Letter from America – Part II

One of the many things that continues to mystify me about American life is the garbage disposal unit. The kitchen sink in our apartment has no plughole: instead, it has a large round drainage hole obscured by a number of rubber flaps that come out from the edges. It's not possible to see what goes on underneath the flaps, but of course water drains down this hole in the same way as a regular British plughole. It even comes with a large rubber stopper the size of a drinks coaster that allows you to fill the sink up. I considered this contraption was simply to save the locals from an irrational fear of their household plumbing, and continued merrily with my usual sink activities.

But then I discovered a switch near the gap where the kettle would go if Americans believed in the concept of a kettle (which they don't, incidentally - we finally found the last kettle for sale in the greater Seattle area after asking some fellow ex-pat Brits for a pointer). On idly flicking the switch on, a loud groan emerged from the kitchen sink followed by a long rumbling gurgle. My two year-old daughter ran for cover behind the sofa, and I nearly joined her. Eventually we deduced that this was the famous "garbage disposal unit", something I'd heard of before but never experienced at first hand. Obviously this has some culinary use, but we're still not exactly clear what this should be. To an American we no doubt sound hopelessly backward and uneducated: without doubt, us crooked-toothed British can't have progressed far from the mediaeval roots still apparent in the funny way we speak. But really, honestly, I didn't have a clue what to do with the unit.

We determined that we'd leave it on whilst we sluiced a few liquids down the sink. Apart from a slightly different tone of gurgle, the garbage disposal thingy seemed unpeturbed. So we got a bit braver, and scraped a few plate clearings in, thinking perhaps this was what you do with it. But they just got stuck on the flaps and stubbornly refused to drop any lower into the unit. Gingerly, my wife poked the detritus down deeper with a teaspoon - this was fine, until the teaspoon slipped out of her hands and fell down the hole. To our horror, the garbage disposal unit immediately turned into a gnashing monster, thrashing the teaspoon around like a tormented creature. Finally, like Jonah's whale, it violently spat the teaspoon out of the sink - obviously it wasn't to the monster's liking.

So, what's it for? We still can't quite get our heads around it. I know from the experiences of the last three weeks that the locals are mad keen on labour-saving devices, but after our experiences, there doesn't seem to be much labour saved: quite the opposite. There's a wastebin (trashcan) under the sink, and it's no bother at all to simply scrape the plate into the bin rather than into the sink - and surely more hygienic? It certainly can't be an environmental thing - impressed though I was to see paper, polystyrene and aluminium can recycling facilities at Microsoft, the Americans have nothing on the Germans for zeal in this area. So I'm hoping that some kindly soul will bestow grace on us humble, impoverished English folk, and give us a full run-down on the uses and abuses of such a device.

There's a distribution list and intranet site at Microsoft for the ex-patriate British here, of which there are quite a number. In typically dry British style, they're named blimey and crikey respectively. I will post any responses to the intranet for the elucidation and education of my fellow aliens.

Postscript: Thanks for all the replies to my quest for a decent piece of cheese - we found a fantastic store opposite Pike's Place Market in downtown Seattle where they actually make the cheese onsite. It tastes fantastic, too - try the Thom if you ever get there. We'll try the other suggestions in due course. Now onward to look for fromage frais - I've yet to speak to a native who even knows what the stuff is, let alone knows where you can find any...

Comments (19)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Speaking as a non-native (in fact, an ex-pat Brit), I’m wondering… what the hell is fromage frais? (I googled it, but still… strawberry cheese?)

    If I recall correctly, there is a kind of french cheese called "neuchatel" sold in the supermarkets here – try QFC, Larry’s Markets or WholeFoods. It may be what you’re looking for. Basically, like Philidelphia cheese, but not quite, right? Maybe a little squidgier?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Not quite what you Brits call a "nose flash", but while I can’t shed much light on the labo(u)r-saving benefits of the appliance, I can share some guidance on its’ proper care and usage:

    First, and above all: Stuff your food waste (table scraps) past the rubber washer (plughole) before you turn it on!

    Second: While running the unit, make sure you have your tap (water faucet) running (sluicing liquids)…

    Third: If you ever hear that gawdawful (slightly different tone of gurgle) sound of metal (tin) grinding (gnashing) down there again, you should turn the damn thing off immediately and clear the jam instead of waiting for the monster to violently regurgitate it!

