Sunday, March 7, 2010

How do you do? (the dishes, that is)

There exists a cultural divide between my generation and the preceding one, which to my knowledge has gone completely without notice by anyone, anywhere. This under-the-radar-ness is baffling, because it arises after every Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas breakfast, or family reunion. Anytime, really, that the two generations clean up after a meal...and that's when the great question arises:

To fill the sink, or not to fill the sink?

Because I don't often cook with my family (or any other "elders"), I had totally forgotten that They Do It Differently. But it all came back to me recently when my visiting mother kindly offered to do the dishes after dinner, and asked me where I kept the stopper for the sink.

Stopper? We don't even have one. The closest I get is a mesh drain catch designed to keep olive pits from noisying up the garbage disposal. When it's time to do the dishes, I just soap up the sponge, run the water as needed, and go to it.

I should say that I didn't grow up using this technique. At home, I learned from my parents to fill the sink with soapy water, give everything a good scrub, drain the sink, and rinse. But college changed all that; there, everybody did the dishes piecemeal without committing to a full sink's worth of suds.

I can only think of one explanation for my generation's one-at-a-time dish approach, and it's this: roommates. Two of the most important things I learned in college were how to write a paper (debatable, really) and how to live peacefully with others. The latter can be a long, contentious process in which one roommate is inevitably more domesically inclined than the other. So what do you do if your slob of a roommate refuses to clean up after themselves? You clean around them, and you only wash the dishes you dirty. And filling the sink with soapy water is not the way to do that.

That's what I did, that's what my friends did, and it stuck. Everyone around my age (a gentleman never asks, but I'm 32, so there) does the dishes one at a time in an unfilled sink.

Does this even matter? I think it does. It symbolizes a shift not just in gender roles (I have no doubt that previous generations of women have Home Ec classes to thank for their dish-doing indoctrination) but in my generation's overall approach to housekeeping. A scrupulously clean house was once a source of pride for homemakers, but that's a foreign concept for contemporary women and men. If we don't outsource our domestic duties (and many of us do), we do as little as possible in order to maintain order.

I'm okay with that, actually. I'll happily continue in my modern approach: I won't fill the sink with water, I'll soap the sponge as needed, and -- perhaps most tellingly -- I'll keep on blogging about it.

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