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Food + Cooking

10 Questions for the Smithsonian Curators Who Cooked Up Julia Child's Kitchen Exhibit

Published in Gourmet Live 08.15.12
Gourmet Live's Esther Sung chats with the National Museum of American History's Paula Johnson and Rayna Green, who take us behind the scenes of the beloved French Chef's kitchen exhibit and a major new American food installation
Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian

Julia Child's kitchen, as re-created at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

In tandem with Julia Child's centennial, August 15, 2012, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History is marking a decade of success—and a big future—for its famous exhibit of Julia's kitchen. Titled Bon Appétit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian, the exhibit opened in August 2002 and quickly became one of the museum's best-loved attractions. To the dismay of many, the museum closed the exhibit in January 2012, albeit for a good cause: refreshing and reinstalling it as the centerpiece of Food: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000, a new, more comprehensive American food and wine exhibition slated to open this fall. To celebrate what would have been the iconic author and TV chef's 100th birthday, the museum is temporarily reopening Julia's kitchen to visitors from August 15 to September 3. After that, you'll have to wait until November, when Food is ready for public consumption.

At this turning point, Gourmet Live checked in with Paula Johnson and Rayna Green, the co-curators of Food, who also worked closely with Julia Child back in 2001. Learn how NMAH prepared for the acquisition of Julia's kitchen, what they found in her junk drawer, and why America can't get enough of the French Chef.

Gourmet Live: How did you learn about Julia Child's plans to leave Cambridge, Massachusetts—and her famous kitchen there—in 2001?

Paula Johnson: We learned about Julia Child's departure the same way many people did—from The New York Times. John Leland's article, "Change of Scene, if Not Cuisine," appeared on July 26, 2001, revealing Julia's plans to leave her home of 43 years and return to her native California and its milder winters. This is the sort of news that generates a frisson of speculation and causes museum curators to gather in corridors to ask a lot of questions, and in very special circumstances, to leap into action. For us at NMAH, we wondered: Is Julia alright? Who can we call? What will happen to the kitchen and all of her things? Can we meet with her? Shall we call her? The leaping had begun.

But on the way to that first phone call, we had to answer our own phones, which were ringing off the hook. Various friends and colleagues, foodies and culinary historians alike, were urging us to follow up with Julia. For them, it was a no-brainer: Julia Child's kitchen simply belonged at the Smithsonian, where it could be appreciated by her throngs of devoted fans, and inspire those who would surely become fans once they learned about her. Our approach had to be more deliberate, however, because of the huge commitment involved in acquiring artifacts for the national collections. "In perpetuity" is a long time, and that's the commitment we make to caring for the collections.

GL: What was the acquisitions process like?

PJ: Curator Rayna Green and project manager Nanci Edwards had met Julia years before at a Napa wine event, and they were the ones who dialed Julia's number. They were surprised to hear that familiar voice on the other end of the line when she answered the phone! When Rayna asked if we could schedule a visit, Julia invited us to "come ahead!" The three of us soon found ourselves climbing the rear stairs of Julia Child's home on Irving Street, which brought us right to the kitchen threshold.

As she welcomed us in, Julia suggested we all take a seat around the kitchen table, her favorite place for meeting with people and having conversations. We had gone up thinking we might simply discuss a donation of "the most significant" objects—her big Garland range, a set of whisks and knives, and perhaps the kitchen table—but once we got there, we all experienced another frisson: The entire room was the artifact. The arrangement of tools and work spaces; the 1960s color scheme; the simple cabinetry and butcher block countertops; the placement of pots and pans on Peg-Boards; the sheer number and variety of utensils above the range—all of these added up to tell a bigger, richer, deeper story than a handful of "significant" pieces ever could. We all agreed that we needed to ask her about collecting the entire kitchen.

We spent a day and a half inventorying all the contents of the 14- by 20-foot room. Julia allowed us access to every nook and cranny, and left us to our work. As Nanci and I measured the walls and cabinetry to create an accurate plan, Rayna video-recorded all the contents in the cabinets and drawers. We followed up with a complete listing of everything, categorized by location. The more we worked, the more we appreciated Julia's organizational style and her curatorial sensibilities. Her labels on various containers undoubtedly helped people working in her kitchen to put things back where they belonged, but they also helped us understand her more.

