DeVoto, Avis: on “clean as you go” cooking

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Over the summer, I was browsing cookbooks at Parker & Otis here in Durham, looking for birthday gifts for various family members, and ran across a book of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto called As Always, Julia, which I was unable to pass by without purchasing as a birthday gift for myself. I started reading it over Thanksgiving and just love it. The letters span from 1951 — when Julia Child sent Bernard DeVoto a gift of a kitchen knife (in response to an essay in Harper’s magazine about how terrible American knives were), and received a letter in return from his wife Avis, who worked as his secretary — to  1961 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published.

Reading so much detail about what went in to creating the cookbook made me think about the Julie/Julia Project and what happened when someone actually tried to make all of the recipes. Which has resulted in my own little Julie/Julia project. (Fortunately my project is much less demanding than either Julia Child’s creation of the cookbook, or Julie Powell’s execution of it. Though at the same time not likely to result in world renown as a famous chef or a book-and-movie deal for me. But my time will come. I’m sure.)

So for my project, I have read (or am in the process of reading), in addition to the Julia and Avis letters, both of Julie Powell’s books, and after much fruitless clicking and “Page Not Found” messages, I finally managed to locate the original Julie/Julia Project on the Wayback Machine, so I am reading through all 365 days of that.

One of the notable features of the project, mentioned in both the Julie and Julia book and frequently remarked upon in the blog posts, was that Julie and Eric Powell found themselves drowning in dirty dishes, pretty much all the time. Eric was the designated dishwasher and often wasn’t able to keep up. And the interesting thing is that Avis mentioned this very issue in a letter written to Julia on February 1, 1955. She said:

Also been thinking about something Louisette lighted on during the short time she was here. She wondered if Americans would bother to do cooking that meant getting every pot and pan in the kitchen dirty. Wish I’d had time to go into it with her. Because I am deeply convinced that it just is not necessary to let everything pile up to be washed. I suppose it is a sort of fixation of mine. I certainly had it drummed into me thoroughly by my old ma. And I wish you would write something about it. It is so easy to wash up as you go along — absolutely no soap needed. Everybody who reads your book will have a kitchen where the water is continually hot. All that is needed is plenty hot water coming out of the faucet, and a brush. The nylon ones stand up better, but ordinary Fuller Brush sink brushes do very well. Finish with a pan, take ONE MINUTE to stick it under the hot water faucet and brush it out. Turn it upside down to drain and it will be dry in a few minutes. No soap. I just never use soap on utensils, except the detergent that goes into the dishwasher. And it works on the very greasiest of pans, roasting pans and everything, if you do it at once. If you are dishing up, and hurrying to get things hot to the table, have a sinkful of very hot water and put your bulb baster, meat rack, thermometer, skewers and the like in and let them soak. After dinner, use the brush and the running hot water and they are done. I realize this is very hard to knock into people. My last maid was a dream, and a wonderful cook, but she would let the potato pan and the ricer and the strainers sit around and dry hard every time, and I suppose it never entered her dear little head that she spent half an hour extra in the kitchen every night as a result. Let alone wear and tear on pans. I suppose you noticed the way I snatched things from you last summer and washed them up and I hope I didn’t get on your nerves. I just cannot bear to have things pile up. I’ve only seen one article saying all this, and it was in Gourmet sometime back and written by a man who felt as strongly about it as I do, bless him.

All I could think about when I read that was that if only Eric and Julie had taken that strategy to heart when they started, things might have turned out differently.

I know that I myself am not so good about cleaning everything as I go, but I’m very good about rinsing things off before they get all dried up and hardened. And it really does save a lot of hassle.

Go Avis.

[And a side note on the subject line: I remembered reading about the dishwashing thing but knew I hadn’t marked the page. Last night when I went to see if I could find it, I started with the index, and the index for this book is fantastic! There was actually an entry for the exact thing I was looking for: DeVoto, Avis: on “clean as you go” cooking. Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and your great indexer for this book! All hope is not lost for the publishing industry.]

5 Responses to “DeVoto, Avis: on “clean as you go” cooking”

  1. Liz Adams Says:

    I must find this book of letters! about the Julie/Julia messy kitchen– I think the mess was not just in the kitchen. She sounded pretty hopeless on all the housekeeping front, actually.

