What's Cooking? Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian
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Exploring Julia Child's Kitchen
Talking with Julia
Packing the Kitchen
Curating the Collection
Creating an Exhibit
Complete Diary Entries

Paula Johnson

August 28, 2001

We didn't pack lightly for our first trip to Cambridge. Rayna, Nanci, and I were acutely aware of the huge task ahead -- measuring, documenting, and inventorying the contents of Julia Child's kitchen -- all in a day and a half. We had to act quickly: before we could officially collect the kitchen for the Museum, we would need to define just what that meant. Our colleagues, administrators, and other inquiring minds would want to know the details: How many objects were we talking about? What types of objects were we including -- walls and windows, or just the elements that could be removed without destroying part of the house? What about the packaged goods, olive oils, and countertop condiments? How big was this thing, anyway -- how much space would be needed to reinstall the kitchen, or to store it if we couldn't install it in the Museum right away? How much time, staff effort, and money would be needed to pack, crate, and ship the various pieces to Washington by the end of the year when the house would become the property of Smith College? With such questions lurking in our minds, we arrived at Julia Child's house on a hot summer's morning loaded for bear with cameras, digital video and audio recorders, a laptop computer, measuring tapes, sketch pads, reference books, and our bulging files on Julia Child and her kitchen.

First Impressions and Smithsonian Moments

Stephanie Hersh, Julia's assistant, welcomed us warmly into the famous kitchen, which seemed smaller and cozier than what I had imagined from seeing it on television. How could this homey little kitchen accommodate the formidable Julia Child, her various and sundry guest chefs and their spectacular arrays of food, not to mention television lights, equipment, and camera crew? I knew that, for television, a special cooking island was wheeled into the center of the room, replacing the large Norwegian table that usually occupied the space. Still, I wondered . . . but only briefly. Julia herself was entering the room, inviting us to have a seat at her kitchen table.

Yes, well, what can I say? Everyone who works at the Smithsonian knows there are "Smithsonian Moments," those flashes of intense clarity when we remember why we love our work. The three of us experienced an exquisite Moment as we listened to Julia Child tell us, in her gracious and disarming way, why she felt the National Museum of American History was the perfect home for her favorite room.

A Piece of Cake

Then we got down to business. Julia has spoken about how important sustained, serious concentration has been to her own work, and she recognized that we didn't have much time to do our job. She left us to our own devices and disappeared into the elevator that took her to her upstairs office where she had a full day's agenda herself. We quickly assessed the situation and divided the tasks: Rayna would shoot video of the contents of each wall, cupboard, drawer, nook, and cranny, narrating as she went along. Nanci and I would measure the kitchen and make a floorplan, locating doors, windows, counters, major appliances, and furniture. These drawings would not only address the "how big" question, but they would be needed whenever the reinstallation began at the museum.

Since my last documentation project had involved taking the lines off an old wooden fishing boat on the Oregon coast -- rather a different skills set -- it took a few moments to get organized. Nanci and I developed a numbering system to key major components of the kitchen to their locations within the room, then proceeded to measure and sketch the details of the 20'x 14' kitchen. Compared to the hull curves and below decks atmosphere of the salmon boat, measuring up the Cambridge kitchen was a piece of cake.

From Kitchen to Museum Collection

By mid-afternoon we were ready to begin inventorying what we had started to call "the collection." At some unspecified point, we had begun thinking of the room and its contents as a museum collection, which meant we had to make some decisions about its scope. We decided early on that it wasn't in anyone's best interests to damage part of the house by collecting the actual walls and windows. Instead, for future reference, we would photograph and note paint colors, surface materials, molding dimensions, and the like. As for perishables, that was easy: we don't collect food (at least knowingly) for obvious preservation concerns, but we would videotape and list the various cooking oils and spices that populated the cupboards and counter tops. We were silently grateful that Julia and Stephanie had not sanitized the place -- the kitchen was still very much in use, which allowed us to record the tools and ingredients really used by America's favorite cook.

We also decided to collect some, but not all, of the contents of drawers. Like everybody's kitchen, this one had a junk drawer, as well as drawers for dishtowels, aprons, foils and plastic wraps, and potholders. We decided to document exactly what was in each drawer but to collect only representative samples of their contents. We absolutely knew we had to collect the humble and ordinary things that personalized the professional's kitchen: the "To Do" list on the counter; the "Do it now" letter holder; the etching of a chicken with the phrase, "Which came first?"; the EAT refrigerator magnet; the WGBH Go-cup; the notebook, "Julia Child's Food Info., Recipes, 1998."

