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Julia in Apron


Family Style—Rochelle Udell Believes In Uniforms

Family Style — Rochelle Udell Believes In Uniforms

My father was patient and exacting, as bakers must be. He was quiet, five-feet eleven-inches tall, handsome and conscious of how he looked. Every day at our family’s bakery, he wore heavy white cotton pants, a shirt and a white cotton apron tied around his waist as he quietly weighed out and kneaded bread dough. On his diabetic feet, he wore big black shoes, cushioned with thick rubber soles so that he could stand long hours. My father called those shoes his money makers.” The bakery cats, Elizabeth and Klein, diligently licked them spit-shine clean of any fallen flour. Elizabeth, a beautiful black cat was named after Elizabeth Taylor in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Klein, a black and white cat, was named after Franz Klein, the abstract expressionist painter who created distinctive monochromatic paintings. My father, a vision in white — his uniform — was immaculate, precise. No chocolate or icing touched his ensemble.

On the other hand, my mother had limited patience and rushed everything. Lively, anxious and not much interested in style or fashion, she wore a white dress-like uniform made of heavy baker’s white cotton, with an apron that went over her neck and covered most of the front of her body. By the end of a morning of noisily emptying trays and pans of just-baked breads and cakes, walking back and forth between the ovens and the display cases in the front of the store, she needed a new apron and a bath. 

My mother believed in aprons and also wore aprons at home. I had my first and last apron experience at the age of four — my mother, forty-four. I was her mini-me in a matching apron. Our aprons were white, designed with a double-stemmed cherry pattern and a red ruffle running along the bottom to the waistband and a small pocket on the right side. I am less of a cook and more of an eater, so a bib might have served me better to protect my clothes because I tasted everything we were making. 

Aprons were my mother’s protective armor going way back in her family. Her grandmother, (my great grandmother) was in charge of peeling the potatoes in their family bakery (southern Ukraine, 1900s). My mother told me her grandmother would hold her big apron by the corners and carry the potatoes from the storage cellar into the bakery to make kugels, bread and rolls. That apron, when it was empty and unfurled, also became a big curtain, that my mother, a mischievous child, would hide behind. She never told me what she was hiding from.

When my daughter, Julia Turshen, started teaching her online cooking classes, one day, she wore all black. She got covered in flour, and she knew she needed an apron. I was overjoyed to give her one. (That’s a picture of Julia in her apron ready to teach her cooking class.) My family’s aprons have always been more than our uniforms, utilitarian but also universal, symbols of our status as skilled tradespeople. Seeing my family wearing uniforms most days of the week had a major influence on me. It signaled to me that I was someone who serves others. 

Professionally, I worked in a different industry, the fashion industry, one built on trends. But I dressed in a uniform, mostly in many shades of black. It meant that I could get up and out the door quickly and travel to my work in publishing and retailing, which I loved. Privately, I struggled with fitting into the world of fashion.” I couldn’t reconcile being a baker’s daughter and being an arbiter of style. This led to on-again, off-again years of therapy.

One therapist said to me, You need to get over the bakery.” I couldnt get over the bakery, and after a lot of trying, I realized I didnt want to get over the bakery. What I learned in the bakery gave me solid skills I used in my work: motivating and recognizing people, the importance of creating a quality product and even, managing budgets and inventory. In the bakery, if you didn’t sell it or donate it, you ate it. Many of the things that made me successful in business, I learned in the bakery. So, I got over that therapist.