Friday, February 17, 2012

Obsession: Vintage aprons

I have always had a problem with chef wear. Those starchy, hot, white jackets, ill fitting and constrictive. An air of military and confinement. The starchy tall white hats, totally impractical and ridiculous. This uniform, set standard by men chefs, likely in some cold European country, for me is an act of garment terror.
I did not learn to cook from men, nor in the confinement of a culinary school. I wore a uniform for 12 years attending private Parochial schools in my youth, and had enough of uniforms when I began to cook. Thankfully, none of the kitchens I worked in demanded that I wear a uniform and only for the so called ‘chef events’ was I asked to wear one. I did, reluctantly.
Over the years I have cultivated my own personal cook wear, consisting of a pretty eccentric collection of vintage kitchen aprons and matching Chuck Taylor’s.  For years I wore overalls and bandanas. Kitchens are hot, and the work is demanding and rigorous, and although one has to protect oneself against the elements, it’s crucial to be comfortable and need I say, stylish!
When I wear these aprons, it evokes for me all the amazing talented women who allowed me into their kitchens. Beginning with my maternal Lebanese Grandmother Alexandria,, who is my base note, my Welch father’s sisters who lived in Rodeo, California who taught me how to bake and preserve. The elaborate, embroidered aprons worn by the women I came to love and admire during my sojourn in southern Portugal, these women living on farms and in small villages, running tiny cafes and mastering the cuisine of the Levant.  The women at the farmer’s markets up in the hills, selling kale or chickens, or tomatoes, wearing checkered or floral or Mickey Mouse aprons over their black widows garb. All of these women wore these kinds of aprons, that they wiped their hands on, soothed the tears of a child with, wiped up a spill of olive oil on the counter, dusting off the nose of a messy dog, blowing their noses.
The marketplace in Oaxaca, a symphony of color and delight as every woman there , adorned by a beautiful handmade apron, the eye feasts and is transported by the dizzy combinations of pattern and color.
These aprons are made by hand; you can see the stitching, and the care that went into their design. The lively and curious fabrics, carefully chosen, whimsical, ironic, often sexy and provocative, a wee bit of metallic somewhere to insinuate a festive night.  A ruffle here, an applique there. Each carry within them a story, every one of them, with stubborn stains that will not come out, the cross stitch of someone's name on the hem.  A red wine stain, a spot of gravy, a hint of charcoal.
This legacy carries generations of cooking and nurturing and kitchen fashion and for me this is where my heart lies, in the holding of our style statement, as a woman, a chef, and obsessive collector of a beautiful, historical tradition.

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