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date: 18 January 2020

washing up

The Oxford Companion to Food

Alan Davidson

, Tom JaineTom Jaine

washing up (or ‘doing the dishes’, ‘faire la vaisselle’, and so on) 

has in most cultures been seen as an activity which is not an intrinsic part of preparing, cooking, and consuming food. Nor has it been highly regarded, although the truth is that it is a skilled business calling for a natural aptitude, a discriminating attitude to the various means available, and considerable practice. However, the idea that it is somehow separate from the meal is the greater and more pervasive error. And it is not infrequently viewed, e.g. by Mr and Mrs Eugene Christian, as an intrinsically revolting operation; see raw food. But washing up terracotta cooking pots may not always solve the problem of taint. Hence, perhaps, the preference for keeping a pot for each type of food being cooked and explanation for the apparent abandon with which these pots were thrown away in medieval rubbish dumps.

A better way of regarding it is as the climax of the whole cycle (gathering, preparation, cooking, eating) and as a piece of ritual which should have engaged the attention of anthropologists and the like to a much greater extent than the questions which have tended to preoccupy them, such as whether food is boiled or roasted. The purification of the utensils has to be the final, culminating stage of any meal, the stage which in effect sets the scene for the next meal and permits life’s processes to continue.

It follows from this that the choice of person to do the washing up is no light matter, and that the person or persons chosen should be viewed as having a privilege. Whether they use traditional techniques or harness modern machinery to help them is immaterial; the responsibility has been given to them, and the honour of praise for a job well done awaits them.

The sight of a washer-up standing, dominant, at the sink while the other celebrants of the meal, typically, loll in chairs recalls irresistibly the similar scenes enacted so often in places of worship—the priest standing before the altar, the congregation seated, the timeless ritual unfolding for the thousandth time but charged with as much significance as on the first. As the utensils begin to emerge in pristine purity, as the dancing mop-head and caressing linen cancel out any recollections of the grosser aspects of appetite and eating, even the proudest shoppers and cooks, exalted by witnessing the true climax of the meal, must acknowledge the precedence of these acts of completion.