East of Elmgrove

Putting Clean on the Front Burner

Reckoning with twenty years of kitchen adventures

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I cleaned my stove the other day. I got up early on a Saturday and was making a cup of coffee when I noticed a dusting of flour on top of the FiveStar. My husband had cooked beef stroganoff the previous evening, and some of the flour in the sauce recipe hadn’t made it into the pan. This came as no surprise. My husband is a great cook, but not a tidy cook. “Serious cooks make a mess,” he says. Based on my limited knowledge of cooking, which mostly involves TV shows with hipster chefs traveling the world, I submit that he is wrong. The kitchens on the telly are always spotless, but heck, he cooks so I let it be.

I wet a paper towel and got to work, first wiping down the sides, then making my way to the burners and, finally, to the heavy cast-iron grates. I should’ve stopped there – I usually stop there – but for some reason on that morning I didn’t. I lifted up the black enamel top and came face-to-face with twenty years of grease, grime, and food that had fallen through openings around the burners: shriveled chili beans, warped wagon wheels, curled bits of ground beef. I had to sit down to catch my breath.

Cleaning is not something I enjoy. There are people, mostly women, I’m afraid, who keep a clean house. I am not one of them. Clutter offends me, and I routinely pitch or give away stuff that my family has outgrown, but I am not a Scrubby Dutch. I walk by a cobweb for weeks before I whack it with a broom. Dust bunnies are as cute in real life as they are in Japanese anime. I don’t care about the mold on the bathroom window. But grease and food crumbs are different. They attract undesirables, and I need to get a good night’s sleep.

Everyone was sleeping at my house, and that was a good thing. I could work in secrecy. I don’t like my two sons to see me cleaning. I don’t want them to think cleaning is a woman’s job even though it is in our house. The division of labor has been clear from the start of the union: I clean; my husband cooks. I accept this. Still, that doesn’t mean I have to take center stage with a mop or, to steal from Joni Mitchell, give my sons the impression that “Papa’s faith is people/Mama believes in cleaning.” Preemptive strike to letter writers: the boys clean their rooms, take out the trash, and sweep.
Cleaning in the cold weather wreaks havoc on bare skin. Hands exposed to sub-zero temps get razor cuts by the fingernails that make picking up a pen painful. I did not want dishpan hands, so I walked a few blocks to the corner convenience store, Eastside Mart. I bought a pair of yellow rubber gloves, the kind women wore in the 1950s to keep their hands lovely as they did their daily chores. Back home, I put the gloves on – curved fingers for comfort, non-slip grip – and attacked the stove with the ferocity of a bucking bull.

It quickly became apparent that the person who designed the stove was a man whose mother followed him around the house picking up after him during his boyhood and who, as an adult, coupled with a woman who did the same. Under the stove top was a maze of pipes, arranged so close together it was impossible for me to reach in and do an easy wipe-down. I dabbed here and there, but finally gave up and retrieved the vacuum cleaner, equipped with a long, thin hose that managed to suck up a few pitiful scraps.

Still unhappy with the results, I attached a balled-up rag to the end of an Apsara chopstick and maneuvered around the pipes, removing as much as I could. Then, I removed the knobs and put them in a pot of hot water. I wiped down the stove’s doors, oven, broiler, and backsplash. I sprayed Easy-Off on the interior and waited. Toxic fumes wafted through the kitchen, up my nose, and into my brain. I nearly passed out. I worked on the FiveStar for three hours. Looked dirty as ever. Thankless task, this cleaning business. I’m going to learn how to cook.