We recently visited friends in Virginia, and while doing some things in D.C., we stopped in to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In particular, we wanted to see Julia Child’s kitchen. I’ve seen it before, but it’s so special, I could see it again and again and notice something new every time. This time I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was part of a larger exhibit called FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.
We didn’t have much time to spend there since the museum was about to close, but I managed to make it through most of it. (Mark got mesmerized by a video of Julia Child cooking a lobster and didn’t make it through the whole exhibit. I don’t really blame him. She was quite the character.)
The exhibit started off by talking about how the last half of the 20th century was an incredibly transformative time for food in America – not only what we eat, but how we get our food, how we eat it, and what it means culturally.
The centerpiece of the exhibit was a large table where people could sit and talk. There were discs of information on the table that functioned like lazy susans and were conversation starters.
I was really excited to come across an old copy of Mother Earth News in a display about progressive food movements. I’m a subscriber today to the same magazine!
The entire exhibit was fascinating, and also was beautifully designed. I wanted to read every caption (and dream of making it back there before the exhibit closes).
Of course the real highlight of the exhibit is Julia Child’s kitchen, which is a reconstruction of her own home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Paul Child, her husband, had the counters specially designed to accommodate her height, and created the pegboards that held her pans, complete with outlines.
I’ve always been a fan of Julia – I’ve read a lot of books on her life, as well as her own books. One year I was Julia for Halloween (albeit a 4’11” version of her). During our first visit to the Smithsonian exhibit, Mark noticed the saint hanging on the pegboard with her cookware.
He did some research and found out it was Saint Pascal Baylon, one of the patron saints of cooks. So as a gift, he had this made for me to hang in our kitchen. (The photo is terrible and doesn’t do it justice.)
If you take joy in cooking like I do or you enjoy eating foreign foods, you probably owe some of that to Julia Child’s legacy. She made cooking outside of the box accessible to Americans with an infectious enthusiasm. She encouraged people to be fearless in the kitchen and try things they would never have considered.
Check out episodes of “The French Chef” if you get the chance. In a world with glorified cooking shows that make everything seem glamorous and easy in the kitchen and food stylists manipulating meals to make your mouth water, it’s gratifying to watch Julia drop things on the floor and make a royal mess. I especially enjoy the episode where she flops a giant fish onto her counter.
Make it a point to see this exhibit when you’re in the D.C. area!