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Seeking Comfort in Julia's Kitchen

Admirers See Bits of Their Lives at Smithsonian Exhibit

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page B01

Brian Sisolak came to Julia Child's kitchen yesterday, bearing red roses.

The 25-year-old Web developer and Capitol Hill resident bought the half-dozen, long-stem roses at the McPherson Square Metro station on his lunch break. And then he walked into the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and stood them, wrapped in cellophane, against a plexiglass wall outside the reassembled kitchen where Child worked for 45 years.


Fans admire mementos and watch tapes of Julia Child's "The French Chef" cooking program at the National Museum of American History's "Bon Appetit!" exhibit. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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"I've used her books and watched her shows so much," Sisolak said. "It's helped me so much in my own cooking. I just had to say thanks."

Sisolak was one of dozens of Washington area residents and tourists who found themselves yesterday, whether by chance or by choice, at the museum's exhibit, "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian." Child died yesterday at an assisted living center in Montecito, Calif., two days before her 92nd birthday.

The kitchen exhibit served as a focal point for tributes to and recollections of the woman credited with demystifying French cooking for the masses. They came from all parts of the country, all ages and races, each with a recollection of a recipe, a quote, a glimpse -- from afar -- of the famous chef at a book-signing.

Throughout the day, they stepped into the enclosed space on the first floor of the museum on the Mall and peeked through the plexiglass for an intimate look at Child's workspace. They read the details of the magnets on the black KitchenAid refrigerator (one was a black-and-white photograph of a cat, another was from King Arthur Flour Baker's Store in Norwich, Vt.). They admired the checkered cushions tied to the wooden chairs, the pots stretching to the ceiling, the pink towel draped over the stove's handle, the ordinary plastic garbage can.

It was a kitchen not entirely different from their own, which some visitors said reflected her practical, unpretentious spirit. "Look," one mother told her daughters, "she has a copper pot just like we have."

Sisolak, who said he's been following Child's guidance, particularly on the matter of crepes, since the age of 12, was amazed to discover that she used the same five-quart, cobalt-blue mixer that he had at home.

"Her legacy is that she brought gourmet food to common people," said Wayne Anderson, 46, a studio wiring specialist from Portland, Ore., who took a photo of his wife, Inese Brunins, standing next to the kitchen. Brunins, 53, said she still refers to Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" for unraveling the mystery of deglazing, for doing "something as simple as sauteing a chicken breast."

Jane Currie, 54, a public school administrator from West Hartford, Conn., put it this way: "There's lots and lots of chefs. But there was one Julia."

The authenticity of the kitchen evoked a silence in some, a playfulness in others. People tried to imitate her instantly recognizable voice or laughed along with her jokes as they watched a video on a television screen ("I'm a red-meat freak," Child sighed at one point).

Maura Last, 6, watched intently after stretching out on the carpet of the exhibit room. She had urged her parents, Robert Last and Jill Canny of Boston, to take her to the kitchen display following news of Child's death. "She's a good cook," the child explained.

The exhibit is not a replica. In 2001, Child donated her kitchen and its 1,200 items to the museum. She was planning to move from her Cambridge, Mass., home to her home state of California, and museum staff seized on the opportunity. They disassembled and catalogued the kitchen -- the cabinets, counters, utensils and gadgets -- and then reassembled the 14-by-20-foot kitchen in the museum that is home to prized pieces of Americana, such as the top hat Lincoln wore the night he was shot and Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz."

The only items not authentic, said co-curator Paula Johnson, are the floor, the walls and the bananas in the ceramic bowl. Child's French copper pots were given to Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, Calif. Virtually everything else -- the nutcracker, the clam knife, the Garland gas commercial range she bought in Washington in 1956 for $429 -- is on display, including the kitchen sink.

"The impact of Julia's influence on American culture is unparalleled," Johnson said. "As an educator and as a communicator, she reached out and encouraged people to try something new and have fun in the kitchen."

Of the exhibit, which opened in August 2002, Child had said in a statement: "I am very proud indeed that the Smithsonian wants my kitchen. Through this gift to the Smithsonian, if I can influence Americans to 'keep in the kitchen' and make it a real family room and a real part of their lives, I will have succeeded beyond hope."


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