With apologies to the Childs, I will observe that the kitchen, in certain respects, showed signs of a curatorial mind. Things were not only organized by type, they were often labeled. In the 1960s, Paul Child had used a black marker to outline the items hanging from hooks on the pegboard-covered walls. In some cases, a Polaroid photo of the item was attached to its hook as well, lest there be any confusion about where a particular pot, skillet, or gratin pan belonged. Likewise, Julia had labeled each of four ceramic crocks containing utensils with marker on masking tape: "Spoonery," "Forkery," "R. Spatulas," and "Spats & Misc." To say these devices made our job easier is a huge understatement. Because of them we were able to work quickly, with Nanci calling out the names and numbers of objects while I key-stroked the data into the laptop.

What's This?

Saucepans, skillets, skimmers, strainers, skewers, scoops, peelers, presses, pitchers, pitters, pots, pans, mallets, cleavers, knives, larding needles, ladles, tongs, and basters. We were on a roll. Every now and then, however, we were stopped in our tracks. Nanci would hold up an item and ask, "What is this?" triggering a scramble through our reference works, and absurd discussions among the three of us:

"What could you possibly do with this thing?"
"I don't know, but it has a sliding part."
"Which side is up?"
"How do you hold it?"
"What shall I call it?"
"Obviously it's a turquoise-handled sliding tool."
"Why didn't I think of that?"

When Stephanie was in earshot, she came to our rescue (the sliding tool was a lid remover). Still, by the end of the day our "mystery tools" category contained a "device, possibly for taking corn off cob," "wire basket plunging device," "awl-like thing," and other unidentified cooking objects. As we were packing to leave, Julia checked in to see how we had done. We asked her about each mystery tool and she not only responded with its name, but with stories about where she had acquired it and how she preferred using it. Her stories and succinct explanations gave us a great idea for how to frame the interview we were scheduled to shoot with her in two weeks' time, on September 11.

September 11, 2001

Up at 6, raring to go. It had been a short night -- Rayna and Nanci hadn't arrived at the hotel until around midnight due to flight delays out of Washington. Who needs sleep? We were running on adrenalin, thrilled by the chance to do a videotaped interview with Julia Child in her kitchen and to work with Geoff Drummond, of video production company A La Carte, and his crew. Having shot three television series there in recent years, Geoff and the crew were well acquainted with the territory. We felt lucky to have worked this shoot into everyone's schedules -- ours, theirs, and Julia's.

Rayna headed over to Irving Street with the breakfast supplies I had stored in ice overnight in my bathtub, while Nanci and I strolled over to Harvard Square for fresh bagels, cream cheese, and double lattes. Museum team and video crew alike need to be fed and we didn't want to have to break away from the interview for meals. By 8 a.m. we were all bustling about the first floor of the Child home, testing equipment, going over paperwork, making small talk with each other. Shortly before 9, as we waited for Julia to come down from upstairs, someone turned on the television.

The horror of what was unfolding in New York and Washington gripped us all. We looked at each other in disbelief, asked the same confused questions, and felt as appalled and sickened as people everywhere.

And then the elevator door opened. Julia had heard the news on her office radio and, as she sat down at the kitchen table, she looked at all of us and shook her head. We watched a few more minutes of the news, then Julia set the tone for the day. "Why don't we turn it off and look at it again in a while?" she asked. "We have work to do." We all agreed. So Rayna and I took seats at the table, the sound, camera, and lighting guys turned on their gear, and Geoff got the interview rolling.

As the day went on, we settled into a rhythm that seemed to suit the situation. After interviewing Julia about the kitchen and its place in her family and professional history, we asked her to speak about specific tools, utensils, and equipment. She gestured toward the larger pieces as, for example, she talked about how, by trial and error, she figured out the secret to making bread in the big Garland stove (it's in the folding, and in making sure there's moisture in the oven).

For smaller items, we gathered things from drawers, walls, and countertops (by now, we knew where everything belonged!) and spread them before her on the table. She quickly arranged them to best illustrate the story she wanted to tell, and, when she felt ready, she looked squarely into the camera and spoke with her distinctive enthusiasm about these specific tools and utensils she had collected and used during her long career. She told terrific stories and demonstrated with her usual flair a series of knives, a particular German ricer, an enormous French mortar and pestle, a set of tea tins, and myriad gadgets. We worked in this mode throughout the day, taking short breaks to catch up on the news, and to continue trying to phone family members in Washington and New York. When it was clear we wouldn't be flying out of Logan to Washington that evening, we phoned our hotel and booked rooms.

Around 6 p.m., we said our goodbyes to Julia, Stephanie, Geoff, and the others. We felt we had formed a bond with new people, and an infinitely stronger connection with old friends, having shared such an extraordinary day.

