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How to Do the Dishes
A meditation on a not-very-meditative chore
Hello and welcome back to Mess Hall! Today I am going long on something most of us dread but know well, something that is beginning to appear more often in cookbooks: doing the dishes. Please let me know in the comments if you have come up with any ways to streamline or add ease to your own never-ending dish-doing.
Also, I know at least one person had trouble downloading the PDF version of the deviled egg dip—if you’ve also had this problem, let me know and I’ll email it to you directly :)
Today's issue of Mess Hall is brought to you by Knopf Cooks and Latinísimo: Home Recipes from the Twenty-One Countries of Latin America by Sandra A. Gutierrez. From Tortillas de Nixtamal (Fresh Masa Tortillas) and Arroz con Pollo (Chicken and Rice), to Arepas Clásicas (Classic Arepas) and Pastel de Tres Leches (Tres Leches Cake), Latinísimo is filled with recipes that reflect the incredible breadth and richness of Latin culinary traditions. Order your copy today!
Do We Need to Be Told How To Do The Dishes?
The end point of cooking is not eating; it is cleaning.
We dream, we plan, we crave, we shop, we chop, we fry, we simmer, we garnish, we serve. And then we eat, sometimes alone and sometimes not, and when the eating is done, a mess remains, record of our pleasure. We must put spices back on their racks, the halved butter stick back in the fridge before it pools on the counter. We must transfer braised greens and ladlefuls of curry into containers that will keep them from spoiling. We must hem and haw over whether cake goes in the fridge or stays on the table, to stare at us for breakfast. We must collect all the surfaces and vessels we have dirtied, and turn them clean again. This is not a result of the cooking process, but the final leg of it.
Sometimes—and I’ve come to dislike this, though I know I’ve done it in the past—a recipe will end with a one-word instructive sentence: “Eat.” They almost never end with phrases like Eat, and then when you’re done, store the rice separate from the soup, or else it will become a big brothless glump. Or, Be sure to soak plates immediately, else you’ll be scrubbing against gnarly pools of congealed yolk. It’s obvious why recipes omit this bit: it would make them too depressing. People read recipes for inspiration and reassurance, not for a glaring reminder of chores.
At most, a recipe’s headnote might nod towards the idea of mess. This often appears in the assurance of “Yes, this recipe asks you to use three pans, but it’s worth it,” or the inverse assurance of “instead of leaving you with three pots to clean1, this recipe does all the work in one.” How you might clean those pots, however, is rarely mentioned. The author assumes you can take it from here. Surely your mother taught you?
Six years ago I was still working at GQ, chatting with a coworker about his new apartment, about the drudgery of keeping one’s space tidy. I shared a little hack I’d created for myself. Sometimes when I don’t feel like doing the dishes, I’ll set a timer for 8 minutes, and tell myself that when it goes off, I can stop. But I never do. I’m either done or I keep going, it always works. He stared his buffoonishly handsome face at me, warping it into a scowl of judgment, neck tugged back in a reflex of disgust. How many dishes are piling up in your sink?
I felt a brief flash of shame, rescued by indignance. Of course, I thought. This man is rarely feeding himself. He was always going on dates, four or five a week. His dishes did not accrue. The memory appears to me intermittently, that shame blooming anew: the implication that I am always making a mess, that nobody taught me right. Growing up, my father did the dishes alone, rinsing them diligently before lining them up neatly in our suburban dish washer.
Only now am I remembering that my coworker had, a year prior to our conversation, worked on a story about how to throw a dinner party successfully. The sort of GQ primer that helps men feel competent, I’ve written them too. This one instructed readers to leave the dishes for the morning. Just go to sleep, it said blithely. When I first read this it shocked me, forced my neck back in that same gulp of disgust. Absolutely not.
A longer-ago coworker, a brilliant home cook, had an almost militant dinner party cleaning strategy. She hosted lavish feasts—this phrase not an exaggeration—in her studio apartment, and would not let a single guest do the dishes, not even her best and oldest and most generous friends. Tiny apartments without Maytags require specific dish-cleaning strategies, and this one was no different: there were a few inches of counter space, if I remember correctly, and a butcher block. When everyone left, tramping wine-soaked down narrow flights of stairs, she would put on a a cassette tape of the Smiths2 and blast it while doing dishes to her personal specifications, lining everything up just so.
I admired this not just because of the competence it communicated, but because it was a reflection of one cook’s finely honed tastes. Not only did she believe in always buying the nice butter, or architecting obscurely themed meals, but she knew exactly how she liked to do the dishes. I had always wanted to become a person with such strong convictions and such clean plates.
