Musing About Food and Cooking, Again: Apron Memories

Quick—who and what first comes to mind when you think of an apron?

I’m thinking about aprons because Terri Mercer, in her role as executive director at a very special organization called First Step, sponsored an activity, asking folks to write and share their apron stories. Terri challenged us, on Facebook, to think of our own apron memories.

(First Step, by the way, addresses domestic violence, but its practice is unique. It works with men as well as with women and children, looking at the family as a unit. It employs female and male counselors. It was the first program in Ohio to design and build a shelter to meet its clients’ needs, rather than trying to adapt a house. It was one of the first organizations to help males who were victims of domestic violence, too. Ground-breaking, brave, fascinating work–I shouldn’t be at all surprised that this organization has fascinating workshops and activities. I discovered they have a great website, too, if you’d like to take a look: http://firststepweb.org.)

But. Aprons.

I am a lover of metaphor, and aprons, in my lifetime, have been a metaphor. In my earliest days, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, every woman needed an apron. As I grew into young adulthood, and the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s rocked and changed our world, aprons began to symbolize ties to an unfair bondage–as in ‘Untie your apron, Sister, and fling it aside! Embrace your independence!’ I picture a woman going in one door wearing an apron, and coming out the other in a pinstriped suit, her rolling pin traded for a briefcase.

And now…at least in my life, at this stage, aprons are back–not a symbol of a return to some kind of domestic drudgery, but as a badge of practical, protective warmth and nurture.

I remember ratcheting into my mother when I was very young, three or so, short enough that my head bounced against her apron. It must have been a Sunday; I clearly remember Mom’s dress, one I loved–navy blue with white dots, long sleeves and white collar and cuffs. It was classy, and it was protected by an apron because she was, no doubt, cooking Sunday’s chicken dinner.

I got a swat for my careening, and a revelation–bouncing off Mom on Sunday was like bouncing off a basketball. The apron hinted at softness, but underneath, all was firm and bouncy at the same time. It was Sunday, so of course Mom had on her panty girdle. It held up her stockings; it held in her stomach.

Mind you, I don’t think my 5’4″ mother ever tipped the scale at more than 125 pounds in her life; she was not (unlike, sadly, her daughter) in need of that kind of restraint. But girdles and aprons were part of a woman’s wardrobe, and that was what she wore.

I think the panty girdle is a much better symbol of a time when women were tightly conscribed than an apron ever was.

My mother made her aprons, mostly, cranking them out on an old Singer treadle machine, a machine outdated already in my childhood. She said she liked it because it could handle heavy duty jobs, like patching the knees of our jeans. I suspect she liked the ease of it and that it was a piece of furniture, always ready. Unlike a portable electric machine, the treadle didn’t have to be dragged out of a closet, set up on the dining room table, taken down again in time for dinner. Projects in ‘mid-sew’ could be left on the treadle and returned to when a hole opened in a busy household schedule.

Mom’s aprons were of the lap variety, tying in the back, covering from waist down to knees. She made the ties of one color, and the rest from bright prints. She added matching or contrasting pockets. Her aprons were colorful and fun.

I, of course, did not like them then; I wanted a full body apron, one you had to stick out both hands to slide over your shoulders. My Aunt Annie wore that kind. My mind’s eye sees her in a blue calico print apron with navy blue trim–whether that’s an apron Aunt Annie ever owned or one embroidered by memory, I’m not sure.

We moved from my comfortable little home town to the grindy little city next door when I was in fourth grade, and for a time, nothing–especially me–seemed to fit. I remember the art teacher in my new public school telling me to bring in an apron for art class. I brought in one of Mom’s half aprons.

“What’s THIS?” the teacher asked, holding it up by its waist tie, and then, seeing my crestfallen look, she backed off. She got me an old shirt and had me put it on backwards. It was soft with age and covered with paint splots; it smelled of talented, oil-based, creation, I thought. I folded up the apron and put it away at school. At the end of the year, I took it home, unused. My mother washed and ironed it, and used it again immediately.

In junior high home economics, we made our own aprons. Mine was clumsily sewn, but I liked the colors and the style.

And then came high school. I walked into high school in a carefully selected skirt and blouse, with panty hose (still, at that time, a fairly recent innovation) squinching my waist, Mary Janes on my feet, and a purse that matched my outfit slung over my shoulder.

