Monday, October 31, 2011

Learning to Love My Dish Pan Hands

On August 29, 2011, Hurricane Irene made its way into Maine causing severe damage and widespread power outages throughout the Northeast.

Fast forward two months and a freak Nor'easter dumps several inches of snow across New England causing some damage and widespread power outages.

Preparedness isn't just about getting ready for the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. It's also about being prepared to live without some of the modern conveniences we take for granted ... when stuff just like what's happened twice now (in as many months) happens.

At my place, we lost power for a very short duration - both times. In fact, in this recent weather event, we lost power during the middle of the night, and I didn't even know it was off until Big Little Sister told me the next morning. I just quipped, "No wonder I slept so well."

For my family the initial issue during a power outage is the loss of our computers, (but since we now have the ability to generate a small amount of electricity, that's no longer an issue). The big issue, however, is the loss of our freezer, where a lot of our food is still stored.

Neither of these two things are life-threatening losses, however, because we don't need the computers to survive, and we wouldn't, necessarily, lose all of the food. Worst case, we'd build a fire in the pit outside and start pressure canning the food that's in the freezer.

Living where I do, losing power seems to not be such a rare occurence, and I don't know how it is for other folks, but because it seems to happen (even just for short periods of time) with such frequency, I've tried to make changes to my life to make me less dependent on having electricity.

And it's not just less dependent in a "we can get through this" kind of way, but less dependent in a "we don't use that in every day life anyway" kind of way. I've tried to take as much of the electricity-dependence out of our lives as possible, and replacing those things with non-electric options - like the woodstove for heating and the clothesline for drying our clothes.

I was talking with a friend yesterday, who said she'd stopped using her dishwasher, but found that doing dishes was a huge chore. I don't disagree with her. In fact, the reason we have a dishwasher at all (and ours is an apartment-sized portable dishwasher, because our kitchen was too small and too quirky - the counters aren't standard height - for a built-in dishwasher) is that when I was pregnant with Precious, and we had four other children here, for a total of six, almost seven, people living in our house, I decided that keeping up with dishes for that many people, plus a cloth-diapered baby, would be too much of a chore for me. My friend said the same thing - that she felt like she was always doing dishes.

Now, several years later, we no longer use cloth diapers, and two of my children are grown and out of the house. We're down to just five of us ... all of whom are big enough and old enough to help with the dishes, and so in my house, it was time to let that appliance go.

To cut down on the number of dishes and the time-consuming task of trying to keep them all clean, we've designated a special cup, bowl and plate for each person, and when it's time to eat, we use only our special cup, bowl or plate. If it's dirty, we wash it, instead of getting a clean one from the cabinet.

Recently, my girls and I visited the York Museum and had the opportunity to share in the responsibility of preparing and then eating a hearth-cooked meal - like what would have been prepared back during Colonial times here in New England. At the end of the meal, a large metal bowl was filled with hot water, and we all brought our plates up one at a time, scraped what food (if any) was left on the plate into a compost bucket and then washed our plate and cup - with just hot water and a stiff-brush scrubber.

Even very young children can be taught to do this task - if the plate is non-breakable. We used metal (probably tin) plates at the museum. In her book, Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life, Jean Hay Bright describes having dinner with the Nearings the first time they met. Jean and her companion were instructed to pick from the wooden bowls hanging on the wall, and with some degree of trepidation, they did as they were asked. The question "how clean is that bowl?" was looming in their minds. After dinner, in answer to their question, they observed Helen Nearing simply scraping and rinsing the bowls in hot water ... and then, putting them back on the wall.

What Jean and her companion discovered later, though, was that wood is naturally anti-bacterial. A further study (aimed at the food service industry, but the results of which are applicable to a home setting) showed that ceramic dishes are also less likely to harbor harmful bacteria *compared to steel eating utensils and plastic dishes.

We still wash our dishes in soapy water and rinse in hot water, but it's nice to know that I don't have to spend all day long doing dishes, and neither do I have to rely on a dishwasher to make the task easier for me. I can fill a sink with dishwashing water and have my girls wash a couple of dishes each, and then, finish up the rest of them myself.

Or we can do, like the Nearings, switch to all wooden dishes, just make sure all of the food (where the bacteria would grow anyway) is off the dishes, give them a good rinse, and leave it at that.

The learning curve for living without time-saving appliances can be a little steep. It certainly has been for me, but at some point, it becomes just the way we do things, and then, when the power goes out, not having that appliance isn't a big deal, because we didn't use it anyway.

In the end, that's what preparedness really is about - not storing up a bunch of really cool gadgets, just in case, but rather knowing that one's life and comfort isn't dependent on something that can simply wink out without so much as a by-your-leave.


  1. I know this is going to sound a little strange, but for the longest time, if I only had a few dishes to wash, I washed many of my dishes in cold water and a bit of soap, except for the ones that had caked-on food (those got a splash of hot water). Intuitively I knew my dishes were clean.

    Anything cast-iron got dried on the stove anyway (a habit I would transfer to my wood stove when I finally get one), which takes less than 60 seconds on high to do.

    I use a steel or mesh scrubber, or one of several brushes (regular pot brush or a 'baby bottle brush' for cups and such), a plastic scraper and a thin-ish paint brush to get into nooks and crannies of sippy cups)

    One day, I was curious about the safety of my dishes, so I did an internet search about washing with cold water. Naturally, it grosses some people out thinking they aren't 'killing germs', but then they are reminded that you aren't usually cleaning your dishes in boiling water anyway - and so they aren't in hot enough water (or for long enough) to actually kill many germs anyway! To add to that, if the water isn't 'boiling', you might actually be adding to the germ count (warmth + moisture = happy germs). There's no evidence that warm water kills any more germs than scrubbing well in cold water.

    What I found was that it is the agitation and the rinsing off of germs that does the most good. Of course, the water would have to be fairly 'clean' water to begin with - questionable water in ponds would not count.

  2. I wash my dishes in cold water sometimes as well. Why bother starting the oil for a couple dishes :-)