The Smithsonian’s online exhibit on Julia Child’s Kitchen is a simple, efficient, and attractive tour of the famed chef’s life and work. The site consists of twelve pages, which contain a mixture of short paragraphs discussing different aspects of Julia’s life, photographs of Julia, and photo/text boxes for specific objects in the Smithsonian collection. The presentation, while straightforward and unadorned, manages to effectively link the story of Julia Child with the history and culture of American kitchens, cooking, and television. The narrative structure of the text features many “hooks” designed to engage readers who otherwise might not have any interest in kitchen appliances or the culture of American cooking in the ’50s and ’60s. For example, the very first section begins not with Julia, but with William Levitt and the culture of progress; once the reader understands this, they have better context for seeing how Julia’s unapologetic, rustic kitchen contrasted with the sleek, modernist ideal of the period. Readers are shown how Julia employed a mixture of old and new technologies, only adopting the new if the results were “just as good.” This not only gives the reader a glimpse into mid-century kitchens, but also hints at the idea that cooking, as a discipline, is forever caught between art and science. It is no accident that Julia’s famous first cookbook was titled “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The site contrasts popular labor-saving texts like Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book” with Julia’s approach, which was for “ambitious and adventurous cooks” and emphasized “willingness to put in the time and work.”
When Julia became a television star, her work focused on the idea that cooking was “not a chore, but an immense creative outlet.” To emphasize this, the site displays objects from her show which highlight her sense of humor – signs in French with subtle joke dishes, a ridiculously large prop knife, and even a blowtorch. The site also discusses how her casual manner of speaking, unedited slip-ups, and habit of drinking wine with dinner subverted the cultural norms of efficiency and perfection shown in advertising for kitchen technology. The last three pages discuss Julia’s cultural impact as a one of the first television chefs, listing a dozen other famous TV chefs that presented from 1946-2000. These sections are easily the exhibit’s weakest point, as they provide no context, no descriptions, and nothing at all to link the many TV personalities with Julia or her cooking style. The site’s failure to contextualize or explain their choices is inexplicable – why does Emeril get an entire page to himself, but Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, and Jacques Pepin all get relegated to sub-mentions? This portion of the site feels very dated; Emeril’s legacy as a chef has completely disappeared in recent decades (outside of jokes), while Pepin, Flay, Oliver and Brown all continue to have a cultural impact to this day.