apron strings

by bam

the subject today is that little bit of cloth that comes between you and the flour. and the butter. and the splattered bits of canned tomato that would do in your crisp white chemise.
no, no. not the napkin. though we could put that on the list for consideration down the line.
and speaking of the line, that is not the wash flapping up above, but a bit of a timeline of the aprons i have loved and tied around my middle.
indeed, today we ponder the apron–pockets, strings and all the bits of lore tucked there beneath your hankie and your spoon.
and, yes, i admit it. since i was just a wee little sprout, handed my first hand-pieced patchwork of little squares, stitched together by my great-grandmama, tied on i’m certain with some crumb of ceremony making me feel like a big girl, a true citizen of the kitchen where my grandma was the queen, and i had at least been granted the status of a scullery maid, i have, when in the groove, gone for the apron strings.
now i recognize this is a cloth with a charge. a rag, a shmatte (if you’re inclined toward yiddish), that might make you wince.
there are those who do, and those who don’t. tie on one. i mean, of course, the apron.
so let us dispense with the don’ts.
but let us first consider the history. for this is a kitchen cloth–unlike, say, the dishtowel–that really does carry with it the story of a nation of women finding their place in and outside of the kitchen.
except for the brassiere, it is hard to think of a stitched-together piece of cotton that so represented liberation. although the cotton boll itself certainly makes me shudder.
i haven’t a clue when the first apron was donned, when someone grabbed a towel and tucked it by her tummy.
but i do know that for a whole long stretch there, the apron was not some symbol of oppression. rather it was saving hours at the washboard.
until the industrial age, washing your wardrobe of ginghams and calicos meant a.) bending at the river’s edge, or b.) scrubbing against the corrugated metal washboard, or c.) wringing the darn laundry through the wringer that could take off your arm if you pushed just a little too ambitiously.
and d.) any of the above, made splots of splattered tomato the last thing you wanted on your house frock.
thus, the apron. a washgirl’s best defense.
“there was a time when a woman rose and put on her apron as her most functional piece of clothing. she hardly left her bed, let alone her house, without it,” writes joyce gibson roach, a folklorist.
“early photographs of frontier women bear witness to the one garment common to all–the apron. frontier women wore aprons with pockets. those pockets concealed hankies, leftover cold biscuits and ham, small toys, eyeglasses, roots, plants, and other stuff gathered from the wilderness.”
or a gun, adds maryjane butters, a farmer and writer and hero to farmwomen, real and only wishful, all across america.
in her bible, “maryjane’s ideabook, cookbook, lifebook,” (clarkson potter, 2005) she tells the story of one molly owens, a frontier ranch woman, who made it a point to put on her apron whenever a stranger rode up. the apron, it turned out, had a special pocket in which ol’ molly concealed her gun. butters doesn’t let on if she ever actually had to pull the trigger.
and you thought you were smart, tucking your recipe cards in that there kangaroo pocket.
there is, it seems, a deep appreciation in some circles for the sociology, if not the politics, of the apron.
there is a book, and now a traveling exhibit of photos, text and 200 vintage aprons, titled “apron chronicles: a patchwork of american recollection,” written by ellyn anne geisel, with photographs by kristina loggia, that tell the stories tied to aprons, from the frontier to the holocaust.
i’ve not read the book, but it is, i am certain, one i could cozy up with. i believe in the chronicles of kitchen cloth. heck, i collect stories for a living. even stories from the pantry, where my aprons hang.
my aprons do tell stories, each one. and i have many.
there is the precious little patchwork, flapping on the left, up above. it’s the one i wore as i learned to mix a chocolate cake, roll out my first sugar cookies. it meant, when the apron was on, that i was a big girl. i was in the kitchen, at my mama’s side. i was following instructions, peeling back the mysteries of how to bake and how to be a grown-up.
when i did grow up, became a children’s nurse, we all wore aprons. instead of starched white uniforms that showed every germ and scared the pants off little children, we walked the halls, looking like so many cheery cooks. we tucked syringes and thermometers in our pockets, always had on hand whatever healing thing we needed.
when my grandma died, i was bequeathed her recipe box, her mixing spoons, and, of course, her apron. one of her many aprons, i do believe. she had lacy ones for parties. and frilly ones, too.
but she had a gingham one, a yellow-and-white check with brown cross-stitches up across the gathers, for everyday. it’s the one that takes me back to dear lucille, every time i see it in the drawer, folded, waiting.
and then i’ve got my latest. the one i bought just last summer, to celebrate the end of the building of my farmhouse kitchen. i got it at anthropologie, a store i love for the way it feels like the best of some old garage sale. they are big on vintage there, and so i grabbed a flouncy floral number.
i do believe, i, like the frontierswomen, spend more time thinking about the fashion of my apron than i do the clothes i wear underneath. in either case, not so much.
but then, before we leave this apron drawer, we must discuss the fact that there are many who do without.
i would say the reigning queen of this stripped-down kitchen style would have to be nigella. nigella lawson, of course, the british cooking goddess. the one who slinks around her london pad, wearing silky robe or bosom-hugging–and i mean hugging–three-quarter-sleeve cashmere sweater. (i read, i really did, that each of her cooking sweaters costs somewhere in the $300-to-$500 neighborhood. egad. i would tiptoe, yes i would, ‘round my canned ta-mah-toes, as she would say, if i donned such splendid threads at the cookstove.)
nigella and her decoutage, ample as it is, seem to have spawned a whole network of chesty wanna-be’s. checked in the food network lately? every single cooking dame is cooking at half mast (meaning half the mast is showing). and not a single one is tying on an apron.
so as we swing through the naked double-Os there in the kitchen, i will swing, once again, out of fashion. i will amble, yes i will, to my baking cupboard. i will haul the flour off the shelf, and always the apron with it.
i will tie one on, and make my clouds of brown-milled mess. and i shan’t give a single worry, for i will be duly dressed–for the cutting board and not the bedroom.

do you have an apron chronicle you would like to share? do you cook covered, or bare? tell me, tell me do….don’t leave me flapping on the line, like my life of aprons up above.

p.s. if you poke around the chair today, you will see all sorts of delicious kitchen-table shots. my sweet will, he of camera passion, made art for you and me. and we’ve hung it out for all to see. i do believe you’ll like it. i sure hope so.