Legendary chef Julia Child is immortalized in an exhibit that makes you feel as if you’re hamming it up right along with her.Paula Johnson remembers the first time she walked into Julia Child’s kitchen. She and two other colleagues from the Smithsonian had traveled to Cambridge, Mass., to speak with Child and hear the story of the woman who not only became America’s first celebrity chef on TV but who also introduced the nation to French cuisine while cracking us up with a dash of humor. Paula recalls standing in Julia’s doorway and salivating, not at the smell of food, but at the prospect of collecting everything in her kitchen — the Garland gas range with its six burners; the blue or green Peg-Boards laden with well-used pots; the stoneware crocks with Julia’s simple masking-tape labels; even the magnets on her refrigerator door.
At the Smithsonian, Julia Child’s kitchen ranks up there with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and The First Ladies Collection as a draw. As video clips start playing from The French Chef, Julia’s first cooking show in the ’60s, a crowd gathers at the exhibit, attracted by the laughter at her on-screen antics. (“Today, the chicken sisters!” Julia crows over a lineup of raw roasters with their legs splayed like chorus girls.) “Total strangers will be laughing hysterically,” Paula says, “and they will start talking about food. It’s a different museum experience.”
Even amateur cooks can identify with the kitchen, remembering back to the kitchens of their moms or grandmothers, says Paula. She grew up in New Ulm, Minn., in a kitchen with pink, then avocado-colored and later white appliances, unlike Julia’s kitchen, which stayed with its blue-and-green color scheme from the day it was built in 1961. “I did not grow up in a kitchen with a six-burner Garland range,” admits Paula, laughing, “but the linoleum is the same one my mom had.”
Paula and her Smithsonian colleagues stayed two days in Julia’s kitchen, exploring everything including the junk drawer where Julia kept the signaling mirror from her days as a top-secret researcher at the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, during World War II. “We inventoried everything,” says Paula, who was stumped a few times for names of gadgets. (Manche à gigot, anyone? “She had two,” Paula says and laughs. They hold a leg of lamb.)
Today, Julia Child’s kitchen shares a new, larger Smithsonian space with the food stars who followed her — Graham Kerr, Jamie Oliver and Emeril Lagasse, among others. They are all part of the new exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” Collecting TV dinner trays, fondue pots and pasta makers for the exhibit was easy, but how do you show the influx of cooking influences from other continents or the centralization of production for foods such as lettuce, or the changes in consumption that led to the local-food movement? “How do you convey fresh?” Paula asks. “We can’t have a plate of micro-greens and goat cheese with a drizzle of olive oil every day in the museum.”
The answer lies in the people behind the changes, ranging from the Cuellar brothers of the El Chico chain in Texas, who popularized Tex-Mex food, to chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., who spread the gospel of fresh, local food. For the new exhibit, Paula and her co-curators traveled to Napa Valley to sniff out materials for the wine section and to her native Minnesota to visit the archives of Nordic Ware, creators of the Bundt pan and the first microwave go-round. “We wanted to put the Julia Child story into the larger story of food history in the United States,” Paula says. Some of the people are familiar, such as Mariano Martinez, who invented the frozen margarita maker. Others are obscure. Orla Watson? He invented the telescoping grocery cart.
Julia’s kitchen is on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History until at least 2017. A demonstration kitchen is set to open in 2015 in a new education center. To that news, Julia would undoubtedly say a hearty “Bon appétit!”
CATHY BOOTH THOMAS was a Time magazine correspondent and bureau chief for 22 years, covering major figures from Steve Jobs to Fidel Castro. Her best gig was four years in Rome, where she learned to cook.