February 2002

It's been gratifying to see how many people are coming to see the kitchen project. Attendance at the museum has been way below normal since September 11, and we're pleased by what seems to be a little blip: visitors are finding us in the West End Gallery on the first floor, and not just for our advertised gallery talks (Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:30 a.m.). Some days there's a steady stream of people taking advantage of our unscripted, behind-the-scenes show. It's hard for me to resist stepping out of the gallery to talk, especially with those folks who have that hungry look about them, people who clearly want to know more. I haven't been disappointed. Each person I've approached has been eager to hear about the acquisition of the kitchen, what is entailed in processing the collection, our plans for the future installation, or to tell me a Julia Child story of their own. According to my unscientific survey, the most frequently asked questions are:

When can we come back to see the whole kitchen? (August 2002, pending funding)
How big is it? (20' x 14', smaller than the gallery)
Is that really the stove she cooked on? (You bet!)
Will you have cooking demonstrations in the kitchen? (Not in Julia's kitchen, but we're planning to have cooking demonstrations at the museum as part of the exhibition programming.)
What was it like meeting Julia Child? (Wonderful -- check out our project diary on the web site!)
Will Julia come back when you have the kitchen finished? (We're counting on it!)

It's also great to see how the project team -- staff and volunteers -- are getting the work done quickly and well. It's fun to unpack this stuff, to describe and document it, and to share it with an obviously enthusiastic public.

May 10, 2002

Another milestone: Cynthia and Estelle unpacked the last box of kitchen stuff today. I suppose there's some sort of symmetry here. The kitchen sink was unpacked first, so it's entirely appropriate that the garbage disposal is what they find in Box #35.

Cynthia, an intern from George Washington University, works up to the last minute of her last day on the project. She's cataloging and photographing Julia's refrigerator magnets. There's one shaped like a telephone (and it actually rings), and there's one that resembles a sliced tomato. A favorite with everyone is the tiny barbeque rig, complete with mini shish-kabobs. Cynthia is into this and takes great pleasure in placing the magnets on the front of the fridge after she's done the curatorial number on them.

Richard, the project conservator, is working his way through the trays of artifacts that have been cataloged. His job is to survey all of the objects and to treat those that need to be stabilized or cleaned prior to being installed in the exhibition. He's a patient soul and examines everything with care, from the contents of Julia's junk drawer (including the signal mirror she kept from her stint with the OSS in World War II), to the kitchen scale and brass weights, to the plastic signs with French slogans that Julia used as props on her first television series, "The French Chef."

We're still having fun, but time is short. Our hope is to open the exhibition, with the kitchen fully installed, in August. Piece of cake!?!

July 24, 2002

We on "Team Julia" know that it's summer. We can tell by looking at museum visitors, dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers, who seem mighty grateful for our air-conditioned environment. But it doesn't feel like vacation time; for weeks we've been consumed with carrying out the thousands of details involved in producing an exhibition. With less than a month to go before we're scheduled to open "Bon Appétit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian," we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're not there yet, but we've come a long way since completing the cataloging project in May.

In June, we had to move most of the objects out of the gallery to make way for the construction of the kitchen walls. As the walls went up, Joe and Rob from the museum's Historic Restoration Shop were stabilizing Julia's cabinets in preparation for the final installation. We felt we had reached a milestone of sorts when they sank the kitchen sink back into its countertop. Within days, they had installed the counters, the Garland range, the refrigerator, and all the other architectural features inside the new four walls. The familiar configuration of Julia's "big stuff," inside the exact footprint of her Cambridge kitchen, brought a sense of relief ("it all fits!") and excitement ("people are gonna like this").

Meanwhile, in the design and curatorial offices, Rayna and I were hammering out the script and selecting photos and objects for the interpretive part of the show, while Marcia, the exhibition designer, was working her magic. She had a brilliant idea for treating the "missing" wall. (Julia donated the pegboard-covered wall with her collection of French copper pots to Copia: The American Center for Food, Wine, & the Arts, in Napa.) Marcia designed a wall of plexiglass and, using our documentation photos as a reference, had the outlines of the pots routed into the surface. When it was installed a week ago, we were thrilled: the plex provides a good view into the kitchen and the outlined pots suggest the missing pieces beautifully.

As we move closer to installing the smaller items-countertop appliances, frying pans and pots hanging on pegboard, and all those utensils in ceramic pots-we're enlisting the help of our interns and staff. Emily and Alex, our curatorial interns, have viewed the extensive video documentation of every wall and countertop, in preparation for "getting it right." Just this morning, our design intern, Christine, played art director for a photo shoot of gadgets to be installed in a special section of the gallery. Staff members in exhibits production are working on the labels and graphics, which will be installed in August.

Our last gallery talk will take place on July 31, and on the morning of August 5 we'll install partitions around the gallery. For the last two weeks we won't be working in view of the public, but we look forward to opening the gallery doors to all on Monday, August 19.

See more diaries:

Nanci Edwards
Rayna Green

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