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Seattle’s Peter Miller pens ‘How To Wash The Dishes,’ a practical and poetic guide

(Photo by Catt Liu/Unsplash)

If the loaves of sourdough bread wallpapering social media and the empty shelves of pasta at the grocery stores are any indication, people are cooking up a storm during quarantine. But with cooking comes cleaning, and preparing three meals a day, every day, creates a lot of dishes.

Join the ‘Your Last Meal’ Quarantine Cooking Club with Rachel Belle

Peter Miller has owned the Seattle architectural and design bookstore Peter Miller Books for nearly 40 years, and he has a new book of his own called, How To Wash The Dishes.

How To Wash The Dishes is literally about how to wash the dishes,” Miller said. “It’s only sideways claim is that it’s not a terrible thing to read and it’s not a dull thing to read. In fact, I think people will enjoy it.”

The book begins with Miller’s preferred method of washing: a warm, soapy bowl of water in the sink that only rinsed dishes get dipped in. He prefers a dish cloth to a sponge, since sponges hold bacteria and a cloth can be disinfected with scalding water.

Miller’s writing, and the way he talks, is a combination of utilitarian information and a poetic way of finding pleasure in life’s most mundane tasks.

“[Washing dishes] is, in a way, the finish of a meal,” Miller said. “It has its own elements of being a final act. It brings the dishes back to the sink, and you see how well your broccoli did or you see how poorly your squash did. But if your thought about the dishes is no thought or if it’s a dread … as I’ve heard from lots of people, ‘Oh, I’d love to have people come over but I can’t stand the dishes part.’ If you want to learn to cook, you also have to learn to clean. You have to learn to finish, you have to learn to find pleasures in it. The pleasures are there, the details are there. With a little bit of system to how you wash the dishes I think it makes a kind of sense.”

Miller said the sink, kitchen counters, and dishwasher should be clear and empty before you start a meal.

“It’s like an operating room, and when you leave it, you leave it clean.”

The book focuses on hand washing dishes, but he’s not opposed to using the dishwasher.

“Some things, to my mind, aren’t meant to go in the dishwasher. You’re not meant to put your knives or your mixing bowls or your colanders or your whisks. They’re awkward, and they don’t stack, and they take up room. I think it says in the book that the dishwasher is the express train and your sink is the local, it’s the one for particular things.”

We all have a relationship to our dishes, our knives, our pots and pans. When I’m doing the dishes, I enjoy the ease of swiping a plate with a sudsy sponge. The sponge is the Zamboni and the plate the smooth floor of the ice skating rink. But I dread washing my mesh sieve and vegetable peeler.

Miller reads an excerpt from the book:

“When you’re washing the dishes you might find yourself having strong reactions to particular pieces, the way people do with other people. Some are your type and others not so much. There’s a place for sentiment when doing the dishes. I’ve used some of my pans and pots for 30 years. I know them, I know their dings, I know their talents, I can see where they were dropped. They’re always the ones to get the best wash, top and bottom.”

Dishes are often a task done on one’s own, but the task moves faster with a helper.

“Doing the dishes will tell you things and if someone should join you, it will tell you things about them as well.”

Should you let your guests help with the dishes?

“I’m pleased if guests help, I’m pleased if they sit. Most I’m pleased if they’re pleased, so whatever. I don’t care. If people want to help, give them a dish towel. The dish towel is this wonderful, subtle, quiet, brilliant ball player in the task of doing the dishes.”

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If you buy How To Wash The Dishes it will come with a bookmark with this quote: “You will always have Paris and there will always be dishes.”

Peter Miller Books is shipping all books during the shutdown. Check out Miller’s other book, Lunch at the Shop, which is one of my personal favorites.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram & join the Quarantine Cooking Club!

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