is different than, say, my attempts to make bread. :blink:

View Post


Not to wander off again from Busboy's quite beautiful post, but it must be admitted that any time people mention cleaning the house in a way that makes it sound desirable, delicious, doable, and even sometimes done :raz: my mind starts wandering off to the realities that I see.

Regardless of the income level of the household, I see about 75% of the houses I've been in lately dirty, unkempt, messy and unorganized.

Often there is a half-hearted "sorry" given by the people when you walk in. Followed by a "there is no time" "in between work and getting the kids places". The other reason given (again, without any asking or any looks of askance at all) is "There are so many better things to do than clean the house." :biggrin:
(Unfortunately, I do not think they were talking about what I was talking about before but anyway. . )

Look at the popularity of these television shows like "Clean Sweep". They are popular because so many people have houses like this!

Then when you read magazines and such they still report that women (who work outside the house) still manage about 85% of all house-cleaning responsibilities on a daily basis. That makes me cranky too, to hear that.

So. Busboy. Chris. Fresser. Whoever you are that does this. You are One in a Million. Can you teach the others? Please. :rolleyes: This notion of "things as they should be" is absolutely brilliant and loveable. And so is the notion that a man can do it too.

Edited by Carrot Top, 19 September 2005 - 12:41 PM.