In Julia Child's Kitchen, A Lifetime of Stories

A new movie notwithstanding, Julia Child's kitchen, reassembled in 2002 after being moved from her Cambridge, Mass., home, is the star attraction at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 13, 2009

In the new movie "Julie & Julia," Julia Child's kitchen makes only a brief appearance. But at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, the famed kitchen of America's most beloved culinary icon is a star attraction and has been since it was meticulously reassembled in 2002 after being removed from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

Though it has been five years since Child died at 91, hordes of visitors continue to "fill up the kitchen [exhibit] all day," says co-curator Rayna Green. The exhibit includes snippets from Child's shows, documents and other memorabilia. Everyone, Green says, wants to look at the kitchen of the woman who taught America how to cook.

The film, which stars Meryl Streep as Child, shifts between Child's years in France in the 1940s and '50s, where she fell in love with French food and learned to cook, and the rather grungy kitchen of blogger Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams), who in 2002 cooked her way through the first volume of Child's seminal book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and wrote about it. It is only at the end of the movie that viewers catch a glimpse of Streep, as Child, in a set reproduction of the kitchen where Child filmed her last three television shows.

The real kitchen, meanwhile, with its maple countertops, distinctive blue-green cabinets and crocks crammed with wooden spoons, forks, whisks and spatulas, gets plenty of face time with the public. Since the museum reopened in November after two years of renovation, more than 3.75 million visitors have come through its doors. Although the museum does not keep track of how many have visited Child's kitchen, which is on display behind glass, Green surmises that the majority of them have made their way to the exhibit.

"They come into the museum often with Julia's kitchen as a destination," Green says. "They stand around the video monitors, watching and laughing together over Julia's old cooking show episodes. . . . They exclaim to each other and swap Julia stories or comment on her refrigerator magnets or kitchen bookshelf."

The kitchen, built in 1961, was designed by Child's husband, Paul Child, and organized by Julia. The countertops were made two inches taller than the standard 36-inch height to accommodate Child's 6-foot-2-inch frame; pots, pans and knives were placed within easy reach on the walls, the pots and pans on basic pegboard and the knives on magnetic strips.

Throughout the ensuing decades, new appliances were added -- a cobalt blue KitchenAid mixer, a food processor, a second wall oven -- but the appearance and basic functionality of the kitchen never changed. It was and continues to be an expression of Child's life, says co-curator Paula Johnson, who helped photograph, catalogue and reassemble its 1,200 objects. The only missing component, Johnson says, was a wall of 49 pots, pans, fish molds and other objects that had been donated to Copia, a food and wine museum in Napa, Calif. When Copia closed recently, those objects were turned over to the Smithsonian and have now joined the exhibit.

One person who identifies with Julia's kitchen is Nancy Purves Pollard, owner of La Cuisine kitchenware store in Old Town Alexandria. It is no coincidence that Purves Pollard's shop, with its pegboard-lined walls dotted with copper pots and tart pans, shelves stacked with ceramic bowls, and crocks and jars filled with gadgets, is strikingly similar in style to Child's kitchen, which in turn reflected the functionality of French country kitchens.

"Her books and her early TV programs were very instrumental in my forming the structure and business plan for my shop," says Purves Pollard, who opened her store in 1972. "Through Julia's programs I was able to source much of what we carry today."

And just like the durable French cookware she preferred, Child's kitchen stands the test of time, says kitchen designer Jennifer Gilmer of Chevy Chase. "She used her pots and pans every day, so it makes sense that she would have them out and handy," Gilmer says. "Today we might do something a little more finished than pegboard -- maybe custom-make it rather than buy it in sheets -- but the style, the cottage look, and even the color of the cabinets, are timeless."

Johnson has another theory about why Child's kitchen continues to fascinate the public. "To our visitors, the kitchen appears both accessible and extraordinary at the same time," she says. "Accessible in that it seems so ordinary, unpretentious and 'just like mine,' and extraordinary in that it contains the actual tools and equipment collected, used and cared for by the beloved Julia Child."

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