Chapter 6 of The I Hate to Housekeep Book is possibly my favorite chapter. It’s had a huge impact on me, but I’ve only grasped this on re-reading the book now, after several years of housewifery and adulthood.
The first thing I realize, on examining the text again, is that the word “mingy,” which I thought I’d somehow adopted from Laurie Colwin, turns out to be one I’d probably first seen in Peg Bracken. Score 1 for Bracken. The second thing is that I have unwittingly used a ridiculous number of the tricks in here over the years. I probably got a lot of them from this book, and just didn’t remember it, but lo and behold here we are.
The tricks here are about being mingy — which is a kind of variant of being stingy; it’s about being cheap in cold and unpleasant way — ideally without having it be really obvious. How to stretch your money without appearing to be someone who’s doing precisely that; how to make certain things last longer, or last differently. How to make sure you’re really getting the most out of whatever it is you’re using.
I cannot count the number of times I have very consciously used the last scrapes of peanut butter from a jar with the last, unreachable spoonful of ketchup from a ketchup bottle by using them as the base for a sauce for chicken and vegetables and wound up with something I think of as Bastardized Malaysian Chicken. Adding water to the jar or bottle, closing them, and then shaking really hard means you can get every last bit out, and since the sauce needs water in it anyhow, there’s no harm done by watering down the peanut butter or ketchup in the first place. Plus, Bastardized Malaysian Chicken is really, really good.
And I am pretty sure that it was Peg Bracken who converted me from kitchen sponges to dishrags. I don’t remember when this happened exactly, but I do know that sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, I stopped buying kitchen sponges and started buying dishrags, and I’ve not changed my mind. Bracken doesn’t mention the hygiene-related aspects of dishrags winning over sponges, or the possible “green”ness of the dishrag over the sponge (of course, the Environment was not the issue in Bracken’s day that it is now). But she is correct about this: you buy a package of new sponges, and the colors are all bright and they look pretty and you go, “look at that, look how clean everything is.” And then after about two weeks the sponge starts to get disgusting, and it’s smelly, and there’s god knows what trapped in the little holes, and it’s gross. So you have to buy more. If you’re the sort of person who’s going to bleach and microwave your sponges, that’s fine, I guess, but the other thing is, eventually (and it’s a short-time-frame eventually), the sponges start to fall apart. Whereas the dishrags I use tend to last about three or four years before they crap out altogether; in my case, “crapping out altogether” means they get retired from kitchen use and are demoted to “housecleaning rags,” which is fine. Dishrags are kept in a stack above the sink; I have about 7 or 8 of them in constant rotation; they are laundered in hot water with the other towels and linens; and I never worry about them being disgusting, because if they’re disgusting, they’re about to be laundered.
Bracken observes that the truly mingy might crochet her own dishrags out of little bits of string or whathaveyou. I’m not that far gone.
Now, here is where the environmental movement, anti-fracking, vegan types, the ones who’re buying all those organic dishwasher detergents, should really sit up and pay attention. On page 68 of The I Hate to Housekeep Book is a list of the essential things you need to keep stuff clean. Bracken states clearly: “This list doesn’t include those pantry items — salt, vinegar, baking soda, and so forth, which you keep around anyway to cook with. We’ll come to those a little later on.”
But the Rock Bottom Eight things you need to clean your house and the stuff in it: this is a list that could be printed today in Real Simple magazine. It could have been a list in ReadyMade magazine (RIP, I still have my early issues). This is a list you see on a zillion websites where people are talking about living Simple, Authentic, Non-Toxic Lives. (Which is baloney: I mean, ammonia is toxic and so is bleach. But I guess we mean things that are toxic in ways that feel finite, that we can identify — so, I’m for that.)
So: the list. The Rock Bottom Eight. They are as follows:
- The Big Soap Jar. This is a jar you put all your little scraps of bars of soap into and you add water and wind up with soap jelly you can use for pretty much anything. These days, when people insist on using liquid soap (which I think is stupid, and, basically, a scam), this might not seem obvious; but to turn soap scraps into liquid soap you can use to clean all sorts of things is pretty intelligent. Tiny bars of soap are annoying. No one wants to go into the guest bathroom and see a sad, dried-up little sliver of soap. Unwrap a fresh bar and put the sliver into the Soap Jar and move on.
2. Washing Machine Detergent, for your laundry and other situations where you need detergent, which is not the same thing as soap, okay?
3. Cleansing Powder (here we mean something like Bon Ami or maybe Comet or Ajax, whatever floats your boat). Bracken beats Martha to the punch by pointing out that if the brand you buy comes in a can you think is ugly, you can decant it into a big copper, glass, or plastic salt shaker; or, you can use an empty glass bottle with a couple of holes poked into the lid of it. She also points out something very true: the fewer holes you open to the cleansing powder, the longer the can will last, because you won’t automatically use as much of it when you use it.
4. Steel-wool soap pads. I don’t use these often at all, but when I need them, I need them. Bracken’s hot tip, which is super-smart: to keep from using one once, and then having it wither or slime or rust away, just cut small sections off of the pad out of the box, as needed. And wear gloves when you use them, because steel wool does not improve the looks or feel of your hands.
5. Ammonia. “This gives your sudsy water more enthusiasm.” Indeed it does. My stove top burners looked completely revolting, unclean able, but I “soaked” them in ammonia vapors overnight in a Rubbermaid bin and the next day when I went to wipe them off, damned if five years of crud didn’t swoosh right off. Ammonia is amazing stuff. Unfortunately it also smells like death, so you have to be careful here. But Bracken is right, everyone should have a bottle of household ammonia around. (This is where another tip comes in, by the way. She advises us to use it to wash windows, which is all well and good — but the real hot tip is, when you’re washing windows, do vertical strokes on one side of the window and horizontal on the other, so that you can tell where you went wrong easily to go back and fix it.)
6. Sal soda. No one knows what sal soda is, anymore, except people who do taxidermy (hello, hipsters!). It’s some kind of washing soda that you can buy in a yellow box in the laundry aisle; Arm & Hammer makes it. It cleans porcelain beautifully and is a laundry booster and you can also use it safely to clean pots and pans you’ve burned the hell out of. It’s not expensive and it is a much more flexible cleaning agent than that bottle of Method Whatsit you bought at Target. I don’t even want to talk about Mrs. Meyers.
7. Bleach; or Javelle water.
No one knows what the hell Javelle water is, but it gets mentioned a lot in old housekeeping books. Bracken didn’t know what the hell it was either, but it turns out to be a bleach you can make yourself, if you’re so inclined. On page 71 she provides a recipe for readers who want to make their own bleach. You have to get a half pound of chloride of lime, and I don’t know where to get that (Home Depot? Agway?) but I tell you what: you give me a half pound of chloride of lime, and maybe I’ll try to make Javelle water. Bracken describes Javelle water as “a pretty stout mixture,” which I interpret to mean “this will burn the hairs out of your nose given half a chance” so I’m not sure I’d really want to muck around with it. A bottle of generic bleach is cheap enough, why make yourself crazy?
The last item on Bracken’s list is 8. Paste Wax. This is an item…. I don’t know anyone who keeps wax around for waxing their floors. I know that I bought a can of paste wax at a hardware store, one of those old-style hardware stores where the man behind the counter would set down his unfiltered Camel cigarette on the edge of the counter so that he could help you find the paste wax, which was, in fact, right in front of you, had you known what you were looking for. Yes, this actually happened to me once. Paste wax is very useful for taking care of certain types of floors but it requires real effort and real energy and I just don’t think sane people wax their floors anymore. I did it because I had just had a very nifty black and white checkerboard vinyl composite tile floor installed in the kitchen, and it looked awesome, and I knew that the only way to really seal it well was to wax it. I spoke to numerous flooring people about how to do this, before I got started, and it was, believe you me, a HUGE pain to do (the kitchen is not a small room; there was a lot of vinyl to take care of). I don’t intend to ever do it again. But I have the can of wax, just in case.
Bracken points out one of the truths about waxing floors, which is, it isn’t JUST that cleaning the floor before you wax it, and applying the new layer of wax, is a pain — though they are; it’s that the thing that makes the wax make the floor look so nice is all the buffing. Buffing is something that is probably best done by a large machine, the kind they have in all schools and hospitals. My house is not a school or a hospital; I do not have a buffing machine. So right off the bat, let’s pare one item off this Rock Bottom list: you do not need paste wax.
I would say that there’s one thing that’s not on the Rock Bottom list that maybe should be, though it’s possible you could substitute the Big Soap Jar for it: this would be a bottle of Murphy’s Oil Soap. I don’t happen to have any on hand right now, but for many many years, this was the stuff I turned to for washing floors and pieces of furniture that were so beschmutzed I hardly knew where to start. Some Murphy’s Oil Soap added to a bucket of water goes a very, very long way and is useful on many surfaces. It’s not particularly expensive and if you buy it in its undiluted, non-spray-bottle form, you can adjust proportions according to your specific needs, which is useful.
The last bit of genius in this chapter is the last paragraph, which points out something that should be obvious but isn’t. You need to make sure that the front of your refrigerator, your stove, your dishwasher, your desk, and so on, are kept clean, otherwise they are grim to behold. “It’s the fronts of chests and desk drawers that get the most finger marks,” she points out reasonably, adding, in italics, “Fronts are on the eye level of people sitting down.” So very true. This is also why it is a good idea, now and then, to clean the handles of your refrigerator and stove. YOU know that those smudges are just from you and your husband and your filthy child, but in general? It’s just gross. The instinct that makes you recoil from the crud on the phone in a public place (not that there are such things anymore, but you know what I mean) is the same instinct that will make visitors to your home recoil when they go to get more ice out of the freezer. Schmutz is not the end of the world, most of the time; but unidentified schmutz is no one’s idea of a good time. Even a hipster with a beard that’s filthy with old mustache wax should be able to grasp that.