In the most fantastical episode of The Bear, Cousin stages in Chicago’s most elite fine dining restaurant. “Cousin” is a gruff working class troubled but handsome good-hearted potty mouth, a fish out of water in this gleaming chrome kitchen where his job is to shine an endless pile of forks for seven days straight. (“Staging”, soft g, means working for no pay at a very fancy restaurant for a short period of time, to pad your resumé and “gain experience”. This might mean making bugs out of fruit leather for months on end without ever turning on a stove.)
Cousin leaves streaks on the forks; he doesn’t care. At one point, exasperated, he asks his keeper for another task. I’ve been doing this forever, can’t I wash dishes or something? His keeper responds, No, we’ve got the best dish washers in the world. You’re just going to slow them down.
In New York’s restaurants, these jobs often go to undocumented workers. The work is exhausting, hot water scalding hands, backs bent for long hours, often in a windowless basement. You have to work fast; more diners will be arriving soon, and they need clean plates. Pay hovers near minimum wage. In restaurants, some people call this “unskilled labor”. In home kitchens, we call it “unpaid.” Both phrases sit in conflict with the unending toil of grease, grime, heat, soap, water, scrub, exhaustion, and sparkle.
Most modern cookbooks, in their front matter—all the stuff that comes before the first recipe—offer us advice on shopping. This often comes in the form of an ingredient glossary, and/or a list of tools. The author makes a case for their preferred type of salt, or why you should seek out scotch bonnet peppers instead of settling for thicker-skinned varieties. Here they will convince you that you need a kitchen scale and an instant-read thermometer. This section offers up the author’s cooking philosophy, a snapshot of their kitchen ecosystem. This, of course, is one of the reasons I love cookbooks, a gift they offer that a lone recipe rarely can: an ethos. To make these recipes, you will need a large whisk, and the tusk of a wild boar, a square bottle of Chardonnay vinegar, a spice farmed on Maine’s northernmost coast. Read these early pages and you can imagine yourself into someone else’s kitchen for a moment, like sneaking into a walk-in closet. Convince yourself that cooking from the book offers the same promise as trying on someone else’s clothes.
A handful of authors have recently begun a project of symmetry: offering advice for not just what comes before the cooking, but instruction on how to process its refuse.3
The first I noticed was my friend Kristen Miglore’s Simply Genius. The absolute last bit of instruction in the book is titled How to mostly love doing the dishes. The steps are granular, pragmatic: soak, put on music, scrub, stack, rinse. Kristen includes tips on what to do with stuck-on stuff (use a nonmetal spatula or steel wool to keep your sponge clean), how to clean burned pots and cast iron.
The two-page spread appeared like a revelation, a lesson I did not know I needed. Of course, I didn’t adopt Kristen’s strategies. I kept doing things my own inefficient way. But I began to wonder how cookbooks might illuminate and investigate our processes for cleaning-up. I began to want more of this holistic instruction.
In Dan Pelosi’s new book Let’s Eat, a two-page spread includes tips from his mother on how to clean: the oven, the pots and pans, the sink, the faucet, the dishwasher, the shirt that has been attacked by a spray of tomato sauce. A large, high-contrast photo accompanies the spread: Pelosi and his mother, on their knees, each holding a sponge pressed to the soapy inner door of a stove. They face each other, smiling, caught in a shared laugh.
I would love to love cleaning this much; I do not. But I appreciate the fantasy, and the advice. Thanks to Mrs. Pelosi I now have a spray bottle in my kitchen full of distilled white vinegar. I have known about this trick for years but never acted on it. I remember reading a Martha Stewart article over a decade ago offering the same advice, and never taking it. For a long time I just washed my stovetop with my dish sponge and dish soap, knowing full well there was a better way to do it.
Pelosi’s book, like Simply Genius, caters to the beginner. It is inviting and encouraging, and does not assume loads of kitchen knowledge in its reader. If someone is intimidated by the act of cooking, they might also be intimidated by the constant mess that cooking creates. If a cookbook addresses the first anxiety, it’s wise to also address the second.
A few years ago, Jamie brought an analog label maker to some daytime party I was having, and each of us took turns making ourselves labels. Aside from the label that Jamie covertly stuck to my shower head that reads YUMMY YUMMY EAT PUSS, the label I see most frequently sits at eye level when I’m standing at the sink. It’s stuck to the bottom edge of a cabinet door and reads, simply, DO THE DISHES. I made it because I knew I needed the reminder. Its constant subconscious presence has been effective.
I don’t “like” doing the dishes. I let them pile up until I worry that my nagging awareness of them is mounting into a distraction. I have a deep farmhouse sink with two basins, one of which is covered and serves as a dish-drying area, draped with an often-damp kitchen towel. Leaning all the way into the sink strains my back, especially for long stretches. It takes my water at least a minute to get hot4, and once it does, I flail towards the concept of efficiency. I have developed a sort of disgusting waterfall system, where I pour hot soapy water out of one cup or mug or bowl into the next, minimizing the amount of dish soap and water I need. I try to jenga all the clean dishes onto the drying area, protecting my most beloved ceramics in the safest spots. I try to avoid the life-long bad habit of leaving one dirty dish in the sink, for no reason. (Does anyone know why I do this?) A clean and empty sink makes me happy and calm in the way that a tidy apartment does. I am held back by no nagging obligation, and ready to move into the great frictionless future. When I wake up in the morning and enter the kitchen to light the stove for tea, and the sink next to the stove is clean and empty, it feels like a fresh day.