    Over time, you’ll arrive at your own judgment about the utility of this contraption, but Americans find it more expedient for handling soggy food waste (moist table scraps) and the crud (vegetable matter) created by preparing food than throwing it in the trashcan (waste bin) and mopping up the mess after the liner inevitably springs a leak on the way to the curb.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Just try getting them to pronounce ‘Peugeot’

    It simply can’t be done 🙂

    Try the ‘contact us’ form at http://www.yoplait.com – they should be able to tell you a stockist of Fromage Frais locally

  4. Anonymous says:

    Excellent story, I haven’t laughed so much in ages, you have a fallback career of author in the Bill Bryson style 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Using the garbage disposal to dispose of food waste keeps the rubbish bin from smelling too much like rubbish. Very little food waste goes into the trash can in our kitchen. The disposal also comes in handy when peeling vegetables. Finally, some of us pay by the bag for our garbage collection, or are limited to one bag a week. Keeping food waste out of the trash leaves more room for non-food waste.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A garbage disposal is intended as a last resort device (though often used as a first means of disposing of unused food). Prior to the invention of the garbage disposal, the person washing dishes by hand would use a drain strainer when rinsing dishes. When finished rinsing, the strainer would be taken to the trash and emptied. Now, those scraps can be placed in the disposal and chopped up by its teeth.

    One thing I’ll caution you on. Be sure to always run (preferably cold) water when using your disposal. The water acts as a coolant preventing the disposal from overheating and seizing up. You’ll have to replace the disposal if that happens.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It disposes garbage. Hence "garbage disposal".

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hiya Tim. I have to admit that we’ve rented a couple of UK houses in the past with waste disposal units (or even "In-Sink-Erators" as I’ve heard them called in the past) and I really like them.

    None of that clogging up your bin with old bits of food that linger around for a few days – it all just gets chucked down the waste disposal and you’re happy.

    The only problem I’ve had with them is that tricky point where it breaks down/jams and you have to stick your hand in it. You never feel quite comfortable despite _knowing_ that you’ve switched it off 🙂

  9. Anonymous says:

    Which brings the point… Don’t put your hand or any body part in the gnashing monster while it is on! lol. I will not regurgitate the newly missing parts. 😉

  10. Anonymous says:

    dude as a home US southern boy, the garabage disposal unit is heaven sent.

    every thing but the bone, even the plate into the sink (well maybe the bone too, if your not faint of heart and have a good septic tank).

    you know how us americans leave a lot of rubbage on our plates, you can tell from our waste lines.

    having been expatriate new yorker for the last 8 years, where it is illegal to have a garbage disposal unit, i see your point. its much easier to put in the refuse and sent to jersey for seagulls and pigeons to mistake for plastic.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hey Tim, just to let you know — and I am now speaking from personal experience — there will come a time where you will push the garbage disposal unit to it’s breaking point. My unit’s was a whole wad of spinach leaves. It just siezed up and died. I thought "Oh no! I gotta go buy a new one now!" But in most new units, there is a button at the bottom of it under the sink you can press. I guess it is a reset button and everything will be good again — oh, except the fear of putting your hand down there and getting all the spinach out. 🙂

    ASP.NET 2.0 Rules!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Look what you did, reading the post and the comments made me more paranoid about that garbage disposal unit device. Where does the waste food go, in the sewer? Should it be used as a last resort or as a first option? Is it more environment-friendly or worse? Can I clog my sink by putting in non-drain friendly onion, garlic peels, and apple stems in it? Too many questions, too little time… (or too much time on my hands).

  13. Anonymous says:

    Very entertaining, please keep it up 🙂

  14. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Andy Maggs – stop all this computer nonsense and become an author. I think you would sell bucket loads. You have a great style!

  15. Anonymous says:

    When I went to America, I tried the "garbage compactor" no less. It compresses rubbish into handy little cubes …

    I was going to say it provided hours of entertainment, but thought it wiser not to express myself in such an incontrovertibly extroverted way (nice quote Tim). After all, I am a Brit …

  16. Anonymous says:

    What was the name of that store?

    Also why aren’t garbage disposal units popular back in the UK? I find them very handy.


  17. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure this is a potential source of much debate but my feeling (having done Environmental Science at Uni) is that non-animal (i.e. low protein) food waste is much better going into a compost heap in your garden. It is high in nutrient content and so if it goes into the sewer it ends up in the rivers and will most likely contribute to eutrophication (i.e. it feeds the bugs and causes them to multiply uncontrollably sucking oxygen from the water). High protein waste is even worse in this respect (loads of nitrogen) but you don’t want it on your compost heap because it will create an almighty smell (those same bugs will love it). In these respects all food waste is better in the bin, but I assume the US obsession with the WDU has to do with not having a smelly bin, or fear of litigation from the local bin-men for the same reason?!

    As for Creme Fraiche, try mixing natural yoghurt and cream – it’s almost the same, the same goes for soured cream, experiment with different proportions and you’ll get fairly close! I’ll bet you can’t get cottage cheese over there either…

  18. Anonymous says:

    ah, creme fresh.

    the only place to get it is a mexican grocery store…

    it will be in the refrigerated section with the milk.

    quite good, but slightly different than you are probably used

    to from back home.

    so how are you getting along with out single and double cream?

    i was a yank expat in london for year, and i still long for the stuff.

    clotted cream i can find, but i so miss the double!

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