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Doing the dishes by hand can be a joy. (Image: Archi Banal)
Doing the dishes by hand can be a joy. (Image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONKaiJanuary 22, 2022

The art of washing dishes

Doing the dishes by hand can be a joy. (Image: Archi Banal)
Doing the dishes by hand can be a joy. (Image: Archi Banal)

Cleaning the dishes is a mundane, everyday task, but it can be so much more. Charlotte Muru-Lanning explains how hand-washing dishes can become a delightful ritual. 

I wash at least three batches of dishes a day. Dirty plates, pots, cutlery, chopping boards, bowls, a French press and Tupperware go into the sink dirty and come out reborn. They dry on a Kmart dish rack with the help of the sun. And then I put them away. Eat, drink, repeat.

Around 40 minutes of my day is spent dealing with dishes. That’s 10 whole days a year with my hands immersed in Sunlight-soap-spiked water – and I’m aware this pales in comparison to the time many others spend on the task. It’s an amount of time that women who have rallied against the drudgery of housework might describe as “hatefully monotonous”. And while I agree that domestic labour is grossly undervalued, in my own day to day life I find that among the cacophony of dystopian-like news headlines, there’s solace in the mundane. 

When it comes to a meal, there’s so much emphasis on the recipe, the cooking, the ingredients and the eating. There are thousands of books and TV shows dedicated to doing (and enjoying) each of these to the best of our ability. But to me, washing dishes – though largely disregarded and sometimes loathed – is as much a part of the meal as all the rest. If a meal were a film, dishes would be the final scene.

At least part of my love for hand-washing dishes is a necessary response to my absolute hatred for dishwashers. Every time I’m told how lucky we are to have a dishwasher in our flat, I consider the myriad condiments or canned goods that space could have instead housed. It’s pretty clear these machines severely over-promise the amount of labour they actually save. If appliances could talk to each other, the dishwasher would be the laughing stock of the household. 

I am constantly being assured that dishwashers are more convenient and environmentally friendly. But these are rumours I find difficult to believe when you take into account all the rinsing, re-washing and bending over, the permanently-stained glasses, the careful stacking, and all the electricity and water they seem to involve. Mugs come out somehow too dry, Tupperware emerges oily and covered in dew. Not to mention that the dishwasher puts necessary equipment like the colander or spatula out of action for the two hours they’re trapped inside that giant cube.

If you’re rinsing your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, you’re halfway to having a clean dish anyway.

The dishwasher is to the kitchen sink what the CD player is to the record player. One is replete with warmth and tangibleness, the other is mechanical and hides the task out of sight.

There’s a tactile rhythm to washing the dishes by hand, which, despite the clatter, can be meditative and perfectly solitary. It’s one of the rare household chores that can be done standing still and without bending over. Doing the dishes is a time for clarity and both literal and figurative digestion. This is especially true if you manage to clean your dishes as you cook – washing the mixing bowls and chopping knives as you wait for water to boil or rice to finish steaming. Your meal will taste immensely better if the majority of your dishes are done before you sit down to eat. 

Dish-washing is an important but disregarded part of a meal. (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

At the same time, washing dishes can be delightfully raucous when shared among a group of dinner guests, flatmates or family members – each vying for a dish to wash, dry or put away. And each finessing their tea towel flicks. There’s a satisfaction in tactically chipping away at a task in such a way that each person’s pace is set in response to those around them. If you’ve spent time in a marae kitchen, you’ll know there’s comfort and purpose to be found in helping with the dishes.

It would be remiss of me to talk about dishes without a mention of feminism. The kitchen has for a long time been used to help engineer society in terms of gender, class and race. And domestic work like cleaning dishes has helped trap women within the unpaid, domestic sphere. “Innovations” like the dishwasher, celebrated for liberating women from household drudgery, often instead added complexity, helped to justify the expectation of balancing paid work with running a family home, and in some cases, relied on women who are very often non-white and poor to do those jobs instead. For that reason, I’d argue that in the case of dish washing, it’s not the task that’s bad, it’s the way the task has been socialised. The solution to that is a communal approach to doing the dishes. Helpfully, few household tasks are better suited to reciprocity than this one.

Hand-washing the dishes can be a beautiful synergy of organic flow if done right. It can be as easy as putting away a few of your flatmate’s dry dishes before adding yours to the drying rack, or picking up the tea towel at the end of a meal enjoyed at someone else’s place. It’s about sharing the load. 

A few tips to elevate your dish washing:

  1. Start with the cleanest items
  2. Rinse off the suds
  3. If you can help it, don’t stack things in the sink
  4. Air-dry dishes upside down or on an angle
  5. Find yourself a well-designed dish rack
  6. Try not to leave your dishes till the next day
  7. Dish brushes are annoying – use a scrubby cloth instead. I’m a huge fan of Korean crochet dish sponges.
  8. Swap out those wispy tea towels for a few good ones. You can often find good quality retro ones on Trade Me or in op shops. 
  9. If you don’t need to fill a whole sink pop a bowl in the sink instead.
  10. Use gloves or keep a bottle of hand cream by the sink.
Keep going!