Washing up: a note for beginners

I doubt there is a single new cookery book published which has a chapter of advice for the use of kitchen equipment which includes instructions and helpful suggestions on the best way to wash up.  I think with most of us having hot water always available, modern detergents and cleaning products, plastic scourers and cleaning pads, washing dishes is the simplest thing.

In my lovely birthday present, the Constance Spry Cookery Book by Mrs Spry and her friend Rosemary Hume has a chapter on ‘The Kitchen’, a practical guide to the equipment, tools and implements needed, as opposed to one of the earliest chapters in the book, ‘Kitchen Knowledge’ followed by ‘Kitchen Processes’.

To return to ‘The Kitchen’, there are two and a half pages devoted to washing up. “The following notes are not intended as an affront to the experienced housewife. They are an offering to the young and perhaps newly married wife to enable her, should she so wish,, to ‘mug up’ the subject privily.’

The chapter continues with actually a quite interesting history of washing up, eighteenth century silver cisterns and fountains used in the richest and most affluent households to wash up as the dinner progressed – the cistern Mrs Spry saw was for plates and was 4’6″ long and 3’6″ wide – imagine the amount of hot water needed!

She continues:

if it has not been your good fortune to watch a well-trained servant, an old-fashioned butler, or a Victorian maiden aunt performing the task of washing up –

… and who amongst us has? –

it is more than likely that you will hold it in poor esteem. Indeed in the hands of the slovenly it can be an unpleasantly offensive affair.

“An unpleasantly offensive affair”? Really? Mrs Spry describes a good butler caring for his silver by washing each piece one at a time, laying it on a cloth, then drying and polishing it before putting it away. She also describes how some old china cups were washed up, in the drawing-room, by two charming though faded hostesses after their visitors had left:  ‘warm soft water in a bowl and a snowy cloth having been brought in by the parlour maid, with a dignity no whit less than that of her mistress.’

So what should we do, to perfect this art? Obviously my way of doing it, plenty of hot water and detergent in a bowl, washing and rinsing glasses, then cutlery, then dishes, then pans, changing the water as necessary, then drying the lot is not the correct way to do it.

  • if you don’t have a double sink supplement your single one with a rinsing bowl
  • use soap flakes not detergent (if you have to use detergent take special care with rinsing so no smell is left behind)
  • a slice of lemon dipped in salt will remove tea stains from cups
  • use a little vinegar in your rinsing water
  • do as old-fashioned housewives did – boil your silver spoons and forks, dry while hot, and polish with a leather (this avoids cleaning with ‘plate powder’)
  • dry mustard rubbed on the blade of a knife removes the smell of fish or onions
  • fine wire wool and soap is the best way to clean saucepans (wire wool once used becomes rusty so keep it in a jar of cold water – you can also add left over bits of soap to the water)

What you will need:

  • fairly loose-fitting, rough-surfaced rubber gloves
  • one or possibly two papier mâché bowls
  • a rubber scraper
  • a roll of rough crêpe paper, sold for the purpose of wiping crockery or cutlery clean before washing
  • two or three mops
  • tea and glass cloths

… and here is what you should do:

  1. scrape the plates free of all food and stack
  2. wipe the knives and forks with rough paper sold for the purpose
  3. put knives in a jug of warm water and forks and spoons in a bowl of hot water
  4. start with the glasses, follow on with silver and cutlery, first in soapy then in clear water
  5. after spoons and forks are washed, put them in a capacious pan to boil while you finish the crockery
  6. have a folded cloth on the draining board to prevent chipping of china
  7. if possible dry while the pieces are still hot
  8. when you have finished put the wire wool in the jar of water, rinse the mops in water containing a little soda or ammonia – shake and put in a jar heads up, rinse then boil the tea towels

I didn’t find out what the papier mâché bowls were used for…

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