My mother, who dressed in fine wools and natural cottons, wore an apron almost all the time. Me, well, given my propensity toward blue jeans and all, not so much. Several weeks back though, when I spoke to one of the coordinators for the “Friends of Elders” on the night before my first volunteer day, I asked her what I needed and she suggested an apron. Once I arrived, I understood why. We not only cook at home to provide for the senior “guests, ” but also set up tables and chairs, lay tablecloths, brew coffee, serve food, wash dishes, scrub counters, sweep floors, and then pack up all the dishware into plastic totes and lug them out to the cars. An apron is a logical preventative.
On that night though, before my first time, the need for an apron made me recognize the kind of cook I am. I have one apron that I particularly like, unrefined white cotton printed with a green leaf attached to a stem of purple grapes and wine appellations written across it: Beaujolais Villages, Chianti, Bordeaux, Lambrusco, Petite Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon. As I looked at it more closely however, there were other decorations adorning the cloth. Since an apron is more of a special-cooking-event accessory than one I use every day, I was pretty sure what I was looking at. Certainly, stains from successive Thanksgivings, gravy, flour, pecan pie and evidence of actual cabernet. Then there is bread. Flour tends to spread in ever widening concentric circles when I knead foccacia, and though it washes off the apron, there is always a gluey residue left behind--we won’t even discuss what ends up on the floor. Other stains account for when we've entertained, juices from a pork loin, a red sauce or Bolognese, reduced balsamic vinegar.
My cooking is like my apron—it starts with a basic pattern or recipe, then gets splashed with additional ingredients. The difference is that with occasional exceptions, my cooking stands up to public scrutiny, the apron surely could not. That night, I grabbed at the other two aprons in our closet, one green and Christmas themed with a laughing Santa, the other emblazoned with the name of our local basketball team. Though clean, they all spelled out my enthusiasm in the kitchen; I tend to be pretty fearless, and pour with out measuring. In other words, the aprons were covered with spots.
Hoping it would help, I pretreated old stains and tossed them all into the wash, getting up early to put them in the dryer, but years of kitchen residue remained imbedded in the fibers--each cover-all contained a comprehensive ingredient list. Hmm, what to do? Reaching back into the closet I discovered one more apron that I didn’t remember, belonging to our daughter--a take away from a field trip to an international cooking festival when she was in sixth grade. Emblazoned on the front are the words “Cooking up Culture” but to me it read "Cooking up Clean." All that mattered was that it was pristine--suitable to wear as I dolled out coffee to thirty seniors.
Aprons. Really, I tend not to think of them. They are so much a part of the wallpaper when I'm in the kitchen. But that first morning at the coffee cafe, the two women running the program had beautiful (read, clean and starched) aprons with ruffles and flowers and appliqués and I calculated that they either don’t use those particular aprons at home, or have remarkable laundry skills. Not me. Knowing that each of those apron wearers were skilled in the kitchen too, I thought about asking how they kept theirs so clean, but didn’t, slightly chagrined at the thought that maybe there’s some hidden ring-around-the-collar-secret that I’d missed out on years ago.
Then I decided to forget the laundry. It's only when eating that we feast with our eyes first, right? After twenty-five years of perfecting my skills, I’m proud of the triumphs displayed all over my aprons.
That said, I made sure to wrap myself in my daughter’s cover for every volunteer event, hanging it carefully in the closet upon my return and making sure that it stayed clean.