The Whole Art of Dish-Washing

How long does it take thoroughly to understand dish-washing? I do not mean the mere mechanical manipulations, — of which more anon, — and I carefully avoid the word ‘philosophy,’ which has been worn threadbare. Everyone who wants to pass for profound nowadays drags it in, and we hear of the philosophy of motoring, of eating, of sleeping, of countless things, which are not done wisely, or through love of anything but self. So far from securing attention, the term excites only a mental yawn or a smile. I am addressing those who are addicted to serious reading and, inferentially, to serious thinking. To-day people who read and think are largely engaged in washing dishes, babies, and cheap automobiles.

I have sold my car, and my children are old enough to wash themselves; but for something over two years I have been assiduously washing dishes, and I am satisfied that one can’t grasp the thing in any shorter space of time. For us mortals time is the great essential in every undertaking. Happy the disembodied spirits with an available infinity! However frugally minded, they can dally indefinitely with hot water and yellow soap, nor ever suffer twinges of conscience. How different our case!

They say that for those who can learn anything at all about it, it takes seven years to learn something about the violin. One is born, but cannot learn to be, a poet. A man may ride all his life, and ride well, only to break his neck in the hunting field, like Whyte-Melville. With luck the high school is left behind in four years. Another four, and the student, untrammeled — or unassisted

— by athletics, graduates at college.

The dish-washers of the country are the people who are educating their children; and as they are conversant with the language of the pedagogue, according to which French, physics, and astronomy are acquired in so many hours,

— without regard to the fact that hours differ in length as well as in productiveness,— I shall employ this term.

I estimate a thorough course in dishwashing at a minimum of 1456 hours, which means two hours a day for 104 weeks, including Sundays, Christmas, and other holidays, by which the cost of education is raised and serious demoralization wrought in students. Dishwashing is not an intermittent pursuit. One of the essentials is unbroken continuity, regardless of mutations of seasons or fortunes, and of trifling incidents like birth and death.

The man or woman who takes to dish-washing at any age between eighteen and eighty has much to unlearn. A dislike for messiness is rather general, yet who is there but has almost enjoyed cleaning up after a picnic? We make it part of the fun to immerse knives and plates in the waters of lake or stream, dry them on paper napkins, and bestow them in the luncheon-basket. We sit on the ground, and are preyed upon by all manner of creeping, crawling creatures. We apply salt with our fingers, break the shell of a hard-boiled egg on our shoe-heels or hip-bones, and fish out ants, leaves, and twigs from cocoa and tea. And always the best part of a picnic is the end of it, — the very end, — bringing you back to a proper diningroom.

But those happy mortals who, year in and year out, have sat down before spotless linen, dainty china, and assorted sizes of forks and spoons, and later have pushed back their chairs, serene and satisfied, to move in stately procession to drawing-room or verandah, know as little of the machinery of domestic life as the lounger on the deck of a liner knows of the stoke-hole. On introduction to the city slums, the society girl who has just embraced social work suffers no such staggering shock as awaits the domestic novice when, for the first time and the first hundred times, he enters with earnest purpose a kitchen to which have been transferred the vestiges of even a modest repast for six civilized persons in evening dress.

Montaigne, and the successors of those contemporary physicians of his, whom he so heartily despised, have taught us that it is the antechamber and not the actual presence of the grim monster that makes death so terrible. And so here. A day may come when the quick results from a clean mop and scalding water will yield a sort of satisfaction— the joy of salvage for those who can’t create; but the acquisition of even a relative immunity to the miasmatic influences of a kitchen in the post-prandial state is a slow process. We know that the pre-Elizabethan world was handkerchiefless. Full eleven centuries of the Christian Era had slipped by before that Venetian Theodora set the seal of her example on the employment of forks. We should see rather than feel the seamy side of life if required to wear our clothes inside out. We can conceive with comparative equanimity of a social catastrophism wherein the demotic hatred of wealth would express itself by a freakish order that the owners should turn the bodies of their cars upside-down, and ride on the portion where the dust of the highway collects and is retained by lubricating material slipping through from the gears.

Thoughts such as these are nothing. For real revulsion resort to the kitchen, and view the confused clutter of cups, glasses, pans, skillets, graters, colanders, in the wake of the meanest hospitality. Oh, why, when servants became the peculiar privilege of the rich, did not those prime polluters of plates, mayonnaise, gravy, white sauce, and oil, which are the emblem of gladness and plenty, pass away along with claret ? Disgust is mixed with a humiliating sense of human powerlessness before such an accumulation. And anger foams round the rim of one’s cup of woe.

