Counter Intelligence: Tugs at the Apronstrings

Tuesday's unappealing experience of having chunks of melon thrown all over me made me realize that what I really need (aside from better cooking skillz) is an apron. Chefs and aprons go together like spaghetti and meatballs, but I'm usually not a fan of them until I discover dried splatters of food on my upper arms the morning after I've cooked a meal. At the pub where I worked as a short-order cook, we had to wear giant polyester chef's coats, which look lovely and stylish on 6'2" male chefs and laughable on 5'3" tiny women. Usually the girls would snarl over the single bib apron available, but otherwise we were stuck with hot, scratchy, decidedly un-streamlined size XL coats (you could fit your legs comfortably in the armholes. I mean, I assume...).

Although I suppose I could splurge on a beautiful, breathable, size-and-gender-appropriate chef's coat, I'm more fascinated by the wide world of aprons.

The thing that struck me most, as I searched the Internet tubes for pictures of aprons, is how lovely and beautiful most of them are. Far from "Kiss the Cook" iterations, aprons--especially old-style--are sweet, gauzy, and charming, looking more like dresses or boldly-patterned skirts than kitchen style. This can be challenging to pull off if you don't like to cook in solid-colored A-line dresses (and heels), but from an aesthetic standpoint, they are certainly nice to look at.

I think, as sweet as they are, aprons get a bad rap in that, for centuries, they were considered de rigueur apparel for women, as, aside from makin' the babies, the main job of women was to cook (in the 1800s, women were more likely to wear an apron than a pair of underwear. Oh history...). The very existence of the charming little number known as a "hostess apron" is proof that, for women of the much-maligned and -revered 1950s, yes, you could throw a rollicking good party, but you were still at work, sweeping in and out of the kitchen in your delicate little lace apron. Aprons are also just about the polar opposite of chef's coats. The coats are all about square shoulders, rolled up sleeves, wide torsos. They are big and blank, worn primarily for the purpose of keeping boiling oil and sticky flour off the chef's arms and clothes. By contrast, floaty aprons the size of cocktail napkins could barely withstand a gentle hand-wiping, let alone a sauce-covered meatball heading straight for your chest (it could happen).

So, being a woman (last time I checked), rhapsodizing over beruffled, embroidered, bow-covered aprons can feel a little like betraying the feminist heroes of yore, who saw aprons as yet another symbol of female disenfranchisement ("Burn Those Aprons" had less of a ring to it). Still, I can appreciate the resurging popularity of cute, kitschy, tongue-in-cheek aprons as an attempt to poke fun at and circumvent their relationship with female service (is it too obvious that I once took a class on women, gender, and sexuality? No? Ok cool). More than anything, I'm fascinated that they are so pretty and delicate, when most serious cooking is hard, dirty, sweaty work. It can be a little disconcerting to have this ideal of the perfect cook who doesn't spill a drop on her silk-and-satin apron, but I appreciate the attempt to make cooking a little prettier, a little more fun, and a little more of an occasion to dress up.

Ok, musings aside, I like aprons to be both pretty and hardy, preferably patterned so as not to show splatters too often (pristine white chef coats are for people with very good washing machines). And since my normal cooking attire (and living attire) is a pair of jeans matched with a solid t-shirt (and sneakers! shoes--with good arch support and the ability to withstand heavy and hot things--are veeeery important for cooking), I also like aprons to not be so over-the-top girly to look too fancy by comparison. Here are some of my favorites, from spunky to sweet, from delicate to dishwasher (wearer) safe.

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