Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cracking the Art of Food Writing

Just forced myself to put down Art of Eating (#71) after read the first story. Same as only allowing myself one chocolate Easter egg at a time. Ed Behr is the founder and editor of what looks and reads alot like a scholarly journal about food and I've been getting it for a couple of years. Each issue has 2-3 really long stories like the one I read about Olympia oysters, and long book reviews on food books and very odd photos. Sometime's there's also a full photo essay, all in black and white. Oddly, the contributors seem mostly men, including my Food Writer Hero John Thorne, and all credentialed. Intimidating but draws me like a magnet. I guess as a reader I'm part of SOME inner circle anyway.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Visiting Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian

"You must have the courage of your convictions," trills a black-and-white Child as she pan-flips a large potato pancake. Losing half of the contents onto the electric range cooktop, she scrapes up the errant potatoes with her spatula and puts them back in the pan, assuring me, her momentary confidant, that it's OK to make a mistake -- no one sees us alone in the kitchen anyway. As an adult, I find this reassuring. I, like Child, am not a natural born cook." - Kathryn Killinger, Salon.com , August, 1999
Seeing a biography on Julia on PBS recently brought back many of the images I have been carrying since first visiting her kitchen at the Smithsonian. I was there twice. First and most movingly, when they were still installing the exhibit and you could watch the curators actually unpacking the boxes that had come straight off the truck and just a few days removed from the house in Cambridge. The second time was about 2 years ago on a snowy afternoon in DC after my sales appointment had been suddenly cancelled due to the weather. The completed kitchen was there and also a large foyer area with a small video monitor in the wall that was running her early cooking shows. Obviously it had become a prime attraction.

There are three portals into the kitchen. Each one is floor to ceiling plexiglass on three sides, but only enough square footage for one person to stand in at a time. When you step into this space you are isolated from the crowd in the foyer space outside the kitchen and it would not be inappropriate to say “beam me up Scotty”, the feeling of being transported into another time and space is so strong.

This kitchen has been reconstructed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History from Julia's own kitchen at her home in Cambridge, MA. It’s not LIKE Julia’s kitchen was. It IS Julia’s kitchen, but without Julia in it. It’s her kitchen cabinets, her pots and pans, her cutting board, her sturdy table with mis-matched wooden chairs they bought in Denmark and shipped through multiple moves, her bookshelf with a worn copy of Joy of Cooking and amazingly her own multi-line telephone with hand written explanatory notes for each button (but darnit, too small to read through the plexiglass). It’s like she just stepped into the living room for a minute and will be right back. It’s eerie.

I read in one of the newspaper stories about the exhibit that all of her knives didn’t come with the kitchen, presumably they went elsewhere as a bequest, lucky recipient unknown. Surprisingly, straightforward and practical Julia had a fetish for acquiring knives and towards the end of her career almost never met a new knife she didn’t have to have. So in addition to the basics, there must have been a large number of exotics, perhaps with fancy handles or highly specialized uses or (hard to imagine) merely decorative.

Because the kitchen itself is not very decorative. Utilitarian would be a good word, and not demeaning at all. Dated, but only in the way that it’s not a shiny, oversize type of kitchen you find in new home models and Food Network TV shows these days. There’s a black & white photo of Julia in her “French kitchen” on the wall of the foyer and in it she is literally stooping over a pot on a gas stove which she is stirring. She’s stooped over it and obviously inconvenienced by her height, but the stove is also very short and primitive and only two burners. The rest of the kitchen looks like a dark movie set for an underground hideaway during the French occupation. And maybe it was since another surprising fact about Julia is that she worked for the United States OSS during World War II, about as close to real spy work as you can get. What gumption it presumably took to get oneself into such a situation back in those days. What an interesting life she had before she even became interested in cooking.

Another major revelation was the level of participation her husband Paul had in her career. When they met in DC and married she was in her 40’s and he was older and she had no real career direction. She followed him on assignment to Paris and used her Veteran’s benefits to pay the tuition at the Cordon Bleu. But he soon retired and she became a celebrity and his passion for words as a poet and his eye as a photographer were put to good use in editing her books and staging her presentations and shows. He seems to have been an exceptionally liberated husband for the times and especially for his generation. One note at the exhibit said he was such a humble and ever present helpmate that he even on occasion washed the dishes after those first Boston Public Television productions. Those were the ones that the Science Guy produced so there were a lot of people wearing multiple hats back then.

And she was so tall. Six feet, two inches is tall even for a man. Her husband was shoulder height to her. Yet they looked rather physically well matched in the photo of them on their wedding day, except for the large bandages on her arm, said to be the result of an auto accident just the day prior. She looked long legged and well bred in her ordinary but classy dress. He looked savvy and well traveled and the photo captures him standing to her side but definitely looking slightly upwards rather admiringly at her laughing face. Perhaps she is re-telling once more the story of her accident. When they moved into the Cambridge house, she had the kitchen counters raised. In later life when she was stooped from old age, she seemed as cheerfully unaware of her curvature as she seems to have always been of her height.

The fact that things slid out of her hands and onto the floor on the cooking shows made Julia endearing. But the fact that Julia was never a pretty face seems to have been a large part of her charm, as does the way she worked far into old age, apparently oblivious to her lack of glamour. Finding out that she also had a rather ordinary kitchen magnifies the extent of her accomplishments somehow.