When I was younger and extended family came for a visit mum would do a lunch. On the day itself was an air of palpable excitement in the house, extra cleaning had to be done, a special lunch was planned, and no one was allowed to use the loo or make a mess anywhere until the guests had arrived. As the allotted hour of arrival approached me and my sister kept station at the front window listening for the sound of a car in the street outside. Meanwhile in the kitchen the kettle was practically kept at a rolling boil, ready for the cups of tea and a full debrief of the traffic conditions and journey highlights.
Later we’d all sit down for lunch; probably salad and cold cuts in the summer, or something meaty in the winter. Then with the meal over, the blokes would help clear the table and then move into the lounge or out to check oil in cars and have a crafty fag, while the aunts, mums and grandma did the dishes. Us kids were press ganged into putting away, and I always found that the washing up was where the real gossip, chat and exchange of views seemed to happen. Back then no one owned a dishwasher, and washing up – like shelling peas or licking the cake bowl – was part of the food production process. I remember the chatter mixing with the chink and clatter of dishes and the tea towels that put in three minute bouts before being too wet to use and had to be replaced by new ones. When domestic order was once again restored, more tea was put on, as was the telly and we all settled down, the world now put to rights.
I mention this vignette from yesteryear because a few weeks ago some old BBC friends came round for Sunday lunch. We had some special sixty-day aged beef that my friend Theo at the Ginger Pig’s Hackney branch had set aside for another customer who’d changed his mind at the last minute apparently; his loss was our gain is all I’ll say. The lunch was lovely, lashings of wine, tasty gravy, cauliflower cheese and roasties. The spuds for the roasties were Cyprus, a potato I’d never roasted before, and my friends did look at me a little oddly when I told them I had a practice run with one potato last night just to make sure nothing went wrong.
Anyway, with the lunch over I began to scrap the plates and run the hot tap for washing up. This is when my friend Neil chipped in with ‘let me help you with the dishes’. Washing up on your own is dull, washing up with a friend is a chance to confide and talk to each other in a different way. You’re both engaged in a task, so there’s all the dealing with ‘you’ve missed a bit’ and ‘where does this sieve live?’ stuff. This of course runs concurrent with the big life issues of love and loss. It’s a sort of duet, a dance; a totally different space and activity on which to host a conversation, different things are said than at the table. Let’s face it, no one ever says ‘ooh let me help you fill the dishwasher’, that’s just boring. You try it next time you have people round, make washing up part of the whole process. It gives both host and guest a chance to talk in a more personal way. You also end up with a nice clean kitchen, and all your pots and plates put back in new and unusual places.