This is a reluctant pleasure. In her new book Company, which we’ve already discussed, Amy Thielen probes the relationship between cooking and cleaning. I do think it’s hard to love cooking on a regular, daily basis, she writes, if some part of you, even a small grumbling part, doesn’t feel some satisfaction in cleaning up. This comes in a back-chapter, a section called A Note on Cleaning Up. This is more theory than instruction manual, which I like because it offers a view into her own dish-doing journey, and I am a lazy voyeur. There is no assumption that I will adopt a new way of scrubbing; there is only the generosity of perspective.
Thielen offers some historical context, answering a question that has been nagging me. While modern cookbooks skip over the ugly parts, she writes, old cookbooks would not shut up about it. Cleaning, that is: before refrigeration was commonplace, cleaning after cooking meant keeping your family safe. This was far more important than buying the right cut of beef, or the correctly marketed brand of olive oil. As I’ve written before, recipes got longer—more detailed—when the average American housewife became less likely to afford paid help, and needed to learn how to cook. The nature of a cookbook’s instruction also seems to have shifted with technological development. Today, 68% of American households own a dish washer. (Over 99.8% own a fridge.) Why would we include dishwashing instruction in a book written, implicitly, for the middle and upper-middle classes? And yet! I can name so many recipe developers that don’t own one, or have worked years without one. They are experts on this toil, but rarely share that knowledge. It mainly appears in articles on cooking websites, designed to be found by those searching for it.
Company is an especially apt book for this sort of discussion. Cleaning up after making yourself pasta might take a cool eight minutes; cleaning up after guests leave, whether they number 5 or 20, is an entirely different operation, often done at an entirely different energy level. The pleasure, too, is different. Thielen lands staunchly in the solo clean-up camp: I love the help, but on principle, I think this impulse should be thwarted. The new transactional party agreement is this: I give you a day-pass from kitchen chores, and someday you’ll give me one in return.
If there is something I love about doing dishes, it is the control implicit to solitary work. I love to cook for my friends, I love to have them over, I even love the way my insufficient seating arrangements create different permutations of bodies at the end of the night: some on the floor, some on the couch, some at the table. I love gossip and I love feeling full. And I love closing the door on the last sweet soul at the end of the night, listening to the ringing echo of silence, or realizing that music was playing that whole time and we’ve somehow arrived at Ava Max. The apartment is my own again, and unless I am half asleep or a glass too drunk, I will turn up the stereo and spend 20 minutes restoring appearances. Do I like this process? I like having control over my space. I like transforming it to a venue of conviviality, and then transforming it back into a site of industrious solitude. I like waking up, walking into the kitchen, and seeing things clean, a reminder of my labor twofold.
Every few months I receive a cookbook in the mail whose stated purpose is to minimize food waste. The trend is a valuable one, as we continue to extract resources from the earth without doing much in the form of aftercare. These books offer advice on how to use up carrot peels and pepper cores and kale stems. They offer variable recipes, to encourage cooking from your kitchen instead of going out for other ingredients and letting those you already have rot. They will tell you how to store your mushrooms and asparagus to ensure a longer shelf life. They are always pushing the idea of “syrups”. But I have not seen them discuss conservation of water, which is at the heart of many dish-washing techniques.
Most of us don’t need a book to teach us how to wash our dishes; we likely already have our own imperfect systems, or we have a powerful appliance, or we have a partner who does the cleaning. But if a book can remind us to use up our scraps and avoid spoilage, to cook with economy and grace, it can also nudge us towards reconsidering the value of what flows from our sink. Surely some people in California are rolling their eyes at me now, having spent years rationing water in their kitchens. Cooks in regions and countries with less access to fresh water have long tailored their kitchen movements to these fluctuating levels of scarcity. Surely those of us who think of water as a mundane abundance can reframe it as a precious resource, and shift our habits accordingly.
When I think about doing the dishes, I imagine my sink as the lungs of my kitchen. It fills and empties; when it overflows, or develops a smell, or harbors a carpet of rice and parsley and seeds, my kitchen is ailing, in need of care, nagging at my consciousness. When it is sparkling clean, the rest of the room follows suit. When it is free of anything but its own blank white surface and browned spots of age, my mind is free of it.
