Julia Child and her message: Have `fun in the kitchen'

August 28, 2002|By ROB KASPER

WASHINGTON - The metal pots and pans on the pegboards of Julia Child's kitchen did not look like props for a photo shoot, like another pretty set of utensils. Instead, like the lady who wielded them, they emitted a strong sense of purpose. They were there to make good meals, to lure people to the pleasures of the table.

"The kitchen was my favorite room in the house," said Julia, who at 90 looked somewhat frail compared to the mental image most of us have of her as the tall, rambunctious woman beaming culinary wisdom and enthusiasm as she cleaves a chicken.

"When we had people over for dinner," she said, "the kitchen was the place where guests could sit and have a glass of wine and I could finish the cooking and not miss any of the conversation."

She made these remarks after looking over her old kitchen that had been moved - virtually lock, stock and a 20-inch-long "fright knife"- from her Cambridge, Mass., home and reassembled in the West Wing of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, where it is open to public viewing. She moved from Massachusetts to Southern California last year.

The opening of the Smithsonian exhibit last week was a cause for celebration and there were plenty of festivities around Washington, from cheeseburger feasts to soirees in fancy Georgetown restaurants held in Julia's honor.

While Julia has an engaging, social personality, happy, for instance, to oblige a request to give her signature "bon appetit" wave to television cameras, she was not in the nation's capital just for the parties. She had a message, one she has repeatedly issued during her long career as a cookbook author and television chef, namely, that there are valuable lessons to be learned and joys to be experienced by cooking. Or as she succinctly put it, she wants Americans "to have fun in the kitchen."

Now something of a cultural icon, Julia encountered plenty of fawning behavior. Fans gushed that they were grateful just to be in her presence. She was gracious when she heard such comments, but it seemed to me that what Julia preferred was less gushing and more peeling of potatoes. (Her favorite comfort food, she said, is baked potatoes with lots of butter.)

For instance, she said she hoped that the lived-in look of her Smithsonian kitchen would encourage would-be cooks to shake off worries about neatness, to plunge in and make a meal, and sometimes a mess. Kitchens, she reminded, are not pristine temples.

"Julia taught us that the kitchen is the beating heart of the household," said Rayna Green, co-curator of the Smithsonian exhibit. "Julia encouraged us," added Paula Johnson, the other curator of the exhibit, "to get in the kitchen and try something different."

The kitchen is a place where mistakes happen, a fact of life that Julia never shied away from, especially on her televised cooking shows. "Of course, you are going to make mistakes in cooking," she said last week. "What is important is how you recover."

The kitchen is the place where lofty nutritional theory is translated into daily meals. And in answer to a question I asked her about her longstanding battle with the "food police" over the importance of fat in cooking, Julia noted that recently fat has been viewed in more favorable light by some researchers. "People found when they gave up meat and butter they aren't satisfied," she said, "and so they eat a lot of carbohydrates and their weight goes up."

In short, Julia's view that there aren't "good" and "bad" foods, that eating well means trying a varied diet of fresh foods, including dishes with moderate fat, is once again gaining popularity.

It could be called common sense, but Julia would probably call it "kitchen wisdom."

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