    But I do clean as I go, so as not to have a ton of things to take care of later, also I sometimes need the same pan again quickly, and can’t have it sitting in the sink. So nice to meet kindred spirits on this front.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, the book of letters is great fun, and yes, dirty dishes turned out to be the least of Julie Powell’s problems! And the mess she ended up with wasn’t limited to housekeeping.

    Though I will say that I am really enjoying reading the Julie/Julia Project blog, and I like her a lot in that, I think she’s smart and funny, and it’s a good story. It’s funny reading her work backwards — I read the second book first, then the first book, then the blog (though I am reading the blog chronologically). I think it might be better that way, there’s nowhere to go but up. The second book (Cleaving) is beyond bad. But the blog is terrific, and she definitely earned that book and movie deal. There was some serious work involved with that project.

    When I’m all done with the reading, including one more Julia Child biography (Julia Child: A Life, by food historian Laura Shapiro), I’m going to watch the movie again and see what I think. I am nothing if not thorough.

  3. LeesaB Says:

    Ha! I am notorious for leaving huge messes for the very end, and my husband is constantly trying to tell me, just clean as you go! Then you won’t have a huge sink full of dishes. Sometimes I tease him and tell him I was hoping he would do them for me… I detest hand washing dishes. I would rather dishes sat in the sink if our dishwasher was otherwise occupied.

    Though I do at least know about the soaking your pans trick. I’ve been known to leave pans in the sink or beside the sink, full of water. Lol. Apparently I need to take the extra 30 seconds and just rub the darn things clean.

  4. Robin Says:

    I find myself envying Avis’s hot water supply. Her blithe assumption that everybody has a kitchen “where the water is continually hot” is sadly mistaken. My kitchen faucet rarely runs hot enough to clean greasy pans without soap. Not that it matters, as I’m more inclined to LeesaB’s habits. Anything that will fit in the dishwasher goes there, and it soaks in the sink until I get around to loading it. It does seem that we all agree on not letting food dry on the pans.

    Here’s the thing, though. I’ve never cooked from any of Julia Child’s books, but I wonder if it really requires “getting every pot and pan in the kitchen dirty.” I find that recipes in general instruct you to use more dishes than necessary. For example, most bread recipes tell you to mix up the dough, knead it, then oil a clean bowl for the dough to rise in. If that extra bowl makes any difference in the finished product, it’s too subtle for my palate. I mix and knead the dough in the big bowl of my electric mixer, then cover the bowl and let the dough rise. You can pour a little oil down the side of the bowl and turn the dough around to coat it if you want to, but usually I don’t even bother to do that. The bread turns out great, and I just have one bowl to find space for in the dishwasher.

    The same principle applies to most recipes. Give a little forethought to the steps required, and see how many dishes and utensils you really need. If a recipe calls for several tablespoons of different wet and dry ingredients, measure the dry ingredients first, then you can use the same measuring spoon for the wet. If you’re chopping ingredients for several dishes, chop the mild-flavored ingredients first, then use the same knife and cutting board (with a quick rinse at most) for the onions. If you start with the onions, you’ll probably have to scrub the board before making fruit salad. I’ll never have Avis’s clean-as-you-cook passion, but I do make a habit of dish economy.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, I did think that about the hot water, as that is one of the problems that Julie and Eric face in the Julie/Julia project — they have limited hot water in their kitchen faucet. (And for a while they have no hot water at all, anywhere in the apartment, which is much bigger problem.) It didn’t seem to occur to them that they could heat water on the stove and use that to wash dishes.

    And it is true that unlimited hot water isn’t necessarily a given, but it seems that if you are running hot water to rinse each pot or pan as you go, it might actually work better, because instead of needing a lot of hot water over a relatively long time period — what happens when you try to do a whole sinkful of dishes all at once — you would only need enough hot water to rinse one dish at a time. Then the hot water heater has a chance to refresh before the next dish. Don’t know if that would make much of a difference, but seems like it might.

    And I haven’t made any of Julia Child’s recipes either (though looking forward to making at least one thing, as sort of a final exam for my little Julie/Julia project) but I thought it was interesting that a letter in the book specifically addressed a problem that someone who made the recipes ran into.

    From reading the blog, it seems like there is a lot of sauteing things then combining them with other things then baking them in the oven then making a sauce to go over it all. (Julie Powell has a funny description of the kind of cooking it is, she says something like the goal is to beat ingredients into submission, mix all kinds of things with all kinds of other things until it tastes good.) You might be able to get around that by using the same dish for different things. I’ll let you know after I try some recipes.

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