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Melanie McDonagh: Dishwashers – can't live with them, can't live without them

A strange love affair in the kitchen

St Teresa of Avila once declared that God is in the pots and pans; most Britons beg to differ. Judging from the fact that 70 per cent of homes include a dishwasher, modern Brits take the view that dishwashing is one of those chores best delegated to machines. Yet in a survey published last week of 3,000 people, which sought out the least trusted kitchen appliance, 71 per cent said they don't trust the thing to do its job and nearly half said that it is the one machine they expected to break down. Even given that the poll was commissioned by Vileda, which makes dishcloths, this is quite something. Why give house room to a gadget that doesn't work?

For some years, I possessed a small kitchen-top dishwasher, which served the sole purpose of turning cold, dirty dishes into hot, dirty dishes. Yet I felt it was my fault that it didn't work. Instead of returning the thing with curses to its maker, I persisted in washing up my plates before putting them into the dishwasher. There was no saving of time and labour but the great thing was that half-washed dishes were out of sight.

Six in 10 people do the same: they wash their dishes before dishwashing them. Yet this machine is the one kitchen appliance that most people profess to find indispensable, after a cooker.

Now that I own a decent, German model, those days are behind me, though I defy any machine to clean the tin a joint is roasted in. Yet it's still probably true that the chief purpose of the dishwasher is to get the dishwashing out of sight. There is nothing more depressing than the remains of a dinner party. But quite often during the course of a dinner you actually need the stuff being washed from the first course.

I once cooked a dinner for about 50 people, at which the only bowls available for the pudding were the ones that were merrily going through the industrial-scale dishwasher. When the machine had done its stuff, I pulled out the steaming dishes and spooned my lemon posset into them, only to find that what had started as a near-solid cold confection had turned into a kind of soup. This has its advantages. One friend of mine was employed as a dishwasher for several years in a neighbouring café, because human beings can get things clean and back in use in a fraction of the time it takes a dishwasher.

There's a generational element in dishwasher ownership. My mother would regard it as near-sinful to own one on the basis that it is a job she can perfectly well do herself. And people who think of themselves as green shun dishwashers on the basis of its sinful electricity consumption, notwithstanding the studies that manufacturers commission to show that they're wrong. It just feels more virtuous.

Then there are the people who profess to find washing the dishes relaxing: 56 per cent according to the survey. I suppose, unlike quite a few contemporary jobs, you see real results from your labours; keeping the hands busy frees the mind.

But there remains the stubborn half of us for whom the dishwasher is the kind of release from servile labour that Oscar Wilde once looked forward to in modern civilisation. The alternative to employing a dishwasher is not, for the morally degraded among us, handwashed dishes; it is a kitchen that is steadily overwhelmed by dirty plates and pans. Remember that bit in Withnail and I where Withnail threatens to enter the kitchen and Marwood throws himself on his knees in front of him to prevent him opening the door? "There are THINGS in there!" he says, tremulously.

Ah yes, I've been there, too. And for all their drawbacks, their unreliability, their environmental unsoundness, dishwashers are the one appliance that saves us from the downside of domesticity: the task that never really ends.