INKLINGS: On aprons

  • Thursday, February 14, 2013

My friend and fellow Summerville Writers Guild member Dena Phillips recently sent me an insightful and charming email about the apron. I’m sure this bit of apron history intrigued her because she writes insightful and charming stories about growing up in her family of sisters.
Her missive couldn’t have come at a better time for me as I was just bemoaning the fact that I seem to have more aprons than the clothes that go under them. That’s because, frankly I’m an absentminded klutz who spills a lot and tends to wipe her hands on whatever she’s wearing. That pondering led me to wonder why chefs often don identically styled white cover ups. If I were a chef, I’d surely need a daily dozen of those starched, heavy cotton jackets with long sleeves and knotted buttons. But why white of all things, seemingly the easiest color to soil?
Turns out there are reasons. First the heavy cotton helps insulate from hot places like ovens and stovetops and is a breathable material that lets body heat escape. Long sleeves protect arms reaching across burners or into ovens. Cotton absorbs liquids. Jackets with those knotted buttons can be stripped off more easily during a hot oil spill and they don’t melt or crumble, dropping bits and pieces into food. And after all, bleach cures most white woes.
There are many types of aprons, including cobbler and smock which pretty much envelope you – the best option for yours truly – and a similar kind known in England as the “pinny,” short for the basic design of a pinafore. In 1950s television, you hardly ever saw the perfect wife portrayed without an apron. Today’s aprons are more stylish, but I still don’t see them much on TV. Come to think of it I also don’t see them much on my daughters or daughter-in-law, or on my son or sons-in law – who also cook. They obviously are more nimble in evading stains than the matriarch of my kitchen. But apron history goes back even farther than the 1950s or even into my grandmother’s day. Some researchers cite the Bible, referencing a passage in which Adam and Eve sewed together fig leaves to make aprons to cover themselves.
Into this forum comes Dena’s apron history email. Acknowledging the apron was a protection in grandma’s day, it was also used for a variety of caring things, such as drying children’s tears as well as cleaning out their ears They carried eggs from the henhouse as well as wood chips from the yard, plus fruits and vegetables from the garden. Aprons served as a last minute duster when unexpected company came and as a signal used by grandma waving it overhead to call men folk to dinner from the farm fields. Today’s government, it notes, would go crazy trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron. The email ends with this nostalgia, “I don’t think I ever caught anything from an apron but love.”
Come to think of it for most of us in my age bracket, i.e., drifting along somewhere between our sixth and eight decades, there are a lot of apron memories of our own mothers and grandmothers. And thanks to Dena’s sharing, we can smile a little at the history of what we are doing every time we put one on.

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