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Chatting about food history with food leader Lynne Breaux

From the 2012 opening of the exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950–2000 to its upcoming FOOD in the Garden series in September, we're working on new ways to share the story of American history through food. Development intern Danika Jensen interviews Lynne Breaux, former president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and member of the museum's Kitchen Cabinet and the Smithsonian Council for American History, to discuss the importance of the food in understanding our nation's rich history and culture.

How did you become involved with the National Museum of American History?
I was introduced to the museum and its staff at an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of Julia's birth in 2012. Julia Child's family was there and you could feel everyone's excitement. The saying "timing is everything" is true as I had just announced my plans to retire from my position as President at Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

I loved the fact that Julia Child's kitchen was in the museum and, after hearing Director John Gray announce that food would be featured alongside theater and music as a focal point of the museum, my decision to work with the museum was made even easier. The more I knew, the more I wanted to be involved. My decision to join the museum's Smithsonian Council for American History was easy since I believe in the wonderful work they support.

Breaux pictured at the museum's annual Winemaker’s Dinner in 2012
Breaux pictured at the museum's annual Winemaker's Dinner in 2012

What surprised you the most about the museum once you got involved?
I don't think the public realizes the amount of work that goes into curating. The word "curating" has not been defined enough. I have been so incredibly impressed with the museum's food programming team and the curators' extensive knowledge on the subject and the depth of the research they conduct. Do people realize that our curators collected 1,000 objects when they acquired Julia Child's kitchen from her home in Cambridge, [Massachusetts]? The amount of work and detail that goes into a project like that is truly amazing.

What excites you about being involved in the Kitchen Cabinet?
I am so honored to be a member of the Kitchen Cabinet. We assist staff in growing our audiences and developing a new approach to telling the story of American history through food. The Kitchen Cabinet is a marriage of my biggest interests: food, restaurants, the hospitality industry, "dinner diplomacy," history, and culture... it's all there! It is American, it is our country, and it is one of the reasons I moved to DC: the fascinating combination of politics and hospitality.

You cited Julia Child's kitchen as your favorite object at the museum. Why do you think it's important for people to learn about food history through objects like Julia's kitchen? 
Tangible artifacts are the embodiment of a nation's culture. For instance, restaurant menus can take you back in history and tell you a lot about a certain place and a time. Julia's kitchen has always inspired me and seeing it in the museum makes you feel like you are sitting with Julia, chatting about France over a glass of wine. You feel that "place and time" notion with her kitchen, which is a powerful teaching tool in itself.

Julia Child’s home kitchen, with its hundreds of tools, appliances, and furnishings serves as the opening story of the museum’s first major exhibition on food history
Julia Child's home kitchen, with its hundreds of tools, appliances, and furnishings serves as the opening story of the museum's first major exhibition on food history

Additionally, we have learned throughout history that what we eat affects how we act, how we live, and can help define our cultural identity. I believe that food history, whether aspects of the restaurant industry or cultural trends and impact, have been so commonplace that we forget its importance. It is wonderful that the museum is bringing a new understanding of food history to its many visitors. I believe the French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin summed it up perfectly: "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are."

Food in the Garden attendees enjoy an evening of tastes, talks, and tours
Food in the Garden attendees enjoy an evening of tastes, talks, and tours in our Victory Garden, one of the museum's most popular food history programs

Lynne's passion for American history and food inspired her to join the Smithsonian Council for American History, which provides essential funding to the museum to preserve its national treasures. Learn more about the Council and how you can be part of this national group of history enthusiasts, or contact Lauren Collette, Individual Giving Associate, at ColletteL@si.edu.