Washing dishes without running water

When I was a small child (age 6, I believe), my family moved to a mountainside.  Our section of road had no name, and the town stopped maintaining it 2/3 of a mile from our house.  There was no electricity, no running water, no plowing.  A couple of years later we moved to an equally primitive home in a more settled area, and lived there until I was 12.  This was in the 1980s, and yes, it was very unusual for industrial New England.  My kids seem to think I grew up a century before I did simply based on my childhood stories.

Cozy primitive

As I look back on my four decades of life, those years are the ones I remember most fondly.  Yes, we were different.  Yes, I often felt like an outsider because of it.  No, life was not miserable.  We had modern conveniences.  I saw the Challenger explode on the TV that was powered by a car battery.  I had a battery operated radio (not a boombox, a nice compact radio).  The wood stove kept our house cozy on the coldest days (we never had a green Christmas – the idea was preposterous to me back then, and about as likely as a blizzard in July).

Washing dishes

I remember torturous times when I was required to wash the day’s dishes.  I suspect most kids hate hand washing dishes, but the task was more onerous by not having running water.  Let me describe the process.

Hot water

The first step is to put the kettle on the wood stove to boil so you don’t have to wash in just cold water.  We mixed some of the hot water in a basin set on the counter (maybe it was a desk, now that I think about it), then reserved the rest for rinsing the soapy dishes in another basin.  I learned how to carefully pour the hot water on both edges of glass dishes at the same time to avoid thermal shock breakage.

Yep, just like this.
Yep, just like this.
Pour the hot water directly from the pot into the sink, then cool off with cold faucet water
Pour the hot water directly from the pot into the sink, then cool off with cold faucet water

Order of operations

There is a proper order to washing the dishes by hand with stove-heated water.  This improves the longevity of the dishwater.  You start with silverware because they are the least dirty.  Glasses and mugs come next, being next least likely to dirty up the dishwater. Then come plates and bowls, followed by cooking utensils, and then pots and pans finish the lineup.

This system keeps the water cleanest longest.  Once, when I was particularly struggling to get motivated to do this chore, I took a dry erase marker and wrote on all the dishes the order in which I would do them.  (Thirty years later, my mother still has a melamine plate or two with blue marker on them.)

Rinsing the clean dishes before putting them in the drainer
Rinsing the clean dishes before putting them in the drainer

But why?

Why am I telling you this?  I believe it is a vital survival skill to know how to wash dishes when there is no power, or no running water.  Clean dishes help keep us healthy, and when a radical change in our circumstances puts stress on us, we can use all the help we can get. Whether you are out camping in the forest, or an ice storm has knocked out your power for a few days, we don’t always have the modern conveniences we have come to take for granted.

Also because I am procrastinating on doing that very thing today.  Our hot water heater burst and so we have no running hot water.  Thankfully we do have cold running water, so I don’t have to lug the water up from the well anymore.  When I was a kid, I thought my driveway was 1/4 mile long.  Now I know it was only about 350 feet.  The well was near the bottom, and it was a long way to haul a pair of 5-gallon buckets.  Now at least I can just turn on my cold faucet to fill the kettle and boil some water.

Your turn

Do you ever wash dishes in a primitive manner?  What tips and thoughts can you share?

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