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Doing Dishes and the Culture of Kitchen Clean Up

How you doin?.... your dishes? A long convoluted path of method testing has brought me to conclude that there is only one and right way to do dishes. Some may say, "You have the right to your own wrong opinion," but I'm here to tell you, it's my way or the highway!

William's Grandma, Lil' Flo, with her apron probably just finished

doing the dishes or hanging the laundry.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, in order to do the dishes, I would stand at my outdoor pila (a water storage tank with a drainboard for laundry and dishes built in) dabbing a scrub pad into a tub of solid dish soap, scrubbing away the bits and schmears of food, and with the help of a small plastic bowl, dip and rinse as sparingly as I could. Water was in short supply as the township only opened the village tap from the gravity flow system that was piped and stored in another tank fed from a spring in the mountains above, once a day to allow folks to fill their private tanks. If the village tap was on, I could take a cold shower and flush a toilet in my outdoor bathroom.

Image borrowed from

The fact that I had a pila, toilet and shower was a complete luxury in this tiny rural area of Honduras. Some people didn't even have a pila and had to carry water in jugs from the community tap. If the tap wasn't on, all washing was done with a small plastic dish pour-over style. In the world of showering, we called it taking a "bucket bath." I'd warm (using a propane stove - another luxury) and fill a small bucket of water, and as sparingly as possible, dribble it over me, lather and hope there was enough to rinse. When I moved from this rural village to a small town, I actually had a sink with a cold-water only faucet built into a kitchen counter. It was basic, but such a luxury to have a dish sink right in the house. Here the dishwashing method involved the same dab of solid soap on a dishcloth to wash, rinse with water from the tap and set aside to dry. Here, I still needed to be frugal with water usage, but had a more consistent supply despite rationed electricity (used to pump the water) after Honduras lost its hydroelectric power to maintenance issues in 1994. In both of my Honduran homes, I learned to avoid critter infestations, immediate food clean up was imperative.

Before the Peace Corps, I did a college internship in Ecuador where I lived in a tiny village with no running water or electricity. There, families fetched water from the nearby trickle of a river to use for bathing, drinking and clean-up. The pila was not yet a thing in that area, but instead, homes were equipped with a jug next to a board across an elevated kitchen alcove that provided a sort of drain board for washing and letting water run out of the house. This open air system was crude and invited rodents (mice and rats) to cohabitate with humans. Not fun.

Not only did travels abroad bring dishwashing into focus, but so did visiting grandparents in my younger days. The culture of kitchen cleanup was completely different in each of my grandparent's homes. On my father's and step-father's sides of the family, dishes were cleaned up immediately after the meal. In the days before everyone had a dishwasher, one of the double kitchen sinks was filled with HOT water and dish soap, the dishes lowered into it and the washing happened with a cotton dishcloth that went easily into the laundry. If there were tough bits of food to remove, there was likely a scrub brush or scratcher pad available for the task. In those households, one person washed the dishes, while one or more rinsed and dried. Dishes did not sit out on the counter either dirty or dry. The dish drainer was only used for cleanup then stored under the sink for the next wash. After the dishes were cleaned and put away, every square inch of the counter, kitchen table and floor were wiped up or washed. The sink was emptied and cleaned of residue. In these households, the family was not allowed to move onto other activities until the kitchen and dining space completely cleaned, so most often everyone helped to make the job go faster. The grandparent job was mostly to supervise while the kids cleaned up.

On my mom's side of the family, there was a totally different culture of cleanup. In that house, too, there was a double sink, but no dishwasher. Dishes from breakfast, lunch and sometimes last night's supper were often left in or next to the sink. At some point during the day, Grandma or one of the girls (my mom or aunt) would get the dishes done. There too, the sink was filled with hot water and liquid dish soap, but the dishes were left to dry in the dish drainer instead of somebody tasked with drying and putting them away in the cupboards. With a dish drainer full of clean dishes, and a sink and counter full of dirty dishes, the place usually looked pretty messy. In this household, it seemed to me, doing dishes was drudgery. It was a task easily overlooked as there was always something better to do. And, as the dishes would pile up, I'm sure my aunt Susy, felt unduly tasked with this chore and resentful of her siblings who didn't help as often as she'd like. My mother's parents hadn't established a routine or expectation that everyone help with the job and that it be done right after a meal. It was a job to be done when it needed to be done...or when somebody got around to it.

When it was decided I was old enough to help with dishes, temper tantrums became part of my schtick. I absolutely hated the task! I'd stand at the sink so irritated that my whole body would itch from feet to fingers! I couldn't stand water on my arms, floating food bits grossed me out, and dish soap physically irritated my skin. Then I also learned that dishes washed by hand didn't always come out as clean as one would like, and Mom supervising, would put them back into the water instructing me to wash again. Oh, the drudgery! This fill-the-sink, wet-up-to-the-elbows-and-down-the-front, stand-in-one-place-for-what-felt-like-an-eternity method was not for me. I'm pretty sure I decided in my tween years that I would definitely have a dishwasher when I moved into my own home, and find the most efficient and easy way to clean dishes.

In fact, since owning my first home, I have had a dishwasher and have never filled a sink with water and liquid soap since! I have found the most effective and efficient method for dishwashing of all. This method I call "rinse and plop." I've come to love a clean kitchen and clean dishes so much that I not only clean up immediately after a meal, but as I am cooking as well. Every dish I use - rinse and plop immediately it goes into the dishwasher. The only time I use dish soap is when I need a dab to scour out the bottom of a pan. Of course, I use dishwasher detergent in the machine. But next to the sink, solid dish soap is my favorite (Thanks, Ecuador and Honduras!). I leave the little scrub brush in the solid soap and use it only if something stubborn needs scrubbing. Otherwise, all it takes is a quick rinse before plopping the dishes into the "DW" as I call my best kitchen friend. To manage counter wipe up, I do what my grandparents did - use a cotton wash cloth with hot water. These washcloths go into my daily wash and a clean one brought out each day. I never use sponges (they get gross and bacteria stinky), paper towels or cleaning chemicals.

By the time we renovated our second home, I made another significant change in my kitchen culture - no more two-compartment sinks! I graduated to a deep single bowl sink that would allow easy scrubbing of sheet pans and pots, as I knew plugging a sink was something I would never again do in my life! In my kitchen, absolutely EVERYTHING, except my wooden cutting boards, gets rinsed first then plopped to be washed in the DW, and everything comes out sparkly clean. Max, my son, was trained on this method and is great help with the clean up when he is home.

There you have it. The best and only way to wash dishes! It works for a one-person household to a multi-person home. Teach everyone this method, your kitchen will always be clean, and dishwashing will never be drudgery again. The only habit that needs practice for some is getting the dishwasher emptied right away so "rinse and plop" can work! In a small household where you run the DW only once a day, this is a great task for whoever makes the morning coffee. While the Bunn is brewing, empty the DW. Or, at least get the job done before any cooking begins.

What? You don't use a Bunn to make coffee? Well, that's a whole other conversation for another day!

From me, your friendly (know-it-all) farmer, sending sassy and facetious love from this kitchen to yours!


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