Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just Air

I'm no expert in the kitchen, but as I've spent more time there, learning by doing, reading, or phoning Mom, I've realized that my skills are greater than I thought. While Mom was feeding and calving out cows, melting snow for wash water, helping put up hay and build a house, and shooing the three of us kids outside, she still managed to teach me some fundamentals.

One of these is the power of air.

There are very few cleaning products in my kitchen. Strictly for cleaning, there are just two: dish detergent and hand soap. For both cooking and cleaning, of course, there's baking soda and there's vinegar. I don't use anything labelled "anti-bacterial" or "kills 99% of household germs." For disinfection, I rely on a few simple habits and the power of air.

Bacteria and other maligned and mistrusted microbes are living things. They need food, and they need water. Take away one of these needful things, and they won't grow.

Simple washing takes care of the bulk of it, by removing most of the material that could be food for microbes, and sending many of the microbes themselves down the drain at the same time. Still, there are undoubtedly a few microbes left clinging to dish and sink and counter surfaces, no matter how clean those surfaces look.

It only takes one bacterium, lingering on a surface when the next round of food arrives, to grow and multiply into a problem. It might be a smelly problem, or it might be an invisible, scentless, tasteless, toxic problem. How do I dare live without powerful disinfectants?

I don't. There is a very powerful disinfectant all through my kitchen, all the time: air.

All I need to do is make sure it has a chance to work.

When I wash dishes, I set them in a rack to dry, and make sure they are not nested closely or holding any puddles. When I put them away, I check to be sure they really are dry - no films of water get trapped in the stack of plates.

When I store jars and water bottles, I leave the lids loose. If you tighten them, you may trap just enough moisture in there to keep some microbes alive, and when you open the lid weeks or months later, there will be an odor. (I'm lucky to live in a dry climate - I don't know if this trick would work where it's humid.)

I launder the dishcloths often, but if I'm going to reuse one before laundering it, I rinse it (to take away the microbes' food) and spread it out over the faucet so it will dry quickly. Watching how others treat the dishcloth made me recognize my own habit of pursuing dryness. Sometimes they would leave it in a damp mound in the bottom of the sink; once someone hung it with its edge trailing in dishwater left to soak! Didn't they know it would never dry out that way? Did they even know the reason for letting it dry?

My mom got us through years with no running water and no refrigerator, with never a single case of food poisoning. She was careful with leftovers, holding them in a somewhat cooler spot in the house or sometimes in a pail dug into the ground outside and covered with an insulated lid, and using them up quickly. She did her canning in a pressure cooker, following instructions to the letter, and never used any canned food that seemed even slightly off. But there were subtle things she did, too. Without even realizing it, I picked up her habits of keeping things reasonably clean and getting them thoroughly dry between uses.

I can never remember how to make a white sauce, though she recited the three ingredients to me often, but that's okay, it's in the book she gave me for our wedding. What's more important is the stuff I didn't even know she was teaching me, the stuff I will never forget.


Tim Hodgens said...

Laura: I just love this posting.

It makes perfect sense to me and there is something so elemantal and simple about it. To connect current habitual behaviors to their origins completes the circle and renews the wisdom of the original intent in the behavior.

I also like how you broke it down to food and water. Remove one and the process stops. It's a circuit breaker. On a macro level, it speaks to the importance of our food and water supplies.

A question: would you care to ask your mother how she came to use that practise of air drying and making sure the towels were not sitting around in a damp state? Was she taught that, or did it come from personal experience, etc.

Be well,


Madcap said...

I think I'm not getting out enough - people don't hang their dishcloths to dry? Really?

That is one blessed thing about our dry climate - it discourages the mold and bacteria. I count that among the other blessings of the place, like no poisonous snakes. (At least here. You "southerners" might be a different story.)

arcolaura said...

Tim - I will ask her. I would guess that it's a combination of early learned ways of doing things, combined with later understanding from her university biology studies.

Madcap - well, the people I had in mind are still learning. But I have seen news of a study of kitchen cloth use, and how some people actually culture and disperse bacteria with their constantly damp cloths.

No poisonous snakes right around here (too wet for them? or more likely too cold), but rattlesnakes are close enough that I can imagine them arriving during my lifetime. Not nearly as toxic as those Australian critters, though. Garth is determined to go there, to give the kids the same adventure he got as a teenager, and I just don't get it.

Tim Hodgens said...


Maybe I should give a bit more on why I was wondering about your mom's learning curve.

One of the parts of your posting was the "thoroughly" part of the thoroughly dry dishes. As I said, drying dishes makes perfect sense to me and as I think about it, my wife will say to me: "make sure they are dry." And, yes, I sometimes cut corners but now that I know the rest of the story I won't (probably).

But I've also been thinking about putting up a piece on my site about "bird flu" and how that would play out, etc. Sooooo, I was wondering if your mother may have had an experience in her own personal life or in her community which really reinforced the importance of "thoroughly" dry.

For example, if there was a polio outbreak around where she lived or with e.g., her parents or grandparents if they were effected by the pandemic flu (approximately 1918 - 1920.) Was that a contributing factor in the sense of trying to control something and that was what other people were saying to do, etc.

That may be a bit complicated but that is where the question was actually coming from.

arcolaura said...

Tim - Wayne at Niches has posted about bird flu preparedness. I don't think this is the post I was thinking of - he went into more of the scenarios and rationale for preparation. I'll see if I can find it.

Regarding thorough drying - I love the fact that air drying is best. It saves me so much toweling and laundry.

Still haven't had a chance for a chat with Mom. I vaguely recall her talking about both polio and the flu pandemic (her parents would have been pre-teens) but nothing specific.