Julia’s Kitchen

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┬ábegins 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.”┬áTo 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.

3 Replies to “Julia’s Kitchen”

  1. This is a great assessment of Julia’s Kitchen. I like this website too and I think it is full of interesting information. Visitors to this website can certainly learn a lot about Julia Child and the history of cooking in popular American culture. Of course, with all of its benefits, the website does need some updating.

  2. I would have liked to see a class analysis of Julia Child. Honestly, I don’t know anything about her. But this kitchen strikes me as a model of middle class, white domesticity, but I think it’s passed off by the Smithsonian as americana, without qualification. Of course, I would never expect this from the Smithsonian, which seems to me an institution dedicated high culture and self-preservation. This digital exhibit is fun and safe, and I think that’s its appeal. But it could be a lot more.

    1. I agree with Ross about the class analysis. I don’t know a lot about the Smithsonian, but I feel like they could have taken this opportunity to look at other chefs who influenced cooking in the US. I just read the popular history Consider the Fork, so I’m feeling pretty excited about all this stuff. Julia Child could provide the “hook” to a deeper conversation about immigrants. Supposedly there are three great cuisines– French, Chinese, and and Turkish. Joyce Chen introduced Americans to Chinese cooking around the same time Julia Child popularized French cooking, and I think Chinese food might have had a bigger impact than French. Chinese food is also much more pervasive throughout all the regions of the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *