When the movie Rachel Getting Married was released this fall, Chip Brantley, a co-founder of the recipe website cookthink.com, figured he could wait to see it on DVD. But when he heard about the dishwasher-loading contest between the father of the bride and the groom-to-be, he headed to see it in the theatre. Conflict over dishwasher loading has long fascinated Brantley, who’s based in Montague, Mass. He even wrote a blog, Dishwasher 101, on his site in 2006 after discovering some of his techniques (“I’m your basic crammer,” he says, “but I love good drainage”) were faulty according to Martha Stewart. To his shock, it became one of the most popular hits, with commenters debating utensil placement (up? down?) and issuing impassioned edicts: “Stop the prong people!” wrote one, referring to those who place glasses over prongs rather than between the rows.
Despite Martha and those owners’ manuals nobody reads, dishwasher loading remains a weirdly fraught topic, with approaches as varied and personal as fingerprints, and every bit as revealing. For some, it’s a turf war; for others, a spatial puzzle. The dishwasher scene in the movie, for instance, was inspired by a real-life showdown screenwriter Jenny Lumet witnessed in the 1970s between her father, the director Sidney Lumet, and famed choreographer Bob Fosse—two men you’d think would have better things to discuss. But they spent hours one night loading and reloading after Fosse critiqued Lumet’s bottom-rack system, contending that a reorganization would provide 10 per cent more room.
Cookbook author Bonnie Stern has seen her share of dishwasher frictions. “It’s a really big thing,” she says, noting that the mostly female staff at her cooking school have learned to compromise. At home, however, she quietly reorganizes her husband Ray’s handiwork. “I want all the dishes going in the same direction and I want them going forward,” she says. “And I know it’s Martha Stewart-ish, but I like all the same size dishes together.” She also always repositions the cutting board Ray puts across the dishes on the top rack perpendicularly on the bottom rack, even though it gets clean his way.
Stern, who’s been married 27 years, has established domestic détente on the topic. But David McKenzie, a marriage counsellor in Vancouver, says the subject can reveal serious “power issues.” “It’s usually to do with wanting control and oftentimes in relationships when little fights grow into huge ones, it’s about power and not sharing influence.”
But because dishwasher loading literally reflects logic (or lack thereof), it inevitably highlights differences. One newly married man who’s very methodical talks about “his system,” calling his wife’s approach “more willy-nilly.” He loads to unload easily, grouping utensils by format (“handles down always: knives up so top of knife gets clean, unless they’re sharp then it goes down”), even though Martha warns this can cause “nestling,” which allows crud to get baked on. “On the top level, glasses always go on one side, coffee mugs on the other side so I can unload section by section,” he explains. His wife just laughs off his attempts to discuss it. “She’ll say she does an equal share, but I do 90 per cent because the kitchen is more my domain. So when she comes in and disregards my system I find it annoying.”
Frictions also arise over what goes in. One happily married man says his wife insists that they run the dishwasher only every two days. Because of that she won’t load space-taking items; even medium-sized bowls have to be washed by hand, much to his irritation. She also refuses to load wooden spoons: “We’re talking the 98-cent ones,” he says. “Who cares?” They also clash over his desire to put glasses over prongs on the lower shelf. “I get mighty peeved when my martini glasses are chipped,” he says.
Brantley says that, despite his research, he remains defiant in his quirks. For one, he remains a “prong person.” And he continues to arrange plates and dishes from smallest to largest, like an “ascent-of-man graph,” he says, instead of staggering it like the “Manhattan skyline,” which Stewart advises for better water circulation.
At a recent holiday party, he described the movie’s dishwasher scene and its genesis to the host who hadn’t yet seen it. After an animated—and highly theoretical—discussion about whether Fosse or Lumet would be the superior dishwasher loader, they planned a similar challenge. Just wait: Dishwasher 101 is a reality show begging to happen.