Saturday, 20 March 2010

On doing the dishes

It was good to see in the BBC4 documentary The Man Who Ate Everything this week ( that Andrew Graham-Dixon and a few other people are also fans of Alan Davidson and his wonderful Oxford Companion to Food. This entry, on washing up, is a perfect example of his mix of dry humour, anthropological observation, easy elegance and arcane scholarship:

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 … A better way of regarding it is as the climax of the whole cycle (gathering, preparing, 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 permit’s life processes to continue … 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.

As my favourite reference book, Davidson’s book just edges out Brewer’s Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics by William Donaldson – a good deal funnier but also, I suspect, rather less reliable.


  1. This is one of the great reference book entries. Although Davidson makes it clear, in a passage that you don't quote, that it doesn't matter whether the washer-up uses traditional tools or modern machinery, it's clear from his vivid and evocative language that it's the use of sink, mop, and linen that fires Davidson's imagination and gives the ritual qualities that are simultaneously mundane and numinous.

  2. Amen to that, Philip - if you wash I'll dry.