AUG. 15 WOULD have been Julia Child's 92nd birthday. To celebrate, I decided to bake reine de saba, a recipe from "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" involving chocolate, rum, almonds and lots of butter. As a new and sometimes thrifty housewife, I'm usually trundling around Giant looking for Barilla tomato basil pasta sauce on sale for $1.59 a jar. But to honor "the French Chef," I wanted the finest ingredients: a box of Scharffen Berger semisweet chocolate with a bar of Ghirardelli as a backup, slivered almonds and almond extract, eggs from an organic farm.
I was pulverizing the almonds with a coffee mug when I realized Child might have tsk-tsked over my technique and choice of tool. Yet, she would have heartily approved of the fact that I was baking a lovely cake for a dinner party that evening. "The thing about food is that you're a much happier person if you eat well and treasure your meals," she once remarked, advocating essentially savoir vivre: By preparing, sharing and eating good food with others, people lead more fulfilling lives.
Child's philosophy about food -- and by extension about life -- is evident at the National Museum of American History's exhibition "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian." When Child retired to her native California in 2001, she donated the main hull of her Irving Street kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., to the museum. "What you see is literally what was on the countertops the day she walked out of there," says Rayna Green, curator of the exhibition.
Julia Child died at an assisted living center in Montecito, Calif., on Aug. 13. Since then, the number of visitors to her kitchen at the Smithsonian has increased, as fans, myself among them, stop by to pay their respects.
Eighteenth-century French philosopher and gourmand Brillat-Savarin famously declared, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." The relationship between food and identity could well be expanded: The items in your kitchen reveal the person that you are. Many of the artifacts in the Smithsonian's careful reconstruction of Child's kitchen suggest aspects of the woman that made her such an effective teacher and beloved public figure.
Perhaps most significant is the very design of the kitchen, representing the deeply supportive relationship Child had with her husband, Paul.
As a cultural attache with the U.S. Information Agency, Paul was sent with his wife to various posts, from Paris to Marseille, Bonn to Oslo. Though stimulated by their travels in Europe, the Childs longed for a home base in the States, and so bought the house in Cambridge in 1961. Child was particularly thrilled to have a kitchen that could be designed to meet her specifications. The makeshift kitchen the Childs had in Paris was a particular challenge for the 6-foot-2 chef to use. A 1949 photograph Paul took in their attic apartment in Paris shows Child towering over a tiny gas stove, stirring something in a pot. "If we ever get into the money, I am going to have a kitchen where everything is my height, and none of this pygmy stuff," she says in a quote displayed at the exhibit. With his eye for design, Paul arranged their kitchen on Irving Street. He ordered maple wood counters to measure 38 inches, some two inches higher than standard kitchen fixtures of the day. He also came up with the innovation of hanging cooking tools on peg boards by hooks. Paul organized the pots and pans on the boards, then outlined each one in black ink. As a result, the just-right pan was easy to locate and return to its proper spot after washing up.
"We never before had had the luxury of a truly functional, well-proportioned room," reads another Child quote. "We intended to make it both practical and beautiful, a working laboratory as well as a living and dining room."
Nothing says more about a kitchen's inhabitants than the cartoons displayed on the wall or refrigerator. The Childs' kitchen featured a plaque with a B. Kliban cat strumming a guitar, singing, "Love to eat them mousies / Them mousies I love to eat / Bite they little heads off / Nibble they tiny feet." Aside from the fact that Child was a cat devotee, the cartoon exemplifies her own wicked brand of humor.
These aspects are more fully presented in the Smithsonian's video of clips from Child's TV shows, including black-and-white footage from 1963 installments of "The French Chef" as well as more recent footage from her shows with Jacques Pepin in the 1990s. While museum videos typically hold viewers' attention for only a moment, recent visitors to Child's kitchen stood around entranced, frequently laughing. One video shows how effective teachers often use humor as a tool: As Child introduces a row of chickens like contestants in a beauty pageant, you also learned the appropriate use of Miss Broiler, Miss Fryer, Miss Roaster and Old Madam Hen. Exclamations such as "eek," "wham" and "boom" peppered her demonstrations as she bashed garlic with the flat of a knife or pounded a piece of veal. She wasn't above a bit of slapstick, brandishing whisks or whamming mallets on a countertop to make a point.
During a recent sojourn, visitors frequently commented on the magnetic strips on either side of the sink where Child kept a lethal assortment of knives handy: long and curved for slicing fish; short, pointed and mean for dicing potatoes; sharp and wide for butchering meat. A self-proclaimed "knife freak," Julia loved to collect specialty tools in her ongoing pursuit of correct technique. "[It's] an obsession I've never been able to break," she falsely lamented in "Appetite for Life," a biography on Child by Noel Riley Fitch.
Overall, the knives indicate the "get down into it" physicality of her teaching, most vividly exemplified, perhaps, by the way she worked with meat. In an early episode of "The French Chef" on roast chicken, Child manhandles the bird in a way most Americans were not used to, cutting out the wish bone and nipping the bits off the elbows before giving it a thorough butter massage. Next she eviscerates the bird with a skewer, ties some bacon to its breast and secures it to a rotisserie with a pair of pliers. While far more visceral than most of us can stomach, Child's direct handling of meat was an honest acknowledgment of its origins. Further, her frank demonstrations showed that with the right attitude you could handle the bird -- or any other grotty kitchen job -- as well as she.
A set of blue and gold canisters from Mark T. Wendell, purveyors and importers of fine tea, rests on the counter beside the stove. Child had a lavish selection ranging from China Lapsang souchong to Earl Grey. On a rack next to the tea is a jar of Skippy peanut butter. The contrast between these highbrow and ordinary foodstuffs indicates Child's lack of pretension; she simply liked good food and wanted others to enjoy it, too. "It ain't no mystery," she repeatedly said of French cooking. By reading and following instructions, anyone could produce boeuf bourguignon or apple charlotte.
These tangible objects in the kitchen -- the layout of the pans, the cat cartoon on the wall, the knives on their racks, the tea and peanut butter on the counter -- indicate attributes that make a great teacher: warmth, humor, knowledge, accessibility. Through cookbooks and instructional videos, Julia Child is still teaching. Her shows can still be seen on local PBS station WMPT, Channel 22, on Saturday afternoons. This Saturday, starting at 2, WMPT will show three of Child's half-hour programs, including "Baking With Julia," "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home" and "Julia's Kitchen."
The origins of those projects, however, came out of her actual kitchen. Green reported that when Julia Child first saw the installation at the Smithsonian, "she said she felt like walking in there and turning everything on and cooking." The source of her inspiration is now ours.
BON APPETIT! JULIA CHILD'S KITCHEN AT THE SMITHSONIAN -- At the National Museum of American History, 14th and Constitution streets NW. 202-633-1000. www.americanhistory.si.edu/juliachild. Open daily from 10 to 5:30. Closed Dec. 25. (Summer hours through Sept. 6, 10 to 6:30.) Free.