There is an island off the coast of Maine where part of my soul was formed. Every summer during my childhood, my family spent a month there in an 100-year-old summerhouse passed down from my grandparents.
When I was 23, I worked a couple months for a contractor on the island and did odd jobs around our drafty place. With summer folks gone, the general store had cut back to only necessities. A red tide had made mussels and clams possibly poisonous, and therefore off limits. Mackerel were easy to catch, but tiny and full of bones. With rations thus slimmed, I raided summer gardens left to rot and began teaching myself to bake.
In our kitchen, I found a powder blue ‘70s-era Joy of Cooking, which I read as much for its prose as for its recipes:
“Once upon a time, when the English language was young, the word from which the modern English ‘lady’ sprang meant ‘loaf kneader’… If you have never made yeast bread, behold one of the great dramas of the kitchen. Every ingredient is a character. As a producer-director, assemble your cast. Yeast is the prima donna…”
One night at about 11 pm, as I dug through the dishtowel drawer for an apron, I lifted out a little yellow number that clearly had been my grandmother Jean’s. I put it on and looked down. Damn, I’m sexy, I thought. Tight fit, flower print and ruffles–it fit perfectly.
My grandmother flew airplanes in the thirties. Her older brother once said, “No sister of mine’s going to medical school.” So, she went to medical school and then became Commissioner of Health for the state of Maryland. Strong-willed, intelligent, proud, loving, callous, stubborn and unhappy: Jean was intensely each of these things in turn at different times in her life.
I wonder what else I inherited from Jean Rose. Certainly my bust, waistline and the shape of my hips. Did she ever bake in the apron? Not the bread, popovers and biscuits I made as that fall descended, damp and cold, on the Maine coast. Maybe she made muffins, but more likely, I imagine she wore it while preparing steak, potatoes and beans.