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Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian

Was this the kitchen on Julia's television shows?

Yes, and no. Only Julia's last three cooking shows were taped in this kitchen, in her home on Irving Street in Cambridge. Produced in the 1990s by A La Carte Communications they included: In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Julia, and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. When viewers of these programs visit the exhibition they will recognize certain details—like the knives attached to wall-mounted magnetic strips between the windows—-but the center of the room will seem very different. To accommodate the lights, cameras, and cooking action by Julia and her guest chefs, the kitchen table and chairs were removed during taping and replaced by a cooking island that had a built-in stovetop and food preparation surfaces. Julia's previous shows, beginning with "The French Chef" in 1962, were all taped in studio kitchens in the Boston area.

How did the Smithsonian decide to collect the kitchen?

In August 2001, we learned from colleagues at the American Institute of Wine & Food that Julia was leaving her Massachusetts home and moving to a smaller residence in California. We wondered, as museum people will, what might happen to the kitchen tools, appliances, and equipment that she collected over a lifetime. As folklorists, we also sensed a chance to connect stories and place. We wondered if we could arrange with Julia to record what she had to say about her life and work while she was still surrounded by the tools of her trade where they meant the most—her home kitchen.


So off we went to Cambridge. As we sat around the kitchen table with Julia, we discussed a future interview and floated the idea of collecting the kitchen for the National Museum of American History. We felt strongly about collecting the whole thing and not just a few objects. We could see that the relationships between the parts and pieces, and the overall organization of the space, told a bigger story about Julia's philosophy of cooking. The kitchen not only represented many layers of Julia's life and career, it also reflected different trends in American culinary history. We knew that our Museum visitors would love to see this room, and Julia, being a life-long educator, grasped what we were after. She understood that by having her kitchen in the National Museum of American History, her messages of eating well, of being bold in the kitchen and trying new things, and of making meals the center of family life, could be conveyed to a wide and diverse audience.


At the end of our meeting, Julia generously agreed to donate the kitchen and to be interviewed the following month. For the story of what happened next—how museum staff inventoried the kitchen, conducted the interview, packed and shipped the kitchen to Washington, processed the collection, and developed exhibitions—go to http://americanhistory.si.edu/kitchen.


What was in the cabinets and drawers? Did you collect all of that too?

Julia's cabinets contained the usual stuff of kitchens: everyday dishes, mugs, and glasses; a few pans and lids; lots of gadgets, from cheese knives to cherry pitters; storage containers, jars, foils, and plastic wraps; and dishtowels, aprons, and pot holders. Julia stored her food in pantries just off the main kitchen but kept her tea and spices in a cabinet near the stove. She kept most of her vinegars and oils in the open, on countertops near the stove and sink.


We collected most of the objects, but left the foils, wraps, and storage containers behind. From the dozens of dishtowels, aprons, and pot holders, we selected a few, making sure we collected a variety of styles and materials. Due to long-term preservation concerns, we don't typically collect organic materials, so we simply listed the tea, spices, vinegars, and oils for the record.

If the Smithsonian has her kitchen stuff, what is Julia cooking with in California?

Don't worry, she didn't have to start from scratch in California! Julia and Paul spent winters in Santa Barbara for years. After Paul's death in 1994, Julia maintained a residence there. While the California kitchen is smaller, it shares elements of design with the kitchen in Cambridge, notably pegboard-covered walls and hanging cookware.


Photo of Julia and chefs

Has Julia visited her kitchen at the Smithsonian?

Yes, Julia and her family attended the opening of Bon Appetit! on August 18 and 19, 2002, shortly after her 90th birthday. On the evening of the 18th, she was the guest of honor at a birthday party held at the Museum and sponsored by the American Institute of Wine & Food. Over thirty chefs from many of Washington's finest restaurants contributed their time and talent to producing an array of specialty dishes in honor of Julia and the opening of Bon Appetit!


While visitors to the exhibition must view the kitchen from three plexiglass ports, we couldn't deny Julia the chance to step inside her kitchen again. As she entered the kitchen, she paused and said, "It feels like home. It makes me want to turn something on and cook!"


The following morning, Julia and co-curator Rayna Green sat at the kitchen table for a live broadcast on the Today show, after which Julia participated in a press conference. By the time the exhibition opened to the public at 1 p.m., at least 110 people were waiting in line to see Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian.

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