Getting to Know Julia Child, Finally

I made some new friends at the American History museum last week: a few fellow bloggers and food lovers, as well as a famous professional chef who has written or inspired more than a dozen books. She's technically dead, but you can hardly tell; there's so much life in the words, images and objects she left behind.

Her name is Julia, which suits her, since it means "youthful." You might even call her a Child.

Oh, what, you know her too?

For years, my brain dimly associated Julia Child's name with culinary celebrity, and duly spat it out when prompted by crossword puzzles and trivia games, but that's about all. I never saw her show, since PBS only came in fuzzily on our old television. When she died in 2004, I was in the midst of moving to Manhattan for grad school and missed most of the glowing retrospectives offered by the media. And I never read her books, which there's really no excuse for.

Last week, it finally dawned on me what I've been missing. I attended a press conference at Smithsonian's American History museum, where it was announced that Nora Ephron, writer and director of the new movie Julie & Julia, is donating a script, costume and other movie-related mementos to the museum along with a sizable check. Very cool, as was the news that Child's copper pots have been added to the museum's collection!

While waiting for the press conference to begin, I peered into Julia's home kitchen, which she donated in 2001—though according to her niece, Phila Cousins, Julia's initial reaction to the Smithsonian's request was bewildered refusal: "Why would anyone want my kitchen?"—and enjoyed the treat of having it all to myself for several minutes. (You can visit the kitchen online, too.)

Even behind plexiglass, it's a warm, inviting room, surprisingly ordinary in some ways. There's magnetic clutter on the fridge and Skippy peanut butter on the counter; a plastic yellow cloth on the table; a dishtowel slung over the oven door handle... for a moment this seems like Grandma's kitchen, not a celebrity chef's domain.

Then I noticed the arsenal of carefully arranged cookware on the walls, the well-worn countertops and the rows of knives at the ready. A metal railing curved around the ceiling, where it once supported TV studio lights. This kitchen was surely, as Julia said, "the beating heart and social center of the household," but it was also her workplace.

As part of the exhibit, several monitors play clips of Julia cooking and chatting up the camera, and this is when she really won my heart. I was mesmerized by her goofy humor, her endearingly Muppet-like voice (she appeared on that show, in fact); and the confidence, if not grace, with which she carried her 6-foot-2 frame.

I chuckled knowingly as I watched her praise her KitchenAid stand mixer, caressing its blue body and calling it "absolutely marvelous." (I just got one of those myself, and am equally enchanted.) I smiled when I saw how joyful she looked in her wedding photo, despite the obvious bandages on her head from a car accident the day before.

And I scratched my head at the display of a lone bottle of Gravy Master sauce, until I read that this was the "wine" Julia was famous for getting "tipsy" with on camera! Unaware that the liquid in her glass was a mere prop (watered-down brown sauce), some viewers attributed her on-screen antics to alcohol.

Julia did love wine, and helped convince many Americans that "there's not anything evil about it, it's part of the food," but she didn't need its assistance to act silly. That seemed to come as naturally to her as if she were a... well, you know.

P.S. If you wonder (as I did) why the clock on Julia's kitchen wall is forever stopped at 12:40, blogger Claire over at The Barefoot Kitchen has your answer!

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