A Timeless Trip Through Time
Julia Child was inarguably one of the most influential culinary figures of the 20th century. And if you'd like to argue, let me posit this question: how many people do you know who have had their home kitchens enshrined at the Smithsonian?
In an age before the current cult of celebrity chefs, Julia's seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking had already made her a star when she first appeared on television in 1962 doing a cooking demo on how to prepare an omelette. Inspired by that success, her first series, The French Chef, hit the airwaves on Boston's WGBH on February 11, 1963. And history, both culinary and media, were about to be made.
Julia lived near Harvard University in a house at 103 Irving Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1961 until 2001. After putting up with flaws in eight previous kitchens, Julia knew exactly how she wanted this one to function. She mapped it all out and her husband, Paul, designed the kitchen to meet her needs as a place where she could not only cook for the home, but also research and develop her recipes. To that end, he raised the maple counter tops in the kitchen by two inches to accommodate Julia's towering 6' 2” height. He selected a light blue-green paint for the room's overall color scheme. Covering the walls with pegboard, Paul used a marker to outline all of Julia's numerous pots and pans, ensuring that there was a place for everything and that everything would be in its place. This comfortable, efficient space would later serve as the setting for three of Julia's TV shows. Discreet poles and brackets were added so that appropriate lighting could be hung when the shows were filming. When tape was rolling, the table and chairs made way for an island equipped with a built-in cooktop and prep surface. Everything else in the room was authentic Julia, right down to her wall oven with the squeaky door.
Paul Child died in 1994. A few years later, Julia decided to return to her native California. In August 2001, representatives of the Smithsonian Institution met with her to discuss the possibility of preserving her iconic kitchen in the National Museum of American History. Her former home near the Harvard campus still stands and is now a private residence. But the kitchen was painstakingly removed and reconstructed as a historic artifact currently on display on the ground floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. To be clear, the kitchen you see there is not a museum replica. It is Julia's actual kitchen, complete with her appliances, cookware, furnishings, and an endless number of her favorite cooking tools and gadgets.
I was in Washington, D.C. recently and paid a visit to Julia's kitchen. It was as amazing as I expected it would be; a timeless trip through time. The 14 x 20 space, viewed through three glass viewports placed in the actual door openings that led to other rooms in the house, is like a wonderful time capsule. Julia's pots and pans are outlined and hung on pegboard just as Paul designed. There are no fancy curtains in Julia's kitchen, just simple blinds, open for viewing from the outside now, but once providing a look outward at tree-lined Irving Street. You can see an automatic icemaker tucked away in one corner, a practical necessity for keeping foods fresh during long taping sessions. Sixteen baking sheets rest in vertical slots next to the dishwasher. Oils and vinegars live on a countertop near the stove, with a variety of spices, teas, coffees, and syrups in a cabinet above. Julia liked cats in her kitchen. Maybe not real ones, but you'll see artistic representations of several spotted around the room. Although she relied on the handier electric wall-oven for her TV shows, her “big Garland” still dominates the room. Purchased used for $429 from a Washington, D.C. restaurant and shipped to Cambridge, the six-burner Garland commercial gas stove, big enough to hold two 25-pound turkeys, stands in its place near the main kitchen door. Look carefully and you'll see a handmade needlework sign that depicts Julia's famous “Bon Appetit” catchphrase displayed high on one wall. It was a gift
Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian serves as a centerpiece to the museum’s ongoing Food: Transforming the American Table 1950 – 2000 exhibit. Surrounding the kitchen are numerous signs and displays related to Julia's cooking, her career, and her influence on America's food scene in general. Tapes of one of her programs play on a continuous loop. There's even a life-size cut-out of Julia with which you can pose for a photo-op. (Need you ask? Of course I did.)
Also in the exhibit are areas dedicated to “New and Improved!” consumer goods; “Resetting the Table,” highlighting the immense changes Americans have experienced in what and how they eat, and in how they think and feel about food; and “Wine for the Table,” a fascinating look at American viticulture.
As with all Smithsonian properties, admission to the National Museum of American History is free. While Julia's kitchen is a great attraction, don't miss other important treasures housed at the museum, including Thomas Jefferson's desk, George Washington's uniform, Edison's light bulb, Archie and Edith's chairs from All In The Family, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Greensboro Lunch Counter, and, of course, the Star-Spangled Banner. Allow yourself plenty of time to explore and absorb everything. The museum is home to more than three million artifacts. Going in with the idea that you can knock it out before lunch will really lessen the experience.
The National Museum of American History is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, DC. Open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm, you can call the museum at (202) 633-1000 or visit the website at http://americanhistory.si.edu.
The museum offers quite a delicious plateful. As Julia would say, “Bon appetit!”