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This Is No Ordinary Kitchen
Pots and Pans, Cabinets and Counters, Even Julia Child's Kitchen Sink Is Coming to the Smithsonian
By Judith Weinraub, Washington Post Staff Writer

Maybe you're thinking of redoing your kitchen. Or considering spending a fortune on the latest luxury surfaces and glitzy appliances. Or even trying to find a way to hide every pot and pan behind closed doors.

Before you write the check, pay attention to the 14-by-20-foot kitchen that's about to be installed at the National Museum of American History in full view of the museum-going (and Web-viewing) public.
Pots and pans hang on pegboard from floor to ceiling. Ladles and sieves and measuring cups and scissors and funnels and graters and strips of knives too. Just about every standard tool a kitchen artist needs is visible and at the ready. The blender is always out waiting to whir into action, and the electric mixer too, and the old toaster oven and the industrial-gray trash can. The main gesture toward high style is a 1950s six-burner restaurant stove.

It's a sensual space too -- just the right backdrop for enjoying a meal with friends and family. Tea tins and honeys on a countertop invite a quick cuppa. The curvy Norwegian kitchen chairs beg to be touched. The blues and greens of the cabinets are sunny, upbeat complements to the butcher-block work surfaces. And it's large enough for several people to cook in at the same time.
This is Julia Child's kitchen.

"It's a wonderful classic home kitchen," says Geoffrey Drummond, who has spent many hours there producing four of Child's cooking series. "Everything is out and visible, and labeled: the canisters, the famous pots and pans on the pegboard, the baking utensils in the pantry. There's nothing frou-frou. It's not like a designer kitchen where you think 'Did anybody ever cook in here?' There's a real sense of community and comfort."

As it happens, for the last 40 years, the primary person cooking in there has been the most influential chef and cooking teacher in America. So naturally, the Smithsonian Institution wanted it: "This kitchen is where she's cooked for herself, her friends and the American people," says Rayna Green, co-curator of the project. "It stands for her singular and absolutely considerable influence on the way Americans think about food and its history.

"We also think the kitchen is a rich context for changes in the lives and work of women in the 20th century," says Green. "It's like an onion: When you peel back the layers, it's just an American kitchen for an American family in later 20th century, but it's also the kitchen of a professional woman who like that basic American family kitchen has grown and changed, whose life evolved like that kitchen, from that of an ordinary cook to one of the most influential professionals in the country who grew and changed and brought everybody else along with her. And it's a public kitchen, one most Americans think they've been in."

Last summer, Smithsonian historic restoration specialists lovingly disassembled the room from the Cambridge, Mass., house that the 89-year-old Child recently gave up for the warmer climes of a retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif., then packed it up and shipped it -- cabinets and cookware and all -- to Washington, where its installation will be the first major project of the museum's American Food and Wine program. (The house itself goes to Smith College, Child's papers to the Schlesinger Library on the history of women in the United States at the Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study.

The thing that many museum-goers are likely to notice is Child's just-about-everything-in-plain-sight approach. But its significance is considerable. "Before then, the whole idea was that everything was sanitized behind closed closet doors," says Judith Jones, Child's longtime friend and editor, who has eaten and cooked in the kitchen since she edited "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in the early '60s. "But Julia hung them out where you could see things and grab them quickly -- and that wasn't part of our notion about kitchens. I really think it was Julia who started the whole trend."

"I think she started the whole vogue of getting a chef's stove, too. The gas jets were strong, fierce and boiled water quickly. I hadn't seen them and immediately got one and still have it. "

If the kitchen mirrors Child's approach to cooking, it also reflects personal needs and choices, such as the 38-inch counter height comfortable to the over six-foot-tall Child; the blues and greens so familiar from the colors of Provence and the country furniture of Norway where Child's husband, Paul, was posted as a foreign service officer; the pegboards, kept in order by Paul Child's outline drawings of each individual pot and pan, so that his wife and the many people who cooked in her kitchen over the years could put things away; the '60s-style Marimekko oilcloth (topped as well by clear plastic sheeting) on the kitchen table.

And it also hints at the way American cooking and eating developed, and the increasing number of choices open to us no matter what brand of tea or artisanal olive oils or European culinary gadget we crave.