When our inventory was complete, we returned to Washington, D.C., ready to request permission to collect the more than 1,000 items that made up the kitchen. On September 18, 2001, the museum's collections committee voted to accept the donation of the kitchen and the rest, as they say, is history.

GL: What was Julia's reaction to your proposal of a donation? Was she surprised by your interest?

PJ: She did seem surprised at the interest, and we learned later that she phoned her niece to discuss our request. Julia was very thoughtful and asked us a lot of questions. We spoke about NMAH and our work documenting American food and wine history. She read us correctly: Our intent was not to focus on her celebrity, but on her work environment and what it represented, and how it reflected her role as a cook, teacher, mentor, and woman who felt passionately about food. We also reassured her that we would not damage the house—that is, we would not remove the walls and windows and floorboards!

But Julia had a soft spot for the Smithsonian that dated back to her work in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] during World War II. It was during that time she met Mary Livingston and Livingston's future husband, S. Dillon Ripley, who served as the Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1964 to 1984. And in the 1970s, the National Air and Space Museum showed a video of Julia cooking up "Primordial Soup" in "The Universe" gallery. We believe her soft spot for the Smithsonian played into her ultimate decision to donate the kitchen.

GL: Can you describe the process of preparing the kitchen for display the second time? And will there be any changes?

PJ: We didn't catalog everything again, but we examined every object and prepared condition reports. We de-installed the kitchen in January 2012, capturing it on video. Students from George Washington University's Museum Studies program examined every object, looking for signs of wear or deterioration. The students helped the museum identify those objects that needed special attention—typically a good cleaning—prior to going back on display.

In May 2012, the historic-restoration specialists who had taken the kitchen apart in Cambridge started installing the large architectural elements—the cabinets, sink, and countertops—in the new space. In early July, the major appliances—the big Garland range, the refrigerator, convection oven, and ice maker—were carefully put into place. The smaller items followed, including her pots and pans, knives, countertop utensils, and the like.

The major difference visitors will notice with the new installation is that they can now walk around the perimeter of the room. We also added new viewing portals by opening the kitchen windows above the sink and countertops. This will allow up-close-and-personal views of some of Julia's favorite tools, including her KitchenAid stand mixer and food processor. Our aim is to keep what people loved about Bon Appétit, including the video clips from Kitchen Wisdom, and to make the space as welcoming and engaging as Julia herself.

GL: Julia's kitchen is now part of a new exhibition, Food: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000, which tells the story of American food and wine in recent decades. What is the bigger picture, and how does Julia Child fit into it?

PJ: Food is a very hot topic these days, and there are many ways people are becoming more involved with this fundamental, essential topic, with books, blogs, television celebrity chefs, and even the First Lady's health initiatives. Here at NMAH, we've been working behind the scenes for many years conducting research, collecting artifacts and documents, and consulting with advisors to develop a project that will engage the public in an exploration of food and wine in America.

Our conceptual framework is: Between 1950 and 2000, new technologies and social and cultural changes transformed how and what we eat. This period of profound change in American life was characterized by the widespread adoption of new technologies and innovations in food production, but also by big demographic and cultural changes that influenced American food and foodways. Among the topics we'll be exploring are some of the new foods and flavors introduced by immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America; the postwar shift to suburban living and the rise of outdoor grilling and male grillmasters; the impact of counterculture movements on food production and the roots of the "good food" movement; and shifts in gender roles as well as workplace and family patterns that influenced what's on the table, who's in the kitchen, who's at the table, and many more markers of the reshaping of the American table.

Julia Child was one of many forces of change when it comes to food in America in the second half of the 20th century. Through her cookbooks and television series, she inspired many Americans to venture into the unknown—at first, French cuisine—and to pay attention to and take pleasure in preparing food. She did this at a time when the mainstream message was all about convenience and on-the-go eating. Julia's kitchen reflects this time period, as well; it contains tools she acquired at the Paris flea market in 1948 alongside items she collected and used right up to 2001. Her kitchen anchors the new exhibition, and Julia Child's legacy is one of the strong currents of change that will guide our continuing exploration of food in American history.

GL: How and why did Julia Child's focus on French food appeal to the American palate?

