I happened to catch this commercial for the few minutes I was watching TV recently, and aside from the obvious frustration with the whole idea of disposable plates, it reminded me of something.
A couple months ago I started listening to an old time radio show called Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a show that ran for about a decade starting in the 1950’s. The stories are exciting, the voice talent fantastic (especially Bob Bailey’s version of Johnny), but what I didn’t expect was to get culture lessons. Yeah, sure, there are some stereotypical 1950’s things that, if you’re like me, are just funny. Remember the 50’s obsession with Latin America? There’s quite a bit of that, for instance.
I remember in one of the episodes, though, that Johnny went to a friend’s house for dinner and when they were done eating, they both did the dishes together. Washing the dishes had simply been an extension of the social space created by a shared meal, and apparently, this was normal before the wide adoption of washing machines – and the marketing that sold them. Here’s a dishwasher commercial from 1956:
It’s pretty uncommon to find a house without a dishwasher nowadays, though growing up, I never used one. Why? Because most of my family used theirs for storage! (We also stored our most-used pans and cookie sheets in the oven – idk, I’ve heard that it’s a Chicano thing. And yes, you take the stuff out of the oven and set it on the stove when you want to use it.) So at my house, and at many of my cousins’ or aunts’ and uncles’ houses, the dishes were almost always done by hand, even after a party. I haven’t generally found this to be the case at other people’s homes, but what I’ve also found about my family that doesn’t hold true for many other people is our tendency to use the dining room as the primary social space in the house. It’s usually situated between the living room and the kitchen, the two other most-used social spaces in my family, and there’s usually ample seating and space for projects, setting up a laptop computer, or whatever else is going on that afternoon. In fact, the living room is usually where the overflow from a crowded dining table winds up!
I don’t know why my family does it this way, but I think this has a lot to do with our social concept of washing dishes comes from. When the gathering place is around the table instead of the TV, you’re still close enough to the kitchen to all feel part of the same conversation instead of being separated by a wall, or distance, or psychological barriers created by furniture. Maybe this is what most Americans lost at some point around the middle of the century – the ability to think of the kitchen as an inherently social gathering place for friends and family alike, instead of a source of chores and drudgery.
The pro-cooking movement that started thanks to Food Channel celebrity chefs and has just exploded in recent years to encompass gastronomy, the DIY ethic, and agriculture itself seems to be eroding that mindset a little bit. Disposables are simply going out of fashion these days due to mainstream ecological concerns and people are looking for alternatives: mason jar cups, palm leaf plates and bamboo cutlery, cloth napkins, and so on are en vogue.
I think, though, until we can start thinking of actually doing the dishes as less of a chore and more of just an extension of the meal itself, single-use plates and utensils will continue to be appealing to too many people.
What if the “here” from the “be more here” slogan was where the food prep and cleanup is?
(Dixie is owned by the Georgia-Pacific paper company, which is owned by the Koch brothers, by the way. Ew.)