A Moving Trinbute

The Smithsonian Institution packs up Julia Child's famous kitchen - even the sink.

January 23, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - In her house at 103 Irving St., Julia Child is sitting at the big Norwegian pine table, reminiscing about the room that has become one of America's best-known kitchens.

"It's the beating heart of the home," she says, sipping a cup of coffee and nibbling on a well-buttered pastry.

At 89, Child is moving to a retirement community in Southern California. But the famous kitchen will be stripped to the bare plaster, carefully labeled and packed, and shipped to its new home at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington.

The Smithsonian was a natural choice, given the indelible mark Child's long career has made on American culture, from her landmark cookbooks to the public television series that helped create the market for today's plethora of food shows. There was a personal connection as well. Child and her late husband, Paul, enjoyed a long friendship with S. Dillon Ripley, longtime head of the Smithsonian.

FOR THE RECORD - The original story had the incorrect date of Paul Child's death. It has been corrected in this story.

"This is it. ... This is where we mostly lived," she says, looking around the kitchen painted in soothing shades of green and blue. "It has in it everything I use, including my fright knife."

At that, Stephanie Hersh, her longtime assistant, pulls out a knife about a foot long, the longest in an impressive collection.

"Julia's a knife freak," she says, "and a frying pan freak."

And, in fact, there are plenty of knives and frying pans neatly displayed around the room. On both sides of the window above the sink are magnetic strips, each holding 10 knives in descending order of size. Larger pieces like the fright knife are stored separately.

Frying pans perch on pegboards covering much of the kitchen's wall space. Each has a designated spot, its shape neatly outlined by Paul Child years ago. Paul was an artist and diplomat whose love of fine food inspired his wife's passion for cooking and teaching others to cook.

They moved into this house in 1961. As her career expanded, Paul became her chief cheerleader and an indispensable helper, doing everything from washing pots and pans during cooking demonstrations to helping edit her manuscripts. He died in 1996.

The kitchen has been the setting for In Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs, and two other public television cooking shows, the site of endless recipe testing for her many books and countless cook-fests with celebrity chefs, friends and fellow foodophiles.

It's an eminently practical kitchen, with butcher-block counter tops installed at 38 inches to accommodate Child's 6-foot- 2-inch height. The floors are a tough, industrial vinyl. Along the length of the ceiling are two metal rods that held television lights. Inside one cabinet is a mirror installed at Child's height so she could check her makeup and hair during television tapings.

Dominating one corner is the big, six-burner Garland Commercial Range (Model 182). The stove was purchased by the Childs in 1956 before they bought this house. Julia Child describes it as "wonderful, indestructible," with a perfectly insulated oven. It also has a rarely used griddle, usually covered by a heavy aluminum cover and used as counter space.

Because many people worked in this kitchen, from Child's culinary colleagues and television crews to housesitters and cleaning people, there are Polaroid photos posted as references to clear up any confusion as to where a particular pan might hang.

The instructions for appliances are as precise as a classic Child recipe. Posted next to the garbage-disposal switch are directions for using the machine:

1. Remove sink stopper

2. Run cold water in sink

3. Start machine

4. Push food in gradually with brush

5. Do not pack or jam food into hole

6. Run 1/2 minute after grinding stops

Under the thermostat on another wall is a label for the air conditioner, with a note: "Don't turn on in winter."

The instructions may seem simplistic, but Child and Hersh have learned over the years that in such a busy kitchen it pays to be as detailed as possible.

Some people have called Child's move a "retirement," but that would be premature. She has some projects in mind - writing her memoirs, for one.

She says she will miss her friends - at least until midwinter, when she expects visitors from colder climes. But she loves the fair weather in Southern California, where she grew up, and says the fruit trees in her new garden will help make up for the smaller kitchen.

"Yes, I'll miss it," she says, looking around the kitchen. "But I'm sure I'll get used to what I have. You have to, I think."

`Team Julia'

Weeks later, the house is bustling with activity.

Two members of the Smithsonian Institution's "Team Julia" are in the kitchen, scrubbing pots and pans. In a nearby den, two others are meticulously labeling and packing items large and small from the roughly 16-foot-by-14-foot space. A photographer is finishing his documentation of the site, making a visual record of the kitchen and all its contents.

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