The first semester is one of vain efforts at evasion. Superficial analysis ascribes all the blame for the changed financial order to the Kaiser and his carls. An enemy hath done this! The heavy hand of a dimly apprehended Providence would be less of a burden than a malign grasshopper. All sorts of plans are revolved. The short hours that intervene between the last call of the cupboard and the first beckoning of bed are consumed in futile computations and readjustments of the family budget. If we could get a woman for half a day — combine with someone else — have a girl, even! Not till the torch of illusory hope has been quenched is there any real progress. The first real sign thereof is a dawning complacency in the handling of garbage, a nascent pride in its proper sorting. Concern for the internal integrity of some remote but real pig proves that resignation is about to replace resentment.

Of course, no life is ever so long, no renunciation so complete, that one can come to love washing dishes; but rebellion has a period of reaction, equal and opposite, in the measure of a spiritless dejection. The second semester is thus marked by morbid attempts to gauge the depth of one’s debasement. On a salary that seems munificent to those of my friends and acquaintances whose income is less by only a dollar, I cannot afford a cook! Wife and children secretly despise me. Like a gnawing ulcer is the conviction that my wife’s relatives despise me openly. I despise myself in both ways. I reflect upon what other men, real men, who have reached fifty, — that age of fruition, — are doing with the accumulated rewards of their brawn or their brains, not only to relieve their women-folk of the coarser forms of labor, but also to offer them those tributes by which the American male delights to honor the female of the species.

The gloom of this valley of humiliation is deepened by those countless wounds to one’s self-love that result from attempting to help a woman in anything that she regards as her peculiar domain, however keen her present disposition to abdicate it herself. King Alfred was berated, and rightly berated, for letting the cakes burn; but the beldame would have stung him with an innuendo or two, even if the cakes had been done to a turn, just because he was a man.

Our kitchen became the scene of a good deal of wrangling. It grew in part out of my trying to introduce a few modifications based on some acquaintance with the physical properties of matter. I resented the ex-cathedra pronunciamento: ‘These are things that you don’t know about.’

My ignorance had been principally about the inviolability of kitchen routine. That ignorance is no more. I realize now that every detail of culinary administration was formulated in remote ages, and has been handed down as a code executed with a fidelity beside which the observance of sacerdotal rites, apostolic succession, and the Salic Law seem the quintessence of wavering inconsistency. I have learned that tumblers first, then silver, and then ordinary dishes, followed, after a due interval of demarcation by pots and pans, submerge in the detergent soapsuds by a more immutable order of precedence than ever regulated Spanish grandees or Austrian duchesses defiling before a throne. Cut glass and egg-shell china always enjoy the distinction of a special audience. All this entails the formality of waiting-rooms and antechambers, the officiousness of court functionaries. Cups are grouped by class; saucers are segregated together as essential but inferior things; dishes are drawn up according to size, glasses by the cut of their coats or the length of the stems from which they spring. Room for these marshalings is provided in advance, with the meticulous precision that regulates the parking of artillery or the evolutions of cavalry.

I have learned that the ragged remnants of priestly and patriarchal function that have survived in this flippant, degenerate age drop from the head of the house when pure altruism impels him to penetrate the shades of the kitchen and seek initiation in its unsavory mysteries. To modify immemorial practices, merely to depart from them inadvertently by some simple natural act, is to be overwhelmed by a wave of vituperation that heals every difference between female members of the family and welds them into some sort of Holy League against the benighted male. To protest against the tyranny of tradition, merely to offer excuses for unwitting sacrilege committed, precipitates ebullitions of feeling that fully justify our neighbors in believing that a frightful family quarrel is in progress.

The latest feature of economic construction forces the denizens of adjoining apartments to have everything in common except their whispers. There was no whispering in the altercations that followed my wife’s reiterated, realistic descriptions of the way certain of her kinsfolk did their dishes. It sounded rather nice the first time she told it — how father, mother, sons, and daughters clustered about the sink with rapturous joy, making the labor a sort of festival. But we soon got tired of the pictured harmony, the May-day merriment, the flashes of wit supposed to mark their performance. When we had been working steadily for half an hour, it was maddening to hear how, with whisk of mop and flourish of dishtowel, these dexterous performers got through their corvée in a paltry ten minutes. We did n’t believe it, and we said so.

