Thoughts on Dishtowels

Or, as some of us often call them, tea towels.

I have a long and complex relationship to dishtowels, which in and of itself is probably a sign that I am, at some level, completely bonkers. On the other hand, the relationship has led to my developing what I think is an extraordinarily good system of maintaining my kitchen at a certain level of order and hygiene; furthermore, my system is nice to look at, which is no small thing.

I didn’t grow up in a family where there was a lot of thought given to dishtowels. My mother was not what you’d call domestic. I mean, she loves being at home, but she doesn’t much care what home looks like; and as for kitchen accoutrements — she has a weakness for looking at things that are tiny (mini cheese graters; tiny cups; tiny bowls) but doesn’t use them, for god’s sake, because that would involve actually cooking, or something.

That said, we had dishtowels; but they were probably bought at the supermarket on an as-needed basis, without too much thought to function or aesthetics.

But when I began to make my way in the world, setting up my own apartment, I went to a store called Cook’s Bazaar, which was on Crown Street in downtown New Haven, and I bought towels for my own kitchen. I needed them. I suppose in retrospect that some of them were really large napkins. But no matter: on sale, every one of them, the dregs that no one else had wanted to buy, thrown into a big wicker basket on the floor for sale at 99 cents each, they were handsome and they worked well and I was very proud when I did laundry and folded the them just so and then stacked them in my kitchen. The first ones I bought were white with yellow and black pinstripes, or purple and black pinstripes. I still have some of them. (They’ve been demoted to the lowest category of towel: read on.) I used them as towels and napkins. I remember the first dinner party I ever hosted: four people sat on the floor and we used my old trunk from summer camp as a dining table (covered with a vintage tablecloth I’d acquired somewhere along the way). We had cloth napkins. The food was probably nothing to write home about, but we had plates and glasses made of ceramic and glass and cloth napkins. There was nothing plastic, nothing disposable. Even at that age, I was determined to have things as nice as I could make them.

When the Mr. and I moved in together, which was maybe three years after that dinner party, we combined our collections of towels. His, he’d bought during his grad student days in Boston. I remember them: thick, meaty cotton towels that were white with fat khaki or black stripes down them. They worked pretty well, but also fell apart quickly. Not so well made, I guess. We no longer have any of them.

When we got married, we registered for things we could use (strictly speaking, we needed nothing, having been shacked up for several years already) and among them were a lot of linens. Bed linens and table linens and kitchen linens. I picked out table and kitchen linens that were red plaid on a cream background. I think Crate and Barrel was the company. They also were available in a cobalt blue and cream plaid, which was handsome. But I felt blue was too pedestrian. It was an odd decision. Our kitchen was painted a bright blue called Bluejay, which we loved, but I couldn’t face having blue linens. Bright blue and bright red together are not my idea of a good time. I doggedly registered for the red things — I thought they were so timeless-looking, I loved them — and we were given stacks of fabric: I think four tablecloths of various sizes, a dozen napkins, and probably a dozen towels. All of these things were very high quality, and handsome, and I used them happily for a very long time.

Over the years, though, I came to realize that I really preferred my kitchen things to be something other than red. Maybe my taste for the fiery and dramatic dulled? I don’t know. Though I still lust after things like shiny red enamel kitchen appliances, I know perfectly well that I wouldn’t buy them. I buy white appliances, when I need appliances. And accessories: I now favor certain shades of blue, pale yellow, and green. Colors I associate with the south of France, a place I’ve never been and don’t really have any interest in traveling to, either. I just like how they look together. And red doesn’t fit in there.

When we moved to a few years ago, we commenced, in a process comparable to pregnancy, labor, and delivery, designing and renovating the kitchen. One thing I promised myself was that when it was all done, I would acquire all new kitchen towels. And they would be blue/white, not red/white (or cream). I did already own a few towels that met the criteria. One was a set of French waffle-weave towels given to us when we bought our first house: these were white with blue and white birds woven into the fabric. There was also a set of flat-weave cotton towels I’d bought just because I thought they were so pretty I couldn’t resist. There were many blue and white striped towels that were a gift from my mother (we’ll get to those in a moment). The kitchen renovation began after we’d been living in the house for more than two years, and it took me a long time to feel the kitchen was ready for the new details, but I did a lot of research and eventually bought, with a great sense of victory, a couple dozen of the fine herringbone cotton towels one sees used as napkins in French bistros. The ones I bought have narrow blue stripes on them (I think red is what the restaurants traditionally use): they are beautiful. These, used in conjunction with the maybe 20 other blue/white dishtowels I already owned, served to completely overhaul how we used towels in the kitchen.

