View From Lodi, CA: Bon Appetit, Julia Child!
March 03, 2002, 04:00 AM
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Pardon my French, but Julia Child is an American icon.

American icons come from all walks of life and from all religions and ethnicities.

And over the decades, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., has honored hundreds of them with special exhibitions that trace the social, cultural, scientific and technological history of the nation.

But few of the Smithsonian's acquisitions have created more of a buzz among museumgoers than Julia Child's kitchen.

In November, Child left her Massachusetts home of 45 years to return to her native California. But before heading west, Child gave her kitchen to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Child's kitchen, designed by her late husband, Paul, may be as well known to Americans as their very own. Millions of Americans have watched Child's three popular PBS television series. In her kitchen, Child cooked for and entertained her family, friends, professional colleagues and, of course, herself.

The Smithsonian curators, registrars and collection managers took down the 14-foot-by-20 foot kitchen and brought it to Washington early this year.

Prior to being boxed up and shipped, the museum team photographed, numbered and tagged every drawer, fish scaler, vegetable peeler and box grater. Also included in the collection are Child's six-burner Garland range, her personal cook books — including the three most influential, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 and 2" and "The French Chef" — knives, mixing bowls and the famous pegboards with outline drawings of pots and cooking tools.

Even Child's kitchen sink is on the way to Washington.

Before the packing ended, the curators filmed a conversation with Child in her kitchen to document her memories and to capture her explanation of the dozens of kitchen gizmos she has so skillfully used.

"We are aiming to 'capture' her kitchen, a place where she has cooked for the American people," said Rayna Green, chairwoman of the museum's Division of Cultural History.

The museum's director, Spencer Crew, added, "On behalf of the American people, the museum has acquired an incomparable object. The kitchen is certainly a symbol for the achievements of Child but it is also a setting that stands for her considerable and singular influence on the way Americans think about their food and its history. It's a rich context for discussing significant changes in the lives and work of women in the late 20th century."

While most foodies know about Child's culinary skills through her books and videos, not many are aware that Child's career began in Washington.

After Child graduated from Smith College, she returned to Pasadena until World War II broke out. Child, then Ms. Julia McWilliams, headed straight for Washington where she joined the Office of Strategic Services, later called the CIA.

By day, McWilliams pushed papers, but by night, she hosted cocktail parties. At her first opportunity, McWilliams signed up to staff an overseas base in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

In that job, McWilliams met her husband to be, Paul Child.

Child, a notorious playboy, was also a multilingual artist and photographer who was passionate about food. In Ceylon and later in China, where they were both stationed, Child introduced McWilliams to the exotic local cuisine.

And Child, who had also lived in Paris, talked to McWilliams endlessly about the rich and delicious French food he longed for.

After the couple married, Child accepted a post in Paris where Julia became immersed, figuratively, in food. She thought endlessly about cheese and wine. Child studied French culture, learned the language, shopped the markets and met her neighborhood butcher.

The French national pastime, eating, consumed Child.

Child described herself as being "in hysterics for months" about food.

Finally, at 37, Child enrolled in Paris' famed Cordon Bleu cooking school and her new career began in earnest.

The Food TV Network aired some of Child's original shows up to late last year. They are no longer on the air.

For those of you who will not be able to see the Smithsonian exhibit, go to the Lodi Library and check out the video series "Julia Cooks with Jacques Pepin." The series covers cooking steaks, desserts and some excellent tips on building a great salad.

Watching Julia Child in the kitchen is like being with an old friend.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.