Rayna Green: Julia always said that she came along at just the right time. In the 1960s, Americans were emerging from the 1950s postwar insularity. The Kennedys, with their tastes for all things French, were in the White House and serving French food to guests. Many Americans, with their newfound affluence, were traveling and returning with affection for what they ate and drank abroad. While post-Prohibition America was rebuilding the wine industry, Julia offered up a very American enthusiasm for that very European habit of enjoying wine at the table. People enjoyed the simplifying access she offered to food that had once seemed complicated, fussy, and exotic. Was everybody in the United States suddenly enjoying a glass of wine with their Sunday pot roast? Certainly not. But more people than ever before tackled the boeuf bourguignon that Julia taught them, and many more found two bottles necessary: one for the pot and one to fill the new wineglasses at dinner.

GL: Peg-Boards seem to be making a comeback in kitchens. How has Julia Child's own kitchen design and storage scheme influenced contemporary kitchen design?

RG: We wish we had a nickel for every inquiry we've had about Julia's kitchen design! We receive many requests for copies of her kitchen plans—sorry, we don't have them—the names and numbers of her paint colors, and sources for reproductions of some of the paintings and decorative objects in the kitchen… There are some people who want to redo their kitchens just like Julia's. Design and lifestyle magazines started writing about her kitchens in France and Cambridge as early as 1966, and they ratcheted up the interest levels again after we opened Bon Appétit!.

All the pots and tools hung on Peg-Boards around the kitchen, and they always garnered attention, even back then. And indeed, folks are once again drawn to Julia and Paul's unique solution for storing kitchen tools. But few ever appeared to be attracted to Julia's other unique DIY solutions for keeping things on hand and insuring that they get put back right where they were before: her DYMO-labeled instructions for operating the food disposal—"No artichoke leaves!"—the pot outlines executed with marking pens on the Peg-Boards, the masking tape labels on containers—those designs were unique, personal, inimitable, and forever, just like Julia.

GL: What was the most surprising thing—knickknack, utensil, recipe, piece of equipment—you found while first working on the kitchen in 2001? Have you made any new discoveries since then?

RG: We found all sorts of surprises in Julia's cabinets and drawers, especially in her kitchen junk drawer, amidst the dead flashlights, bits of string, and candle stubs. A small box with a well-used metal Champagne cork labeled as a gift from James Beard sat next to a World War II signaling mirror, the kind the OSS would have issued to Julia. When we catalogued her wonderful Norwegian kitchen table, we discovered several banana stickers and pieces of chewing gum under the table. Our questions to her revealed that the banana stickers were placed there by her banana-loving husband Paul, and the chewing gum came from her nephews. We confirmed the gum with one of her nephews, Max. By the way, they're all still under the table.

GL: How do visitors react to seeing Julia's kitchen?

RG: On the day we first opened Julia's kitchen to the public in 2002, more than 100 people were lined up to see it. We learned that the tour-mobile operators that traverse all the D.C. tourist areas had already begun to announce that the museum now housed Julia Child's kitchen along with the beloved Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz. People would walk into the museum, go right to the Visitors' Information desk, and ask, "Where's Julia?" We noticed that visitors had a longer "stay" time in Julia's kitchen than in other exhibits, and some visitors would just stand to watch the full 90-minute video of Julia.

Old fans and young instant converts alike have all assembled, exclaimed over the refrigerator magnets and copper pots, and shared "their Julia" with each other. The movie Julie and Julia and every new Julia-centered book since have brought in a wave of multigenerational and multinational pilgrims to the kitchen. Our staff members confess that a touch of Julia—a quick visit to the kitchen and a brief mingle with the happy crowd—brightens up even the grayest day.

GL: Would you say that Julia's enthusiasm has rubbed off on you and your colleagues as cooks and curators?

RG: Our entire team is filled with good cooks, good eaters, and good thinkers about food, food history, and food cultures. Personally, nothing could have made me a more enthusiastic cook than I already was B.J.—Before Julia. I've loved cooking since I was a child, and in my 55-plus years of adulthood, I've been happily active in cooking and learning all I can about food, food history, and food cultures. Julia's first television shows and cookbooks caught me, and lots of other people, at a time in my personal and intellectual development when I was the hungriest for an expanded experience of everything the world had to offer. And working for over 10 years with Julia's kitchen just put me more deeply into that learning curve in order to fulfill the public's hunger for all things Julia.