Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs In and Out of the Kitchen
by Alyssa Shelasky
Three Rivers Press, 2012
Review by Dana Staves
In a month, I will be leaving my home in Virginia, relocating to the west coast to follow the woman I love, who has orders through the Navy to move to California, a state I’ve never been to on a coast I’ve never explored. I am going in good faith that I will find meaningful work, and happiness, because it’s not a choice of whether or not to continue my relationship. Where she goes, I go. Simple.
Alyssa Shelasky, author of the food memoir Apron Anxiety, began her food journey in earnest when she made a similar leap of faith and moved to Washington, D.C., to be with her boyfriend, a former contestant from Bravo’s Top Chef. He had opened a restaurant there, and she relocated in good faith that she would find meaningful work, happiness, and continue her relationship. But once she got to D.C., she felt alone, out of place. She called herself “a nobody.” In an effort to feel useful and valued and closer to her boyfriend, she began cooking.
Shelasky spends the first few chapters of her memoir establishing that she did not grow up a gourmand. No one took her to Paris or even to French restaurants; she wasn’t taught fleur de sel alongside long division; the height of gourmet cooking was her mother’s banana bread. And while Shelasky’s non-gourmet upbringing converges with mine (in my younger days, I would have mistaken fleur de sel for fleur de lis, and I started my culinary education with hot dogs and boxed macaroni and cheese), I had trouble relating to her at the beginning of her book. We’re both writers, but her stories of writing for People and UsWeekly, of late-night parties and glitzy dresses and high heels, completely lost me. I was intrigued by her life, but found it so separate, so different from mine.
But as I read more of her story, I began to relate to her on a soul-deep level and eventually found her to be a kindred spirit. Because, in my heart of hearts, I fear that feeling of being “a nobody.” I fear homesickness and unemployment and loneliness. I have had cooking on my side for years, and I know I can turn to it in times of need. But reading about Shelasky’s journey into cooking and the ways that it could provide her with the comfort and sustenance she needed reminded me that food is about so much more than basic nourishment: it’s about feeding ourselves, fulfilling what Shelasky calls “a longing inside, whether it’s for grace, survival, a renewed sense of self, or just the thrill of it all.”
Shelasky began cooking, partly to please her boyfriend and partly for salvation, an attempt to “[r]ise up from the sleeplessness, the friendlessness, and the homesickness.” She tells herself, “Please, girl, rise the hell up.” As I anticipate my move for the sake of love, I need to hear those words. I need to be reminded, now and in the future, to “rise the hell up.” And as Shelasky continued her education, even as her relationship strained and eventually broke, she grew to understand that “[e]verybody hurts and everybody is hungry.”
Sing it, sister.
Food isn’t perfunctory. It’s not just calories and vitamins. It’s comfort, it’s ritual, it’s tradition, and at times, it’s salvation. The kitchen isn’t just a room with a stove; it can be a safe haven, a home base. And while the culinary world can, at times, seem like an exclusive club, matters of food really come down to matters of the heart, feeding ourselves not just food but also love, and romance, and comfort, and hope. We can “rise the hell up,” and to power that uprising, there will be banana bread and rigatoni and fresh herbs. There will be Internet recipe searches and experiments in the kitchen. There will be Alyssa Shelasky’s story to remind us that “strong women [or men] don’t just happen.” We are crafted from homesickness, loneliness, struggle, and our will to climb up on top of a mountain of pasta and find our way from that new vantage point.