My wife, as the most expeditious performer and the real head of the house, claimed the right to wash; this compelled her to occupy a position between the stove and the door to the fire-escape — the hottest corner of the room. The rest of us wiped. Our concerted efforts were usually marked by a confusion and uproar that would have made the riotous deliberations of a Hungarian Diet seem like a Quaker meeting.

Once I emerged from my craven apathy to suggest that the model family excelled us in their culinary conduct by virtue of extended experience. We had been reduced to doing our own housework only since the war, whereas they had been at it for — I never finished that sentence. The speaker’s gavel — her mop, I mean — came down on the table with a bang, — no, a splash, — and Wiper No. 3 withdrew hurriedly.

When we first felt the invading chill of penury, my wife and daughters had announced that ‘father must not be allowed to help in the kitchen.’ Now, I did not always ‘ come back all tired out from the office’; and on Sundays I did n’t come back at all, for I did not go; and little by little I forced myself into recognition as a casual wiper. Of course, they could not go on holding such high ground, and I soon rose to the rank of a regular wiper.

Gradually the doctrine of father’s exemption fell into abeyance. My radius of action steadily increased. In periods of social stress when auction, moving pictures, calls that ‘simply must be paid,’ made it convenient, I was increasingly privileged to don the toga muliebris, or kitchen apron (it has been aptly remarked that woman’s true place is in the sink); and so, at the end of two years, with no desire or expectation of wearing the insignia or wielding the powers of royalty, I frequently found myself playing a rôle comparable to that of mayor of the palace. Certainly the younger daughter, through the limitations of immaturity, and the elder, through her accelerated maturity, — she is a freshman at college and comes home on short visits, — are in the fainéant class. Judith, aged eleven, already says unblushingly that domesticity has no charms for her, and Hypatia long ago declared her preference for the cloister.

It was only when I began to have the place more and more to myself, that I discovered redeeming features in my new calling. With full sway amid the royal preserves, I can be leisurely, deliberate, almost contented. If my wife has gone on a trifling errand, I work nervously, dreading her popping in on me with inquisitorial glance before I have put everything away. If her absence is prolonged, I can employ my own methods. That these methods are modified by those of the hierarchy I cheerfully confess, but they are mine none the less. I humor the fancy of the moment and treat myself to nonconformity with the rules of women. Throughout the long, long past those who have washed dishes have, in the main, been ignorant women sunk in the rut of custom. I employ little scientific devices, which prolong things, — yes, they do, — but give satisfaction. My work is thorough. The dishes I stow in the cupboard are clean. When I have held each plate under a stream of almost boiling water, impinging at an acute angle till every particle of grease has melted and run off (a newspaper under my apron shields me from the spray), the final immersion in the common bath is more to brighten it with the imprimatur of cleanliness than for a needed actuality. Things are dried in natural, not inverse, order. The first one washed becomes by long exposure the driest. Not having to rub and rub makes up at this stage for the length of the initial treatment. The entire process is lacking in that feverish hurry, that gallinaceous running hither and yon which make for nervous exhaustion and the explosion of invective characteristic of the overwrought female.

After a day of proof-reading and the more laborious and less satisfactory business of preparing copy, I find my solitary hour at the evening sink almost restful through the power of change. So purely mechanical, so automatic, is the task under my system, that I can think out editorials, review in my mind the day’s reading, or plan the schedule for the morrow. True, I interrupt myself now and again by an involuntary exclamation at the durability of crockery, but I do not mind a diversion which coaxes me to consider how much kaolin has contributed to civilization.

There was a time when the chronicle of crime in the family newspaper set me to wondering how I could make a living in case I ever suffered moral collapse and became an outcast and a fugitive from my class. These moments of doubt and questioning always ended in the crystallizing conviction that I had every qualification for a life of ease and comfort, as valet to the scion of some great family in America’s aristocracy of wealth. There was real enticement in the thought of wearing a master’s discarded but perfectly good neckties and waistcoats, and of surreptitiously drinking his whiskey and smoking his cigars. Now that alcohol has gone by the board and tobacco itself is threatened, this career charms no more; nor have I that earlier reliance on my foreign languages which made me confident of success as a courier. My ambitions come down as the wages of the humbler callings go up. If ever my innate propensities to vice break their bounds and disclose me to my little world as I am, I shall submerge, to seek fortune, without fame, as a certified, if somewhat desultory, scullion.