During the next six months, Child's kitchen and its accompanying exhibition will be set up in the West End Gallery on the first floor of the museum, under the eye of co-curators Green and Paula Johnson along with program director Nanci Edwards. (The three have taken a hands-on approach. Green, for example, washed 1,200 individual objects before they were packed.)

Film footage taken by Drummond and Child's longtime TV crew interviewing her on her own stories and legends as well as the history of the kitchen -- the people who've cooked there, memorable meals, the knives and gadgets that intrigue her -- will be incorporated into the exhibition. Web site viewers can access it at The museum is actively looking for funds for a permanent exhibition and accompanying public programs.

"I want Julia to be able to come in here and sit down," says Green, looking at stacks of packing crates in the otherwise empty gallery the other day. "And it will be her kitchen."

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Staffers will be unpacking and setting up Julia Child's kitchen in the West End Gallery on the first floor of the museum beginning on Feb. 4. The show is scheduled to remain for six months.

Also in Julia's Kitchen . . .

If you want to see how your batterie de cuisine measures up against Julia Child's, here are some of the hundreds of items there (and this doesn't include the bakeware, rolling pins and other baking tools in the pastry pantry, or the good china and glassware, or the collection of copper pots and pans that's been donated to Copia, a new food, wine and arts center in Napa, Calif., where the main restaurant is called Julia's Kitchen):

• A large KitchenAid refrigerator from the early '90s
• A dishwasher
• A free-standing icemaker
• One large (24-inch) thermal convection wall-oven installed for the "Baking With Julia" series
• A warming drawer beneath the wall oven
• Six-burner Garland range purchased in 1956
• A dark gray stainless-steel double sink with drainboards on both sides
• A KitchenAid standing mixer, model K5A
• A Cuisinart blender
• A KitchenAid food processor
• A basic old-fashioned toaster oven
• A couple of dozen knives (though Child has been known to say that all you really need is a good chef's knife, a bread knife and a really good paring knife)
• Industrial-size rolls of paper towels, plastic bags, plastic wrap
• On the refrigerator door, 18 different magnets (including a tomato, a strawberry, an electric mixer, a cat, broccoli stalks), three Polaroid photos and a child's colorful drawing of a rainbow heart
• Alphabetically organized spices kept away from the light behind closed cabinet doors, each spice container marked (B for basil, C for cardamom, D for dill) for easy storage and retrieval
• Glass and ceramic cat and rooster figurines on top of refrigerator
• A very large bottle of Noilly Prat vermouth
• A variety of different olive oils, both artisanal and basic supermarket
• An assortment of teas in tins
• Several different honeys
• Mismatched coffee and tea mugs
• A complete wardrobe of restaurant-grade stainless-steel frying pans, many of them burned black
• Eight different Le Creuset enameled-steel pots and pans
• Lots of different skillets, sauce pans and saute pans, some of them cast iron
• A Braun 12-cup electric drip coffeemaker
• A heavy French marble mortar and pestle Paul Child brought home from a Paris flea market
• Earthenware storage crocks for utensils, with masking tape labels marked Mostly Wood (tongs, chopsticks, basters), Spats (nonstick, plastic, metal and rubber spatulas), Spoonerie and Forkery
• A couple of drawers' worth of less frequently used small kitchen implements, such as oyster and clam knives, shrimp sheller and deveiners, cherry pitters, marrow scoops
• Several cast-iron muffin pans
• One large white ceramic fruit bowl that was usually a repository for a bunch of bananas
• A stack of quarry tiles for baking French bread
• One large gray plastic garbage bin
• A variety of grinders (salt, pepper, nutmeg, spices)
• A mirror
• A basic kitchen junk drawer. That's where the lipstick is. (Four TV cooking series were filmed in here, remember?)

818 Posts
Isa , thank you so much for sharing this in depth information on the first lady of cooking . I grew up watching her cook on TV and she has been a great inspiration to so many of us and now to see her functional kitchen will just be grand . Again thanks......

1,648 Posts
Great stuff! I love having everything aout in the open. I think pot racks are sexy :)

2,550 Posts
This is really interesting Isa. Thanks for posting.

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