Before Julia Child’s kitchen was moved from public view at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History earlier this year, curators noticed something unusual occurring in front of it.
“People would hang out there,” curator Paula Johnson says. “They would just strike up conversations with strangers about their KitchenAid.”
“More than in any other exhibition,” curator Rayna Green adds. “They’d stay longer and hang out with each other more.”
Child’s kitchen reopens as part of the museum’s new “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” exhibition (which will run for at least two years). The curators hope to provide a wider context and larger setting in which to spark just those kinds of discussions.
The kitchen, which the legendary chef used at her home in Cambridge, Mass., from 1961 to 2000, is a great entry point for thinking about food and change in America in the second half of the 20th century. “We are looking at the various forces of change that affected how and what we eat,” Johnson says. “Julia Child herself was one big force of change.”
The 3,800-square-foot exhibition space is filled with objects and images that represent the evolving role of food in our culture. Objects on display include home wine-making equipment used by an Italian immigrant family in the early to mid-1900s, a 1950 Krispy Kreme “ring king” doughnut-making machine, a circa-1963 Veg-o-Matic appliance (“It Slices! It Dices!”) and a copper bouillabaisse cauldron used by “Good Food movement” icon Alice Waters in the 1980s.
Some of the items — immigrant-introduced bento boxes, basmati rice, couscous, cilantro — are practically ubiquitous in American mainstream culture now. Others — yogurt makers and “soul food” cookbooks used among “counterculture” consumers in the 1970s — are coming back into vogue today.
Though the most interesting pieces are arranged along the walls, curators hope visitors will gather in the center of the exhibition as well. That’s where they’ve set up a long, wooden “open table” surrounded by chairs. It’s an inviting space for visitors to kick back and chat about the show, cooking or family mealtime memories. There won’t be anything to eat, but there will be plenty of food for thought.
Two microwave ovens are on view in the “Cook Today Tomorrow’s Way” section of the show. The larger, a 1955 Tappan, left — the first microwave oven made for home use — is a shiny silver box, an oversized version of what we use today. (It has one extra-antiquated detail: a small drawer to hold recipe cards.) “The microwave wasn’t just intended for making popcorn and heating coffee,” curator Paula Johnson says. “They were imagining you would make all of your meals in the microwave.” The other example of the then-new technology? Good luck figuring that out. “People really do not know what it is,” curator Cory Bernat says. It’s a 1976 Japanese-produced model (which was sold at J.C. Penney), and it’s triangular, with a door that slants downward and opens from the top. “People ask, ‘Is it some sort of weird typewriter?’ ” Johnson says.
The average couch potato probably never would guess that his favorite foods were the result of careful scientific study. A display on “Snack Engineering” makes that case, providing history on the development of Fritos, Pringles, Cheez Whiz and Gatorade — all of which were created between the 1950s and 1970s to serve a culture that was increasingly eating between meals and on the go. “I think about these as feats of technology, really,” curator Cory Bernat says. Cheez Whiz provided the solution to the question: How do you get cheese to melt evenly? Pringles were created in response to a desire to produce uniformly shaped potato chips that could fit into narrow packaging and be shipped nationwide. A patent drawing showing the chips’ distinctive curved shape and tubular packaging is on view alongside a late-1960s Pringles can, at left.
National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; 202-633-1000. (Smithsonian)