Top | First Person

Tied tight

(article, Christina Eng)

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Back in the day, cooks at home — my mother among them — wore aprons.

She wore one in the kitchen, when she peeled and chopped vegetables, when she prepped fish in the sink, when she stir-fried meats in a well-seasoned wok, the ventilation fan whirling overhead. She wore one outside the kitchen, when she brought plates of food to the dining table and cleared the dishes afterward. 

My mother put on an apron automatically, like a second layer of clothing. She picked up a knife or a spatula with one hand, an apron with the other. She protected her dresses from spills and splatters. She alternated among four or five aprons, and washed them in the machine with the rest of our laundry.

She wore floral prints in reds and yellows, and styles with flat fronts and decorative hems. In the pockets, my mother stashed Kleenex. She sewed her own aprons, customizing them to suit her frame. (Back in the day, people at home sewed.)

[%image apron float=left width=300 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/sandoclr" caption="Are aprons becoming a thing of our grandparents?"]

These days, it seems, cooks at home seldom wear aprons. Not the ladies on the Food Network. Not when they chop onions on a board or grill meats on the stovetop. In front of the camera, under the lights, they hardly worry about spills or splatters. 

Sandra Lee, Ingrid Hoffmann, and the incessantly perky Rachael Ray tend to wear form-fitting V-neck or scoop-neck tops and tees in their television kitchens. They never get flour in their impeccably styled hair. They never spill a thing on their undeniably fashionable outfits. It is, of course, make-believe. 

In my local newspaper a short while back, I learned of a great-grandmother in an Oakland suburb with a remarkable collection of more than 200 aprons. 

The oldest, the reporter noted, was a flour-sack apron from a century ago. (I am not sure what that is, really, but it doesn’t sound entirely flattering.) One of the newest was a full-length barbecue apron with large pockets and the words “Sexy Senior Citizen.”

“Put on an apron and tie it,” the apron collector told the reporter, as gently and sweetly as a great-grandmother would. “The tighter you tie it, the bigger the hug.”

But the article didn’t tell me everything. 

I do not know, for instance, how she acquires her aprons. Does she shop actively for them or receive them as presents? (Both, perhaps.) Where does she keep them? How does she sort them? By color? Fabric? Which ones does she actually wear? Most of all, what does she cook? 

Aprons, I realize, have long been synonymous with domesticity. They have been linked inevitably to physical work on farms and in kitchens. 

“Homesteading alongside the men,” EllynAnne Geisel writes in [%bookLink code=0740761811 "The Apron Book: Making, Wearing and Sharing a Bit of Cloth and Comfort"], “women tucked their dresses into apron waistbands to clear and plow the fields, then unfurled the aprons to carry grain to the chickens, gather eggs, and harvest vegetables from the garden.”

In the years following World War II, the garments grew increasingly popular among middle-class housewives, Geisel notes. The designs at that time reflected “their aspirations to be modern, social and stylish. Fabrics were bold with color, and adornments became more playful.”

Eventually, there were theme aprons and holiday aprons, and aprons that matched potholders or tablecloths. There were aprons that sported cartoon graphics or witty phrases. There were casual aprons made of cotton and fancy aprons made of silk, organza, or taffeta. There were practical aprons, like my mother’s, and not-so-practical aprons.

Most home cooks these days, I suspect, prefer function to form. They would do without trims or ruffles, selecting comfortable, straightforward bib aprons in a range of colors. 

I take an informal poll among friends my age. Some have aprons, others don’t. Some wear aprons, others don’t. 

Sunah, for example, bought a cute apron a short while ago, but seldom uses it. She doesn’t want to get it dirty, she says. I laugh. It is black and white with illustrations of fish, fruits, and condiments, and the creases of the original folds are still visible. 

Cynthia owns a couple of aprons, she says. On a trip to Italy last fall, she bought another one as a souvenir. It has different breads across the front, she says. But alas, she seldom wears any of them. 

(This from a woman who collects recipes and cookbooks religiously, who has been known to make cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, and rugelach, brownies, and chocolate-chip cookies for various potlucks — from scratch. Surely, she must put on an apron then, right?)

[%image apronbook float=right width=250]

Jamie, for his part, says he doesn’t wear a thing when he, ahem, cooks in the kitchen. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, I remind myself. He tries to take the conversation to a whole other place, but I don’t let him. 

Do many my age eschew aprons? I wonder. Is it an either/or? Do we pride ourselves on not wearing aprons, occasionally not even owning one, as if domesticity was something to be frowned upon? As if our education and experience ought to keep us away from the stove? 

Our hectic lives take us inside courtrooms and conference rooms. They chain us to our desks and chairs. They make us stay in front of our computers. The work we do now is often unlike the work our mothers did, and the work our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did before them.

Perhaps we don’t need aprons in the kitchen if we’re simply taking delivery pizzas out of cardboard boxes and putting them onto plates. We don’t need them if we’re moving plastic containers from freezers into microwaves. We don’t need them if we’re eating cereal for supper.

I, for one, like to think I can have it both ways. 

Like my friends, I spend decent chunks of time at a computer, reading, researching, writing and editing, working. My mind is often preoccupied. I can’t be bothered with food.

On the other hand, I am like my mother. Is this what I have secretly feared? In the kitchen, when I make it there, I do my best to not be wasteful. I reuse pieces of aluminum foil if I can, and takeout containers when possible.

In front of the stove, at the chopping board, I wear an apron. Always. Not the floral prints or decorative hems my mother favored, but the simple patterns and solid colors I prefer. I reach for an apron on Wednesday nights, for instance, when I carve out time to try new recipes. I rinse my hands quickly and wipe them on my hips. I turn on the radio for company.

I pull one on over my pajamas bright and early on Sunday mornings, before I’ve even washed the sleep from my eyes or brushed my teeth, to measure flour and sugar for cobbler or coffeecake. The anticipation builds. I reward myself at the end of a busy week and the beginning of another. 

I make a mess on the counter without making a mess on myself. I’ve tied the apron tight.

p(bio). [ "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.

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