Neat and tidy

how-to-clean-a-dirty-ovenI tested the kitchen smoke alarm a couple of weekends ago. Baking an apple and boysenberry cake, the topping, dots of butter sprinkled with muscovado sugar, melted, oozed through the dodgy base of my aging spring form tin and began to burn. When I opened the oven to check progress, a cloud of dense grey smoke billowed out. The cake was not yet cooked. I disabled the alarm and opened windows and doors – crisis solved and the cake survived, tasting only slightly of smoke.

So the smoke alarm works, which is good, but now I have smelly and smoky evidence that I need to clean the oven. This is a terrible prospect. I belong to the school of thought that believes an oven should be cleaned as infrequently as possible because:

(a) why do such a tedious job more often than absolutely necessary,

(b) no one can see inside it anyway and

(c) oven cleaning requires toxic products, clammy rubber gloves and potentially back damaging posture as you bend and reach to scrub those awkward corners behind the top grill element.

Maybe I won’t clean it – there are many other more enticing tasks, like scrubbing out the compost bins and cleaning the car – and perhaps the black, baked on clinker-like substance in the base of my oven will disappear without my intervention. If I just leave it long enough.

Tolerance of a less than perfect oven is a weird gap in my sometimes verging on obsessive (quoting husband Steve here) need for neatness, order and cleanliness, a characteristic that I inherited from my father. He, poor man, loved an orderly household and garden but struggled to achieve it. I say ‘poor man’ because he fathered five sons who took his tools and scattered them around the Waikawa Bay farm: on the beach, in the creek bed and on the sides of the steep hills that surrounded our home.

They created roads for their fleets of toy trucks, knocked go-carts together, built wonkily dangerous tree houses and otherwise explored and manipulated their environment. This was high quality early learning for my brothers who are practical, competent men who’ve gone on to manage their own particular environments with total confidence, and some tidiness too.

But my father was not thrilled by his sons’ burgeoning cognitive and physical development. He was often sighted returning from the creek bed or the beach muttering blasphemously after a fruitless search for his best shovel, crowbar or the new stainless steel hammer and box of nails he thought he’d hidden behind the diesel generator. No such luck. My brothers could smell out a new spanner or a box of shiny nuts and bolts from half a mile away.

Later in life, when everyone had left home, Dad managed to assemble his tools and equipment in one place and had reasonable confidence that his treasured chisels, wrenches and favourite garden fork with well-worn tines would still be there when next he opened the shed door. However, a deeply conditioned reflex kept him vigilant about his hardware long after it was essential to managing stock, vehicles, home, garden, woolshed and sheep-yards.

A longing for order was certainly a family trait. One of my father’s brothers, an insurance industry CEO, was known in the family as ‘Wettex Willy’ for his habit of wiping down the kitchen bench of almost any house he entered. I thought this might be a tall story but when he visited our first home Uncle Bruce opened the visit by briskly scouring my bench and stainless steel sink.

Newly married and proud of my domestic arrangements, my jaw dropped. Only when the sink was shiny, and the few errant crumbs banished from the Formica could he settle down for a cup of tea, a pikelet and an exchange of family news. My uncle’s clean bench obsession made my father’s need to organise his tools, paint fence posts white and mow lawns frequently and closely seem mild and reasonable behaviour.

Despite the sluttish state of my oven, I haven’t escaped the family genes. I like a clear bench. I find clothing stored on the ‘floor-robe’ disturbing. I pick up newspapers every evening and, if I could afford the time and laundry powder, I’d have clean sheets and towels every day.

Luckily for me, I’m married to a man for whom tidiness is well down the list of his priorities for a happy life. I have come to realise that it doesn’t matter if the newspapers lie around the living room for a few days or that he drops his gardening clothes on the bedroom floor to lie there until next weekend. If he could, he’d leave mail and bills in untidy piles all over the kitchen bench in some kind of organic filing system where they would pass through all stages of the paper life-cycle and become dust – but as a true niece of my Wettex loving uncle, I have to draw the line somewhere.

Now it’s time to contemplate cleaning that oven. Notice that I’ve delayed two weeks already – who said procrastination was a fault?

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Angela Fitchett

Angela Fitchett is a retired teacher living in Nelson. Also retired from writing English textbooks and columns for local paper the Nelson Mail, she is researching and writing a memoir based around her father’s war experiences while attempting to keep up with her grandchildren and garden.