Julia Child was one of many forces of change when it comes to food in America in the second half of the 20th century. Through her cookbooks and television series, she inspired many Americans to venture into the unknown—at first, French cuisine—and to pay attention to and take pleasure in preparing food. She did this at a time when the mainstream message was all about convenience and on-the-go eating. Julia's kitchen reflects this time period, as well; it contains tools she acquired at the Paris flea market in 1948 alongside items she collected and used right up to 2001. Her kitchen anchors the new exhibition, and Julia Child's legacy is one of the strong currents of change that will guide our continuing exploration of food in American history.
GL: How and why did Julia Child's focus on French food appeal to the American palate?
Rayna Green: Julia always said that she came along at just the right time. In the 1960s, Americans were emerging from the 1950s postwar insularity. The Kennedys, with their tastes for all things French, were in the White House and serving French food to guests. Many Americans, with their newfound affluence, were traveling and returning with affection for what they ate and drank abroad. While post-Prohibition America was rebuilding the wine industry, Julia offered up a very American enthusiasm for that very European habit of enjoying wine at the table. People enjoyed the simplifying access she offered to food that had once seemed complicated, fussy, and exotic. Was everybody in the United States suddenly enjoying a glass of wine with their Sunday pot roast? Certainly not. But more people than ever before tackled the boeuf bourguignon that Julia taught them, and many more found two bottles necessary: one for the pot and one to fill the new wineglasses at dinner.
GL: Peg-Boards seem to be making a comeback in kitchens. How has Julia Child's own kitchen design and storage scheme influenced contemporary kitchen design?
RG: We wish we had a nickel for every inquiry we've had about Julia's kitchen design! We receive many requests for copies of her kitchen plans—sorry, we don't have them—the names and numbers of her paint colors, and sources for reproductions of some of the paintings and decorative objects in the kitchen… There are some people who want to redo their kitchens just like Julia's. Design and lifestyle magazines started writing about her kitchens in France and Cambridge as early as 1966, and they ratcheted up the interest levels again after we opened Bon Appétit!.
All the pots and tools hung on Peg-Boards around the kitchen, and they always garnered attention, even back then. And indeed, folks are once again drawn to Julia and Paul's unique solution for storing kitchen tools. But few ever appeared to be attracted to Julia's other unique DIY solutions for keeping things on hand and insuring that they get put back right where they were before: her DYMO-labeled instructions for operating the food disposal—"No artichoke leaves!"—the pot outlines executed with marking pens on the Peg-Boards, the masking tape labels on containers—those designs were unique, personal, inimitable, and forever, just like Julia.
GL: What was the most surprising thing—knickknack, utensil, recipe, piece of equipment—you found while first working on the kitchen in 2001? Have you made any new discoveries since then?
RG: We found all sorts of surprises in Julia's cabinets and drawers, especially in her kitchen junk drawer, amidst the dead flashlights, bits of string, and candle stubs. A small box with a well-used metal Champagne cork labeled as a gift from James Beard sat next to a World War II signaling mirror, the kind the OSS would have issued to Julia. When we catalogued her wonderful Norwegian kitchen table, we discovered several banana stickers and pieces of chewing gum under the table. Our questions to her revealed that the banana stickers were placed there by her banana-loving husband Paul, and the chewing gum came from her nephews. We confirmed the gum with one of her nephews, Max. By the way, they're all still under the table.
GL: How do visitors react to seeing Julia's kitchen?
RG: On the day we first opened Julia's kitchen to the public in 2002, more than 100 people were lined up to see it. We learned that the tour-mobile operators that traverse all the D.C. tourist areas had already begun to announce that the museum now housed Julia Child's kitchen along with the beloved Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz. People would walk into the museum, go right to the Visitors' Information desk, and ask, "Where's Julia?" We noticed that visitors had a longer "stay" time in Julia's kitchen than in other exhibits, and some visitors would just stand to watch the full 90-minute video of Julia.