On Aprons and the Cooks of Kitchens Past

Post by: Aleda

My great-grandmother Aleda Mary Agnes' Apron

Last week my mom gave me something incredible – my great-grandmother’s apron.  Now, I know this isn’t a post about markets, recipes or food news, but this fourth generation heirloom of my namesake, Aleda Mary Agnes, got me to thinking about all of the familial connections I feel when in my kitchen and why cooking good food from scratch can be both a labor of love and a reminder of loved ones.

This year has been an incredibly tough one for my family; in February we lost my husband’s dear grandmother, who was also my children’s beloved “Bisa”.  Bisa was undoubtedly not only the family matriarch in the best sense of the word but the best friend of both my husband and my son.  Her loss is so significant that it feels unbearable.  I asked my sister-from-another-mister Julia how she dealt with the loss of her Nona, and she told me what I needed to do to not forget was to start doing the things I would have done with her, to keep it all fresh.  And she was right.  Bisa was born and raised in Puerto Rico (which for the record has some of the best food in the world!).  Her English was not-so-great and my Spanish is embarrassingly atrocious.  But we shared one language on a very intimate level; the language of food.  Bisa and I shared a love of both cooking and eating food that is unmatched by most, and I was lucky enough to have her teach me some Boricua classics; rice & beans, gandules, bacalao, chicken & sofrito, tostones, all around some of the best foods I have ever been taught to make.  In return I cooked for her any chance I got, and our language together, when not the language of love we shared for our family, was the language we shared in the kitchen.

On mother’s day weekend this year I lost my own Nana, who I had a really special kinship with.  Many of my strongest qualities come straight from her.  I miss her all the time.  And now I have this apron, that connects me not only to her, but to my great-grandmother.  A fourth generation apron – something so simple yet so significant.  I can’t help but wonder what she made in that apron, and what my Nana’s favorite dishes as a girl were, and what she thought about watching her mother cooking in a farm kitchen in upstate New York.  My Nana was a great cook herself, and was known for making incredible pralines, which I am determined to have a go at before the year is out.

To confirm that the saying “when it rains it pours” exists for good reason, this Thursday I went to Virginia to say good-bye to my dear Aunt Florence, who was buried alongside my uncle Big Bob at Arlington National Cemetery, a decorated war hero who doubled (tripled really) as an amazing family man, and a really really great baker.  He baked banana bread that was just out of this world.  I can still remember running through the kitchen and around their house as a small girl with my cousins, smelling good things awaiting in the kitchen.  On Thursday, at their house for the first time in years, I got to visit that fond house of my youth for what will be the last time.  I was taken aback to smell that it still smelled the same; I could see myself at 6 racing with my cousins Jeff & Sarah in the basement or coming out from the pool.  And now Big Bob’s banana bread will be added to my list of must-learns.

Julia was right; every time I miss these most incredible loved ones, I can cook their food.  The smells that once got my stomach grumbling in their kitchens will fill mine. And this is a lesson I have been carrying on through a year of insurmountable loss.  When I’m missing Bisa, my kitchen will be filled with the scents of tostones, rice & beans, sazon, bacalao.  When I miss my grandmother Marion I bake beer bread.  When I miss my Nana, I will wear her mother’s apron, and I will learn to make pralines, and when I miss Florence & Big Bob I will do my best to replicate the sweet smell of homemade banana bread.  In doing this, I will not only feel those connections to my loved ones and to my youth, I will also be able share them with my own children in a deliciously tangible way.

Much love and gratitude to my cooks of kitchens past, for all that you taught me in the kitchen & beyond.  I hope that all of you readers out there are blessed with family and love as much I have been.

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