In heat of summer, a cooling visit to Julia's kitchen

July 24, 2005|By Susan Reimer

JULIA CHILD is my King Tut. The boy king and his treasures are touring the United States for a second time, and Americans are as tomb-crazy as we were from 1976 to 1979, his last tour.

We can't wait to see all the exotic stuff the Egyptian king was buried with, and we are willing to pay $30 to do it this time. It used to be that standing in line for three hours was the only price of admission for such a noteworthy exhibit.

Julia Child's kitchen treasures are on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington (along with Dorothy's ruby slippers, Fonzie's jacket and inaugural gowns worn by the first ladies), and, so far, admission is free.

Visiting those kinds of treasures is the kind of thing you do when you have friends in from out of town, and you want to create the impression that you do this kind of cultural stuff all the time.

So the Smithsonian is where I dragged my sister -- who might have rather visited the neighborhood pool in the 90-degree heat -- to see Julia Child's kitchen. It had been disassembled and moved painstakingly to the museum.

Julia Child lived in the same house in Cambridge, Mass., for 42 years, making her magic as public television's French chef in a kitchen designed and built for her by her husband, Paul.

She had followed him all over the world during his foreign-service career, and when he retired, he devoted himself to supporting her blossoming career as a cook.

He took the photographs and created the line drawings for her books; he edited the text. He even washed the dishes after she finished taping her television shows.

And he created the perfect kitchen for her.

To begin, he designed the countertops higher, to accommodate his wife's 6-foot-2-inch frame. There is a picture of her in a matchbox kitchen in their Paris apartment, and she looks like she is cooking in a doll's house.

The countertops are maple -- the better for chopping -- except for the area to the immediate right of the huge, six-burner Garland commercial range that Julia Child bought used for $429. That area is stainless steel, to accommodate hot pots.

Most remarkable, however, are the walls. All are lined floor to ceiling with pegboard so that most of Julia's 1,200 kitchen gadgets -- she loved kitchen gadgets -- are within easy reach.

Paul Child went so far as to trace the outlines of the dozens of pans on the pegboard so Julia could return them to their place without thinking.

(In fact, only those tracings are left for the Smithsonian display. Julia Child donated the copper pots to Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts when she retired to California in 2001.)

This 14-by-20-foot kitchen was where Julia gave lessons, tested recipes for her cookbooks and cooked with her famous colleagues. Some of her shows were filmed here.

The big dining table surrounded by curved, three-legged chairs the couple purchased in Norway during Paul's last assignment, sits in the heart of the kitchen, illustrating Julia's deeply felt belief that "the kitchen is the beating heart of the household."

The Smithsonian display is fascinating. Julia Child was one of the first cooks to obtain a Waring Blendor, which was made exclusively for bartenders, and she used it to create her own mayonnaise and sauces.

She was asked to try out the first Cuisinart in 1960, though it would not be known by that name for years. The prototype was made by a French company, and Julia Child deemed the appliance "the next French revolution."

One of her copies of The Joy of Cooking (she purchased a new edition in 1975) is as worn and well-used as a preacher's Bible and sits on a book shelf.

Also on display is the Gravy Master she mixed with water and poured into wine glasses for the joyous "Bon appetit! See you next time!" conclusion of her early -- and black-and-white -- television shows. Julia Child introduced America to the French tradition of cooking with wine. But she didn't drink wine during those broadcasts. It was Gravy Master.

Julia Child is known as the woman who taught America to cook. She was extravagant, yet casual. Her lively dismissal of her own mistakes, as well as her cheerfulness in the face of calamity, gave Americans the courage to try.

Her kitchen is very much like Julia Child herself. Nothing fancy. Cheerful but functional. Well-worn, well-loved but a touch idiosyncratic.

She visited her kitchen in its new home in August 2002, when she was 90, and was described as a little tearful.

"I'd thought I'd seen the last of it," she said. "But it looks exactly right, and it makes me homesick to look at it."

Julia Child died in her sleep two years later. Her beloved Paul had died 20 years earlier.

Generous to the end, Julia Child did not demand to be buried with her kitchen.

To see Julia Child's kitchen, visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where it is on permanent display, or go to http: / / ameri / juliachild / for an interactive tour of her kitchen as it was in Cambridge, Mass., before it was moved.

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