In 2010, I had the privilege of living in an apartment with what you might call a sub-working dishwasher. It was the old-fashioned portable sort, tan because it had been purchased long before manufacturers decided that appliances ought to be stainless steel, black or white. It came with a rubber hose attachment that drew water from the kitchen sink, not unlike the sort of thing you plug into a country bathtub to transform it into an ad hoc shower. Our landlord expressly forbade me from using this dishwasher. Fuck that, I thought, and threw a load of dishes into the thing one morning before going out for the day. When I came home, the kitchen was flooded, the dishes were still soapy and the living room carpet was ruined. I couldn’t imagine why my landlord had even left such a dysfunctional old wretch of an appliance where any stupid asshole (me) could use it.
Perhaps the afternoon would have ended differently if, instead of trying to wash dishes in my dishwasher like an idiot, I had ventured to cook fish in it. I first learned about dishwasher fish from a chance viewing of Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America, during the episode of every season when the eponymous Worst Cooks attempt to impress the judges (both professional chefs) with a “signature dish.” These Worst Cooks have no kitchen training and often don’t even know the basics of safety and hygiene, so it’s always compelling TV. On the episode I caught, Texas’ own David Shelton appalled the judges by attempting to wrap a salmon fillet in foil and steam it in the heat of the dishwasher. He was thwarted not by the laws of God or man, but by the fact that the Food Network soundstage didn’t have a dishwasher, forcing him to make dishwasher salmon… in the oven? Whoever heard of dishwasher salmon in the oven?
The moment is played for laughs, and laugh I did. But chef-judges Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay really should have known better. Dishwasher fish is a very real dish whose popularity arose not long after that of the dishwasher itself. While motorized dishwashers had already existed in commercial settings, they didn’t start appearing in American homes until the 1950s and weren’t widespread until the 1970s, coinciding nicely with the night in 1975 that beloved horror legend Vincent Price shocked America on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Did he show up covered in fake blood or bearing a grisly prop head from his heel turn in House of Wax? No — he cooked (“cooked”) dishwasher fish. (Price chose trout over salmon, but that distinction notwithstanding, his preparation isn’t far off the mark from Shelton’s.)
By this point, Price had been a prominent cook for nearly as long as he’d been the late-in-life king of horror. He authored multiple cookbooks and even starred in a short-lived cooking show of his own. Still, the stunt with the dishwasher fish looks like exactly that: a stunt. It’s closer in spirit to his horror roles than to his famed cookery.
Price plays the segment with flair. He’s just spent several minutes toiling over the accompaniments to the fish, leading the audience to believe that the fish itself is about to be, well, cooked. Then he dramatically unveils the dishwasher with the trout that has just run “on the full cycle, mind you — no rinse,” to use his own cheeky words. Price and Carson unwrap their trout foils as Price explains the mechanism in play. “[The dishwasher] steams, and it heats… You couldn’t do meat or anything like that,” he clarifies. “But fish cooks in only a very short time. And it really is kind of beautiful!”
Here, Price has explained not only the strict mechanics of why dishwasher fish seemed brilliant to the era’s housewives, but also the ideology behind it. Mid-century America was an optimistic time for this scientific mindset, this “let’s do it because now, finally, we can.” Middle-class Americans hadn’t yet encountered the dark side of mid-century innovations, ranging from DDT to asbestos. They felt warmly toward the scientists who seemed hellbent on making their lives easier. In Price’s words, it was kind of beautiful to us: how exciting cooking could be with all these new gadgets, how fun, how flashy.
This was also meal preparation as a flex, of course. Cooking a fish fillet in the dishwasher told your guests that you were financially secure enough to afford one. As widespread as gadgets like microwaves and dishwashers were becoming, they certainly didn’t appear in every kitchen. Urban kitchens in particular tended (and still tend) to be too small to house so many appliances. But in spacious suburban kitchens, a housewife’s only limit was what her husband could afford out of the Sears catalog. The more gadgets a kitchen contained, and the more ostentatiously one used them, the greater the flex. The present-day version of this flexing is equal but opposite. Now, cooks buy single-use gadgets like cherry pitters and butter dispensers to wow their eaters with perfectly pitted cherries, perfectly textured butter and the like. Forty years ago, the gadgetry flexes aimed to transform foods by using everyday tools in unusual ways; today, would-be flexers make foods into the Platonic ideals of themselves with increasingly granular precision.
That’s not to say that there’s no place for good old-fashioned dishwasher fish in this bustling modern world. Recipes for dishwasher salmon abound, and not only on TikTok and YouTube, outlets for videos that sit at the intersection of the “look ma, no hands” and the “gross, what the fuck” approaches to cooking. Food Network has classed the dish up a bit by pairing it with a “piquant dill sauce,” while the more intellectually-inclined Kitchn asks, “Can you really cook salmon in the dishwasher?” (Answer: an uneasy “yes.”) In all these cases, the point of the salmon is less that it’s dinner than that it’s an old school party trick.
After all, what could emblematize the old-fashioned party trick mindset more perfectly than dishwasher fish? Price’s Tonight Show trout emerges from its foil with an unappetizing grey cast and looks, frankly, flaccid. But the meal’s taste isn’t the punchline of the dishwasher fish. And in any event, the oddness of cooking in a dishwasher sets guests’ expectations low enough that even a minimally palatable final product will thrill them. Carson cribs from dishwasher commercials, pointing out that the fish is spot-free and rinsed clean. “That is the greatest fish I have ever tasted in my whole life,” proclaims singer Eydie Gormé, another of Carson’s guests. “You know what the secret is? No rinse.”
This is the only praise I can imagine heaping on such an oddity as dishwasher fish: arch praise, noting that the taste is surprisingly good but without ever losing sight of the fact that this is fish cooked in a fucking dishwasher. Was the dishwasher trout actually the greatest fish that Gormé had ever tasted in her whole life? I have no reason to think she’d lie, exactly, and I have no intention of impugning the lady’s virtue or honesty. But I do believe it probably wasn’t. What it was instead was the most interesting fish she’d ever tasted, the one most likely to be mentioned for years at parties full of sparkling conversation.
Was the preparation any more convenient than a simple sauté or oven-roast? Not really — those methods would have taken Price only minutes while the dishwasher must have cost him a solid hour. The fish is similar in spirit to recipes from the same era that ask cooks to microwave an entire chicken or to encase a bounty of vegetables in a shuddering mound of Jell-O. It tells would-be eaters to admire it above all else. It invites people to feast on it with smiles on their faces, cracking jokes at its expense all the while.
Shelton’s dishwasher salmon probably wouldn’t have been as good as Price’s, since the latter man was a respected cook and the former was a Worst one. But unlike other Worst Cooks’ signature dishes, where chaos tends to rule the day, dishwasher fish observes a perfect internal logic. Again, its ultimate aim is less to taste good than to impress with its educated, almost theoretical qualities. It’s uglier, and due to being steamed in the dishwasher without any fat to baste it, must be less rich in taste than just about every other possible fish preparation — but who cares? It’s a monument to mid-century scientific advances that hadn’t yet begun to bite us in the ass.
By the time I was flooding my apartment with a dishwasher identical to Carson’s, we would no longer be quite so eager to trust food whose entire ethos was “science” rather than “taste.” But in the 1970s, we embraced our gadgets the way children do their toys. We didn’t want to bother ourselves about the best way for fish to taste. With all that gear at our disposal, who would? We wanted to play, to show off, to astonish. If nothing else, dishwasher fish is a relic of a truly different time in American cuisine — more playful, infinitely worse and really kind of beautiful.