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...