When I started as an intern at Food52 thirteen years ago, I received a memo on how to do the dishes. Once a week we staged photo shoots at our editor-in-chief’s apartment, and she had a precise dish-washing methodology we were to follow. (It later got reprinted here.) I was terrified of this task and never did it. I felt more comfortable putting the cumin away, wiping down the countertops, or acting busy (“scheduling tweets”) on my computer. Rereading it now, though, I realize I internalized a few aspects of this strategy. I am vigilant about cleaning the bottoms of plates and bowls; I feel unstable if my cabinet does not hide a fat stack of tea towels; I don’t understand people who wear rubber gloves while doing the dishes, because they can’t feel the grease they want to eradicate.
I texted Kristen about this wave of books instructing readers how to wash up, and she pointed me to a small book by Peter Miller bluntly titled How to Wash The Dishes. I was shocked at my own ignorance of the book: Miller, who runs an architecture bookstore in Seattle, is the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, Lunch at the Shop. Both books share airs of preciousness and pragmatism: Miller is the sort of cook who cares very deeply about where he sources his whisks and kitchen towels5, and how he cleans and stores and uses them. His dish-washing strategy centers a bowl of hot clean soapy water, from which all cleanliness streams. He loves the process; I envy him this.
The book’s epigraph is a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. It begins:
Asking yourself, What am I doing? will help you overcome the habit of wanting to complete things quickly.
It feels a little on-the-nose to introduce a book about doing the dishes with a Buddhist teaching. Chop wood, carry water, yes, I get it. It is easy for me to roll my eyes at Miller’s preciousness, his obsessing over sponge choice, his thousands of words on process. But really it comforts me. To carefully consider the practice of dish-doing is to give the cook and her labor respect and legitimacy. And, I should say, Miller calls out the preciousness of water. Tells us we should use as little as possible, and be grateful for its bounty. This, like cleaning, becomes a daily effort.
Every hardcore dish-doer, Kristen pointed out, has their own special technique. There is no one way, just as there is no one way to clean a house or make a soup. But peeking into someone’s cleaning routine holds all the greedy pleasure of peeking into a lit-up living room at night. I am happy that all of these books are offering cleaning advice because I like understanding how other cooks think about this inextricable part of the cooking process.
I am not a rigorous cook, nor a rigorous cleaner. I do not have a highly detailed system to offer you. I agree with Miller that delicate glass should be washed first. Breakage is something I am always thinking about. I agree with basically everyone that it’s smart to soak silverware together; I often toss them upside-down into a quart container of hot soapy water. I have to be diligent about cleaning my blender immediately after use, lest it crust over and require a scrub. I have the bad habit of hiding silverware or small prep bowls in a soaking dutch oven overnight. Peek into my kitchen on a weekday morning and you’re likely to find a lone spoon smeared with almond butter at the bottom of my sink. At night, a different spoon is streaked with ice cream. During the day, I let the dishes gently pile, and then turn their washing into an afternoon break. If the sink is a pair of lungs, it is also a mirror.
I have been ignoring the final point of the final point of cooking: putting the dishes away. This task I put off until a tower of bowls and mugs and deli containers threatens to crash and break and ruin my week. It is an incredibly easy task, far more soothing than washing. And yet: I am always abstaining. Once the sink is empty and the dishes are put away, order is finally restored. But order is fleeting. Order, as a concept, has rarely appealed to me. Mess is inevitable; the recurrence of order simply gives it shape, and tempo.
Recently, I’ve been trying to do the dishes in silence. The easiest way to get them done, of course, is to blast some music, or put a podcast into my ears, to separate my mind from my body and distract myself from the task at hand. This will always be the post-dinner-party strategy, the only way to get it done. But in an effort to repair my relationship with time and attention and wean myself off of the devices that drain me, I have been trying to become more comfortable alone in my own head. Some people call dish-washing meditative; I don’t think I’ll ever get there. I am a subsistence dish-washer, not a fanatic. The act does not bring me delight, but I know that abstaining from it will only bring me stress. So I do it, and quietly. Sometimes I’ll even ask myself those words from Miller’s epigraph: what am I doing? The question feels like pause, not doubt.
Like cooking, cleaning gives me something to do with my body, a place to be and move through and think through, an opportunity to feel industrious. On a good day I will receive a new idea while doing the dishes. On other days it will simply allow my brain to rest, and train me to do the things I must.
In her new book, Sohla El-Waylly has a recipe for short ribs that has you sear them in the oven instead of on the stovetop, which avoids that awful messy splatter. This is the sort of economy and forethought I love in a recipe. I’ll be trying it soon.
Correction 10/30/23: An earlier version of this story listed the band on the cassette tape as The Cure.
I have a hunch that Martha has addressed this topic in at least one book, but haven’t had the time to look; feel free to correct me in the comments.
Hallie, who long lived in LA, once told me that while she was waiting for her water to get hot she would fill a watering can for her plants. I am always reminding myself that I should do this too.