Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cleaning Up

Here’s another post about cooking (sort of), to give you a little break from my introspection and bellyaching about my being a true-blue country mouse living in a low- and no-income neighborhood.

Cleaning Up

I do get introspective when I’m doing the dishes, wiping off the counter and stovetop, rinsing my dishrag, hanging it to dry. (We don’t have a dishwasher. I mean, there’s only two of us and a small kitchen, so cripes, wouldn’t a dishwasher kinda be overkill?) Here’s what set me to thinking.

I watched a little bit of Food Network this morning, and once again, I was let down. That used to be my favorite channel; one of the few “intelligent” broadcasts out there, where I could learn useful stuff. But the past number of years, they seem to be having a problem with thinking up new shows.

These days they keep looking for a new “star”; they keep trying to come up with a new “reality” hook. And they're fixated on showing us diner food and how junk foods are manufactured. Meanwhile, their truly “cooking” shows have lost much of their sophistication, their focus on fresh, pure ingredients, and their educational content. Now most of their how-to shows seem to be about “quick home cooking” or “down-home home cooking”—Rachael Ray and Paula Deen, respectively. They use a lot of shortcuts. And the latter seems not to care very much about my health. (For more on P. Deen, look at this food blog: Georgia on My Thighs.)

And while those programs have a place and an audience, I have to say I miss Sara Moulton, Ming Tsai, and even Emeril Lagasse (even if he overdid the showmanship part, he does tend to cook creatively and from whole ingredients, and when he uses pork fat, it is for a good reason). I learned a lot from these “stars,” from technique, to theories about good combinations, to food history, anthropology, and chemistry. Good thing Alton Brown is still on.

So if Food Network is having trouble coming up with new programs, I have an idea for them: “Cleaning Up.” Think about it. There’s one aspect to cooking that none of the cooking shows has touched—in fact, you’d think it was a dirty secret, a taboo subject never to be mentioned on Food TV. And that subject is the dishes.

Those cooking-show hosts use scads of dishes and beaters and mixing spoons, little nested bowls for all their premeasured ingredients, etc. Once those instruments have had their few seconds on-air, they disappear under the counter for the invisible man to clean up later. (Or maybe they give them away to members of the studio audience as souvenirs: “Paula Deen used this very bowl for her eight tablespoons of butter!” Who knows.)

The fact is, almost as much technique goes into cleaning as into the preparation. Chef-writers as disparate as Anthony Bourdain (the dirty-mouthed, smarty-pants, New York bad-boy) and Edward Espe Brown (the gentle Northern California Zen priest) have commented on the need for the right tools—including having plenty of clean towels and sponges, good sharp knives, decent cutting boards and cooking pots—and (here’s the kicker) the importance of taking care of all of these. Just like a carpenter cares for the tools that are his livelihood.

Sure, I can see lots of corporate underwriting for such a television show (any company that manufactures dishwashers, dish soap, cleaning products)—but the show could still focus on technique, ranging from efficient arrangement of one’s kitchen to specifics of cleaning different kinds of materials (wood, nonstick pans, delicate glassware, etc.). And much more.

So the program could always start as the last guests are leaving after some dinner party, and the host could proceed to demonstrate how we’re going to clean up, efficiently, quickly, and thoroughly. Sometimes it could be in a small kitchen like ours, where there’s limited counter space and no dishwasher; other times it can be in a modern “dream kitchen,” which would give them an opportunity to show all the newest appliances. Or some shows could be about the cleanup after a barbecue party, and they could demonstrate how to clean and care for a grill and such.

Sometimes it could be basic a-b-c stuff—my dad is fond of joking about an old home ec book from his era that gave dishwashing instructions as: “First, fill sink with hot, sudsy water. Next, grasp dirty dish with left hand and washcloth with right hand (if right-handed).

Other times, it could be about what kind of oil to rub into your wooden or bamboo cutting board, or how to sharpen your knives, clean your cast iron, or how to properly outfit and store your kitchen tools and cleaning supplies.

Another subject that comes to mind is how to get kids into the cleanup chores. That could be a whole episode right there, filled with lots of adorable, audience-pleasing children.

Then there’s the whole “green” aspect—storing and using trimmings for a stock, composting your scraps, using environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, and so on.

What do you think? Am I off my rocker here? I suspect it’s a great idea. Especially if they could get cameos by some of their happy-ass celebrity chefs, who could talk with love about their utensils and how much they appreciate having clean tools, serving plates, and workspace.

One thing is for sure—as my cooking skills have improved over the years, my kitchen cleanup has become much more persnickety and thorough. For instance, the first things I clean are always my knife and cutting board—because I love them.

I leave you with a small quotation from the end of Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Cooking (Boulder: Shambhala, 1973). Years ago, reading these comments helped me to see that “cleaning up” is an important part of the process, not drudgery at all, and often flavored with gratitude.

Being Good Friends

Cooking makes cleaning possible, cleaning makes cooking possible. It’s all the same when we are good friends with ourselves and with the world around us. To help us be good friends with ourselves and with others, with rice and cabbages, with pots and pans, we may need some rules:

Clean as you go.

Being good friends with the knives, clean and replace them in the knife rack after use.

Being good friends with the sponge, rinse and wring it out; with the towels, fold and hang them up, and wash when dirty, or before.

Being good friends with the counter, wipe it after use, and scrub sometimes; with the floor, sweep and mop. Get into the corners, and when you’re done, stand the broom on end or hang it on a hook. After cleaning a greasy floor, sprinkle some salt where it’s still slippery.

Being good friends with the dish sponge, don’t use it on the floor. Use the dish towel for dishes, and have another for face and hands.

Being good friends with the scraps and trimmings, make some stock.

Clean the sinks! Clear the drains!

Be friends with your friends.

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