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Edward Espe Brown

Excerpts from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections

Stories of Ed's life and practice at Tassajara and with his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki

Secrets Rarely Revealed: The Pots Come Clean

[p. 47]

When I had the opportunity to work in the kitchen at Tassajara Hot Springs in May 1966,1 didn't hesitate. Compared to the study of logic and statistics, psychology and sociology, which I was pursuing in college, the idea of a life of cooking had its appeal. I had gotten an "A" on my paper about alienation and anxiety, and I was just as alienated and anxious as ever. That spring, book learning didn't seem worth much, whereas cooking seemed so real and practical, down-to-earth and enjoyable. At Tassajara - still a resort owned by Bob and Anna Beck - I started as the dishwasher, cleaning all the pots and pans, mixing bowls, and utensils as well as all the dishes. The dishes I'd wash by hand before placing them in racks to go through a machine that gave them a sterilizing rinse. I figured out several things rather quickly to make my job easier. I felt mellow and competent. I worked by myself, did things my way, got them done, went swimming and lay in the sun. Life was beautiful.

The things I learned about washing dishes and cleaning pots were simple enough, but since then I've noticed how often people do things the hard way. I find it a mystery. In washing more than a few dishes one point is pivotal: Sort the dishes as early as possible in the process. Curiously, the dish-washing machine is the slowest part of the activity in a commercial setting; a person racking and unracking the dishes can work faster than the machine. So the secret of washing dishes is to make the machine work more efficiently by putting more dishes in the rack each time through the machine. At home the same principle applies: Sorting and stacking the dishes will greatly aid the dishwashing process, whether one is doing them by hand or trying to fit dishes into a dishwasher.

Often people's inclination is to grab the dishes as they come in and pile them onto the racks or into the sink without sorting them. Yet the dishes are going to have to be sorted sooner or later, since they go back on the shelves stacked in piles of the same size. When the dishes are sorted first, they stay sorted the rest of the way through the process; the dish rack can be filled fuller; and, once they are dry, the dishes can be stacked much faster: zip, zip, zip.

Another advantage of sorting the dishes first is that it keeps space clear for more dirty dishes to come in, which otherwise might pile up in awkward places and spill, crash, obstruct. Why make things so difficult?

At Tassajara the setup for cleaning the pots and other kitchen items included a counter where the dirty items were placed, a double sink for soapy water and rinse water, and some slatted shelves for draining things. Another sink nearby contained a large cone-shaped sieve, so that waste could be poured into it and drained, leaving solid matter to be discarded. This proved to be extremely useful.

Having worked in a great number of kitchens, I have noticed that people rarely understand what is pivotal in pot washing, but the fundamental secret is to keep the wash water clean! When the soapy wash water is permeated with minestrone soup, pan drippings, and salad dressing, it will make things dirtier (certainly greasier) than they were, and you will find the work aesthetically unpleasing and unappetizing.

I cannot think of a single good reason to do that to yourself when a simple and elegant solution is at hand, which, with marvelous coincidence, also solves a second pot-washing annoyance: When big pots and pans are washed in a big sink of soapy water, they can't really be scrubbed effectively, because everything is bobbing around in the water, and endlessly bending over the sink can give you a backache.

So, prerinse and prescrub everything on the solid counter next to the sink (or even on the floor if you are faced with a really giant pot) and then pour this particle-enriched water through a cone sieve, preferably set in a separate sink. Alternatives to the sieve-in-a-sink approach are to have a spritzer nozzle that can be used to spray things off or a garbage disposal. Once the pots and pans are "clean," they are ready to be washed and rinsed. This part goes really quickly; you race right through it; and you have saved yourself from washing everything in soup.

Okay, so I was a brilliant dishwasher. I worked hard, learned to bake bread as well, and felt calm and serene. When the cooks screamed or threw fits (which was comparatively rare), I'd shake my head. "What's their problem?" I'd wonder. "If I was a cook, I'd never behave like that!" About halfway through the summer one of the cooks quit, and I was offered his job. Within two or three days I too was screaming at times. The cool dishwasher was transformed into a hot-under-the-collar cook. "Cook's temperament" comes with the territory.

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