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Dishtowels and Napkins


It’s been almost half a year since I included a post on the edible idiom recurring feature at Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog Chocolate & Zucchini. Her latest appeared two days ago, and I can’t resist this one.

The idioms are all French. The latest is “Ne pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes,” which Clotilde translates as “not mixing dishtowels with napkins.” As she explains, “it means treating things or people differently according to their perceived value or class, but also, more generally, not mixing things of different kinds, with the implication that some of those things are superior to the others. … It can be delivered either earnestly or ironically, to deride a person’s or an institution’s narrowmindedness.”

After providing an example, Clotilde digs more deeply into the meaning behind the idiom.

This expression relies on the symbolic opposition between the dishtowel, seen here as a lowly rag used for domestic chores, and the napkin, a much more distinguished piece of cloth that is an integral part of an elegant table setting. The classist — though now generally outdated — implication was that the former was in the realm of servants, while the latter belonged to the world of their employers and their social life. It would then have been improper to wash or put away the two together.

(For the record, we keep the clean dishtowels and everyday napkins in the same place, while the napkins we use for guests live in a separate drawer — but it’s more for the sake of convenience than anything else.)

Her last remark made me think about our own practice. Our dishtowels are in a drawer by the kitchen sink. We keep our paper napkins in a drawer by the kitchen table, which is where we eat most often. And we have cloth napkins in a drawer in the dining room. This would seem to be the most efficient arrangement.

But then I was wondering what kind of napkin one should use from the point of view of minimizing the environmental cost. This must depend in part on how often one re-uses napkins of each type. Generally, we don’t re-use paper napkins, but do re-use cloth napkins, several times if possible between washings, though the cloth napkins guests use ordinarily go straight to the wash. There’s a cost either way. Maybe when we’re alone, the best practice would be to use our hands. I’m sure Gail wouldn’t think this is such a great idea, and it would depend on what we’re eating. Even this method involves washing, but we’re likely to wash our hands anyway after the meal, so it’s not an extra cost.

These musings remind me of a dinner we had at the home of some friends while traveling a year ago last month. [I had more details in an earlier version of this post, but Gail convinced me that these should be removed.] After dinner, we all stood around in their kitchen while some of the family members did the dishes. One took on the chore of drying the pots and pans. And she used paper towels. I watched as she tore off sheet after sheet. I know, it’s not like she was mixing dishtowels with napkins, but still, it surprised me.

Categories: Culture, Language
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