Not to brag but I am probably one of the three best washer-uppers in the world. First proper job at a fancy creperie in my early teens. Just me and a WinterHalter 2000 keeping the kitchen in business. I would work ludicrous shifts and then go home soaked, like I had survived something. Really it was the kitchen that had survived something – it had survived me. One of the three best washer-uppers in the world.
The KP life. Plongeurs. George Orwell and garbage disposal systems. So much potential here. For one thing there is a rich seam of strategy running through dishwashing. Loading the machine – that is a tricky business! Especially when you are dealing with industrial quantities of stuff to get cleaned, and especially especially when you’re dealing with things that have been burnt on hard during cooking. Cheese, when burnt, can become a whole different thing to the friendly cheese that hangs out in your fridge. I have a cut running down the side of my palm that looks really nasty. It is really nasty! Knife? People will ask. Broken glass? No sir. That cut is from a piece of cheese, that had been blasted until it was brittle and sharp. I swoon a little to think about it. To think of that day!
But the strategy and the danger is only a part of what makes dishwashing fascinating. Ditto the fact that dishwashers, like Samurai or whatever, like to live by a code. We are not ostentatious. We are certainly not highly paid. But there are good dishwashers and bad dishwashers, and the good dishwashers take a certain degree of pleasure in terms of what they can do with the sheen on a wineglass. The good dishwashers know which parts of a teapot collect tannin stains that most people miss – the spout and under the spout where there is often an ornamental ridge. (Also a funny little dot at the very top of the handle.) The good dishwashers know that bad restaurants can be spotted not by what’s on the plate but what’s left crusted underneath it.
Seriously, though. Let us talk about pots and pans. The more I think about my dishwashing career the more I think about pots and pans. Plates and saucers are just plates and saucers. Clean them, don’t drop them, stack them somewhere a chef can get to them. They are not complex beasts. Ditto cutlery. Ditto – once you are in the zone – glassware. One towel to dry it, another to buff it. We do not need to get MIT on the phone for this stuff.
But pots and pans. Pots and pans have inner lives. They are superstars of the kitchen but they are also spoilt children – the best of them need parenting.
Take cast irons. Just the other day Chris Tapsell suggested that owning a cast iron skillet made you part of a cult. Guilty as charged. Cast irons need a lot of parenting. You need to season them, to fire them, and to keep them away from dishwashers lest you spoil that coating that builds up over time into a fearsome non-stick surface. The patinas! There are cast iron skillets that have been in families for over one hundred years, each dish cooked forming part of a lineage, a sort of chemistry of history that reminds me, in a way, a bit of the culinary equivalent of that spooky mitochondrial DNA stuff. Somehow this kind of stuff is not disgusting. It’s where we come from!
Skillets are just the tip of this though. I bought a wok the other day. My first, I am ashamed to say. And I am delighted by how much parenting a wok requires. You get it all shiny and clean from the store, and then? Then you have to give it a very specific kind of shoeing. You have to wire-wool it to get off the anti-rust coating. Then you need to burn it until it changes to the colour of one of those gasolene puddles you see in the street near repair shops. THEN you need to oil it and burn it all over again. Then it is ready. Don’t even ask about how you clean it. (Actually, I have read seasoning tips that go far beyond what I have just explained. Some are pretty extreme.)
The best pots and pans have stories. My step-mother has a pot that I would very much like to steal. It’s square, which is odd enough, and it’s extremely heavy. It has a lid that you could kill someone with. Anyway, what happened was this: in the war a bomber crashed near a village, and the people from the village ran out and stripped the bomber of scrap metal, and some of the scrap metal became my step-mother’s pot. If that isn’t the kind of detail that would enrich a video game, I don’t know what is. I don’t know what happened to the pilot and crew.