All the red towels: you’re thinking, “Hausfrau, what’d you do with all the old red towels?”And, “who the hell needs that many dishtowels, anyhow?” I will tell you. As for the red towels: I folded them carefully and put them in the bottom drawer in the kitchen where we keep plastic tubs for leftovers and my daughter’s plastic bowls and cups. Because if something spills, I want her to be able to grab a towel. She knows, she’s been trained: messes, you grab a couple of the red towels.

As for why we need so many towels in the first place: Dishtowels serve many purposes in our kitchen. I mean, duh: We cook a lot (regular readers may have noticed). So. The blue towels are for drying dishes; for covering bread dough while it rises; for setting down washed fruits and vegetables on so they can dry off a bit; and, of course, to dry our hands after washing dishes. Furthermore, I might use a towel to do something like drain whey from milk to make fresh cheese; I might use a towel to hold ice to hold up against my daughter’s scraped up knee; I might use a towel to catch crumbs under a rack of cookies that are cooling. People need towels, dammit.

So our kitchen is a normal kitchen. It’s true that we only acquired a dishwasher about 18 months ago, which means that for a long period of years — I’m almost 45 now — when I washed dishes, when we washed dishes, things were air-drying or being dried by hand. And if you’re hosting a party where you’ve got, say, twenty people being served, and you’re washing dishes, it means you need a lot of towels. My mother mocked me on this point, in fact, until the first year we hosted Thanksgiving. 18 people at our house, as I recall, and we nearly ran out of towels. My mother, who was helping wash the dishes, conceded that she was wrong to mock me, and ordered a stack of towels from Williams-Sonoma (blue and white striped; she thought they would match our Bluejay walls) and had them delivered to me by way of apology.
Now we have a dishwasher, but even so: when I unload the dishwasher, inevitably things are still damp. So I will lay them out to finish air-drying on a clean tea towel.

It is very satisfying to launder tea towels, and dishrags for that matter (and I use a fresh one probably every two days, though it does depend on how much cooking I’m really doing, and what kind of thing I’m cooking), and fold them, and stack them nicely on top of the breadbox, which is right near the sink. Need a towel? Not a problem. There are always more. I have received many handsome tea towels as gifts, and I have kept them all even if they don’t match my stacks in regular use; I reserve them for times when I need something really pretty for serving purposes. For example: when I serve biscuits, I like to pile them into a bowl that I’ve lined with a tea towel, to help keep them warm. A fine linen towel is perfect for this. We have a very elegant tea towel from France in shades of taupe jacquard, a gift from a world-traveling friend: it is used to line the bread basket, when I need one at a dinner party.

As towels get stained and worn out and develop holes — it does happen! — they get demoted. First they go to the spill-rag pile in the drawer (most of the towels in there, mind you, are in excellent condition, because they’re the red ones we received in 2002, not so long ago, as towels’ lives go), and when things get too ratty to be in there, they go to the serious rag pile, which lives in the closet where our washing machines are. From there, when things get too awful, they go into the trash.

When my grandmother died, in 2006, I got to empty out her Manhattan apartment. Among the many things that came home with me were tea towels. Her stash of towels was of surprising size, given how little storage space she had. I went through them all and took maybe ten of them. There were some lovely mid-century designs. Most of these towels have landed in the “ceremonial” category, along with the French jacquard towel. There’s one towel in that category which I find very ugly, though it has a great history: it’s one of those towels with the calendar printed on it. It was made by Vera (you can look up who Vera was — famous fabric designer of her day) and it’s from the year of my birth, 1970. I love that my grandmother saved the 1970 towel all those years, but I have to admit, I wish it were printed in colors I like more. It’s all 1970 earth tones: beige, yellow, orange, mustard…. my least favorite colors. But I have kept it, and I have used it, and it’s actually starting to fall apart. I now keep it at the very bottom of my stash, because if I keep it there, it’ll last longer.

I have not even begun to address, here, how some fabrics are better suited to certain jobs than others. (Which is definitely the case.) I’ve not begun to address how, in order to keep my working towels stacked on the breadbox, I’ve had to develop an insane system of folding the towels so that they all fit there; if I told you about that, you’d really think I was fucking nuts.

But I know people are judged by their towels. Even if you’re not conscious of your thinking about it, you’re aware of it, as a guest in someone else’s house: There are few things more disgusting than going into someone’s kitchen and seeing only dingy, old-looking — almost moldy-looking — dishtowels. It doesn’t inspire faith in the cook; it doesn’t make you feel that the meal you’ll be served there is a good one. There are reasons why restaurants use linen services to make sure that towels and napery are white and fresh. It’s not hard to approximate that at home, and I really think it makes a difference to me and to my family and even to my guests. I remember the first time my sister in law, who does not cook and never will, saw the blue and white towels stacked up on the breadbox. She has no interest in kitchens or cooking, and thinks I am a whack job, but she came in and saw the towels and grabbed my sleeve. “I really like that,” she said. “That’s really lovely.”

I smiled and said, “I know, I love it too. Thanks.”


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