I walked out of high school four years later in torn jeans so long my heels walked wear spots in them, wearing a faded army jacket, and carrying a backpack. Why would I need an apron? My classmates predicted jokingly that I’d take over the reins of Cosmopolitan from Helen Gurley Brown.

Stuck in the kitchen? Please. I had, you’ll excuse the expression, bigger fish to fry.

Funny, though, how Life turns around and smacks one in the head–sometimes with a nice, nerf-y bat, and sometimes with something a little bit firmer.

I will not, I proclaimed, teach or type for a living–I will not be stuck in a job reserved for women by a patriarchal society. I will not go willingly into that oppressive female ghetto.

Five years after college graduation, I was happily teaching middle school Language Arts at a wonderful little intercity parochial school. During term breaks I painstakingly typed final exams on my portable Olympia typewriter, index finger stroke by index finger stroke, for other teachers and for extra money.

But I still didn’t have an apron.

Well, I did have one, but I never wore it for cooking. It was a gift from a friend so close to the family she could have been an aunt, Mrs. Mary Muench; she sewed the apron in a tiny flower print in shades of peach and brown. It fell below my knees and tied around my waist, and was so dress-like it covered my butt in the back. It had ruffles around the bodice, and it looked like a GunnySack dress. I loved GunnySack dresses, and I wore Mrs. Muench’s apron like a funky tunic.

In those days of trendy handmade and repurposed clothing, I could wear that beautiful apron over jeans and a deep brown turtleneck and look like I was making a fashion statement. I would not have dreamed of getting food splatters on that beloved garment.

So there I was, in my ‘second wave of feminism’ passion, teaching school and typing; then I married Mark and cooking joined the list of darned-near daily occupations. We had a close galley kitchen in our first house with an enormous old seventies brown earth-tone stove. In that tight space, on that vintage appliance, I cooked family meals and company meals, baked birthday cakes and everyday cookies, experimented with wondrous dishes like eggplant pizza and a haphazard quiche or two for the real men in my household.

I will not be chained to the kitchen, I allowed, and then I enjoyed the artistic and creative challenge of trying to take our budget and stretch it to feed a family with tasty, attractive dishes. Not owning a single item of daily worn clothing that couldn’t be thrown in the washer, no apron was needed.

Matt grew toward teenager-hood; Jim was born. Time flew. We moved, and moved again. We invited family and friends to celebrate milestones, and I did a lot of cooking on those celebration days and washed a lot of dishes. I remembered my brother Denny, always man enough to help, shlepping into my kitchen on Orchard Street and starting the water for a sinkful of suds.

“Got an apron?” he asked, and I didn’t; he wound up tucking a dishtowel around his waist.

Fast forward to today; if Denny were here now (and how I wish he was!) I could offer him a choice of aprons. Now, Crisanne, with whom I work–although she will retire this summer–has a gift of cloth creation, and thanks to Cris, I have an everyday apron and a holiday apron. They are things of beauty, but I don’t hesitate to let them be splattered with food.

I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In fact, when I done with this essay, I am going to try a new recipe in my quest to make a peanut butter cookie as tasty as the ones I can get at Starbuck’s in Erie, PA–a Reese Cup cookie that I really do go far out of my way for–and that the Starbucks in Ohio don’t seem to carry. But today, in 2014, it is trendy to be ‘cook-y’, to think about the food we eat, to craft our meals from fresh ingredients.

Feminism–in its third? fourth? wave– has embraced nurturing…with the stipulation that men can do it, too. It’s okay to cook and bake and play with grandkids, to plan and execute company dinners, to sew, and to decorate tastefully. It’s okay to focus on home.

Of course, all those things always were okay; we may have done them apologetically; we may have gone about them in a clandestine way; but we never once considered not doing them. And the apron is the perfect metaphor for that, so ever present in the fifties and sixties; lost or hidden in a drawer during the social revolutions of the last part of the 20th century; proudly rediscovered in these latter days.

Terri’s simple challenge–tell us your apron stories–delves deep.

I’ll bet you have an apron story, maybe about the early sensory memory of cookies baking and a warm lap; about your first cooking experience; of hefting that turkey out of the oven the very first time you plated a Thanksgiving dinner. Is there, in a drawer somewhere, an apron sewn by hands so dear to you that you just can’t part with it at all?

Oh, here’s to our aprons; to the meals and memories we’ve shared; to the meals and memories yet to come.

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