On doing the dishes

Dear Ruth Reichl,

Yesterday I brought home the last issue of Gourmet magazine from the library. It’s the November issue, the one with the roast turkey on the front. It had been sitting on the library display shelf for the past two months, never getting relegated to the dark undershelf because, well, there wasn’t a new issue to take its place. Sad, but true.

I pondered this fact for a couple seconds before scooping the magazine up and carrying it to the reference desk where I asked the young woman if I could please check it out seeing as there were no more issues and it just couldn’t sit on the shelf forever now, could it? She made a call downstairs and then told me I could take it. Oh, happy day!

Back home, I started reading through the magazine, page by page, front to back, like I always do. And then my eyes lit upon (I learned to talk that way from my mother; she doesn’t simply say “I saw,” she says “my eyes lit upon”) your editorial. I like you, and I like the way you write, but I’m usually not all that impressed by editorials in general—they’re mostly just an overview of the issue, all smiley-happy and I’m-so-glad-you-bought-me type stuff.

But this editorial was different. It blew my socks off.

In it you said that you do the dishes when you have company over. You said you like doing the dishes. And you said that you don’t think it’s right to have a stranger do your dirty work. Why? Because it makes you uncomfortable to have someone get to know your family on such intimate terms and yet know almost nothing about theirs. You also said, “The whole point of asking people to dinner is that you’re inviting them into your life. They show up for a true reality show, for a moment when they discover who you really are.”

This is actually old news, what you’re saying—my mother drilled into me the importance of having people over for home-cooked meals, as well as the value of cleaning my own toilet and growing my own green beans. No, it’s not what you’re preaching that’s surprising, but the platform from which you’re saying it—from a renowned, high-end food magazine, one that’s filled with recipes that (sometimes) call for expensive ingredients and with pictures of impossibly elegant people who look like they’ve never worked up a sweat in their lives, let alone stunk of frying onions or forgotten to grab a hotpad before pulling a casserole out of the oven (OUCH!) or gotten a wicked kink in their necks from painstakingly sorting through a big bowl of dried beans. In other words, the hosts and guests portrayed in the magazine are, at best, totally unrealistic, and at worst, a downright lie that only serves to undermine the cooking process, not enhance it.

Though the magazine was inspiring, so maybe that’s not altogether true.

(I’ve always thought Gourmet could’ve done a better job of choosing their models. Maybe you thought so, too? Maybe all the posturing got on your nerves and so for your final rant you seized the opportunity to say what you really think about the everything-must-be-perfect mentality? Your picture with your fly-away hair and laughing smile is not perfect, but it’s beautiful. And that’s classy.)

There is way too much glitz and glamour in the food world. Food writers compete to outdo each other in their efforts to detail the tastebud fireworks, and food photographers stage their pictures just so, no dirty bowls in the background. But cooking is messy. Plates fall and break (or, as in this morning’s case, my son crashed to the floor along with, and into and under, the contents of his bowl of cereal—neither the bowl nor the boy broke), pan bottoms scorch, kitchen sinks stain brown, and gunk builds up around the burners and down in the crack between the stove and the counter top.

Yet despite my mother’s training and your encouraging editorial (a professional who not only faces dirty work head-on, but embraces it as well!), I must confess that I get all tied up in knots when it comes to having people over for dinner. It’s not the food that stresses me out so much as it is the cleaning (I hate cleaning) and the struggle to juggle the demands of four children and a meaningful, adult-focused conversation. It’s enough to wipe me out.

Though it wasn’t a dinner, I think you would be interested to know that I hosted our church council meeting last week. There was really nothing valiant about my offer to host the December meeting; it was actually a rather calculated move on my part: the meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 pm, so I knew it would be dark when the guests arrived—there would be no need to wash the windows, dust, or pick up the toys and junk scattered about the yard—plus, the kids go to bed earlier during the winter months, so it would be late enough that my husband could take them upstairs for a movie and then put them to bed, thus simplifying his stress load.

On the appointed evening, all the commission chairs and the head pastor scrunched around our wobbly dining room table that I had covered with a faded (it dates back to 1997) red-and-white checked tablecloth and drank tea and feasted on white chocolate-sour cherry scones, ginger-cream scones, triple peppermint bark, and dark chocolate blocks while we did our churchy business. No one turned up their nose at my unevenly cut peppermint bark and my dangerously chipped mugs, or got irked when they had to wait for more water to boil for their tea. On the contrary, they were very appreciative; I basked in the warmth of their graciousness. By the time everyone left, the kids were all asleep and my husband was able to come downstairs to help me wash the mugs and bag up the leftovers, after which we blew out the candles and went up to bed.

As I write this, my eight-year-old daughter is washing up the lunch dishes, playing with the knives and the spray nozzle, dawdling as is her custom. It is soon time for us to get baths and head to church for our Christmas eve service, and I must soon spread that faded checked cloth over the dining room table and set out the (odd assortment of cracked) dishes for our post-service light supper of fruit, fancy cheeses, crackers, wine, and eggnog. It’ll be my turn to wash the dishes tonight.

Maybe next year we’ll invite some friends to join us for the meal; if so, I’ll be sure to include them when it comes time to wash the dishes.

Yours truly,


  • It's me ...Mavis

    JJ… you can wash my dishes anytime you like… mine may not be cracked like yours… but they are 10+ years old and have weird gray utensil marks on them… if that makes you feel any better…

    Oh… and don't worry… you don't have to clean your house or have me over for dinner… a simple doughnut party in the back yard will do… and as far as cosmopolitan photo's of models in matching JCrew outfits pretending to sample savory cold food… you could make it a costume party… and we could have blindfolds… and play a game of "identify that doughnut" for fun… with a useful prize of course… like a 50lb bag of flour or something…

    🙂 Merry Christmas…

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