Thursday, 14 October 2004

Check up on it

…or check it out. Americans use more prepositions than we do; our own consumption is increasing but we still sometimes just check something. And we wash where they wash up. Or rather, when we wash up we mean what they call doing the dishes.

The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food deals at some length with this chore in an entry, not intended to be taken very seriously, which appears between the entries for Washington Clams and Wasps (the latter is included in this book about food because Australian Aborigines eat their larvae and the Japanese of Nagano eat their pupae).
It goes as follows:
Washing up 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.

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.

I guess the author, Alan Davidson, after twenty years of work writing the book, felt as he neared the end that he could relax and include this tongue-in-cheek item.


PerfectlyVocal said...

"It follows from this that the choice of person to do the washing up is no light matter"

I had a friend (male, of course) who insisted that women typically had smaller feet than men so that they could stand nearer to the sink, and were obviously the better choice to do the washing up.

I suppose that "and the honour of praise for a job well done awaits them." is some small consolation.

Tony said...


ruth said...

But when Americans 'check' something, it means something different. Like a coat, for example, into the cloakroom, where the coat-check girl or guy will give you a check stub. Or it's part of the checks-and- balances type of thing. When they check out, of course, they expect a bill, unless checking out of life itself, when the family may have to foot the bill.

Tony said...

Yes indeed, Ruth, thank you.
I find it slightly frustrating that your name link doesn't go anywhere. Not important, really, just idle curiosity wondering whether you are a senior professor of English at Harvard or a first-year student in the American Culture Program at Vassar.
Regards, anyway.
P.S. Or, of course, a Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.