Amy Thielen

An excerpt (used with permission) from Amy’s memoir, Give a Girl a Knife:

You can generally tell how a woman was raised by the way she wipes down a countertop.

Some mothers of my generation shooed their daughters out of the kitchen in hopes that they’d never have to toil in it and gave them little direct instruction. Others, like my mom, insisted that their daughters could “do anything” they wanted to do, but continued to school them in the housewifely arts anyway.

When I was nine years old, my mom taught me how to wipe the countertop in the following very specific way: You soak the washcloth in steaming-hot water, wring it out hard with both hands so that it no longer drips, then stretch the cloth flat on the countertop and lay your hand on it, middle finger pointing toward a corner, that corner flipped back up over your fingers like a toboggan. This way, when you wipe (and if you haven’t seen this demonstrated, let me tell you, it’s a goddamned miracle), the corner of the cloth stays up over your hand. “With a flat expanse of cloth, you can pick up crumbs,” my mom stressed, her body leaning into the surface, running her cloth-covered nail tip into the crevice between the stove and the countertop. Her face, hanging above the shiny surface, was smooth and contented. Not joyous, not sad, but what you might call Placid Wiping Face.

Unconsciously I absorbed the look of spine-tingling satisfaction she gave the gleaming countertop and knew it contained something even greater: hope for tomorrow and its many projects. If you’re despondent about the future, you don’t wipe like that. You let the crumbs lie.

The other way to wipe a countertop is to distractedly grab the wet cloth in a bunch, the sloppy ends dripping water, and run it along the surface, pretending you don’t see the crumbs that remain––which is how Aaron does it, and how many people do it, and which still generally gets the job done.

But inside my mom lived many generations of female ancestors who elevated mundane household maintenance into a craft. Women who wiped their countertops with rags so hot they steamed, who bleached their cutting boards monthly; women who thought that walking away from a crusty dish to let it soak would be like inviting the demon himself into her kitchen. From my barstool perch on the other side of the counter, I watched my mom wipe the mouths of glass condiment bottles, digging the crud out of the rim threads before putting the lids back on. I watched her transfer diminishing leftovers into smaller containers before putting them back into the fridge. For jobs too fine for a washcloth, she grabbed the old graying toothbrush from the bucket beneath the sink and frantically brushed the tight corners. The level of detail to which my mom and her mom, Grandma Dion, cleaned their kitchen was borderline obsessive-compulsive, and yet it pretty much sums up the entirety of professional cooking. Via the simple act of wiping, they passed on to me about 85 percent of what I’d need later on to survive my years of cooking in Manhattan kitchens—which is to say, the percentage of line cooking that depends on your ability to keep shit clean.

Give a Girl a Knife, by Amy Thielen. Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 2017.