Interns Kristen Chasse and Jillian Brems spent the summer as part of “Team Julia,” a group of people responsible for the exhibition, Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian. Here they share their experiences cataloguing and installing a recently acquired collection of objects belonging to Julia Child.
What did you know about Julia Child before beginning your internship?
Kristen: Just that she was a fabulous cook. Then one day my boss took me down to second floor storage, opened a huge white cabinet and let me look in on my next research and cataloguing project: Julia’s copper pots (and tin pots, and iron pots, and black steel pots, too).
Jillian: I was by no means a Julia expert; I knew enough—that she was a French-trained cook whose cookbooks and television shows made cooking accessible to many—to recognize that this was a wonderful opportunity. As I told people of my summer plans, I quickly came to appreciate her enormous cultural significance. “That’s so neat! The Julia Child?” I could tell there was something special not only about the exhibition, but about Julia herself.
What does cataloguing a collection of cooking pots entail?
Jillian: Kristen and I both have backgrounds in archaeology, so we had lots of practice handling artifacts. We couldn’t wait to get our (gloved) hands on those beautiful pots. With great care, we loaded the 47 items out of the storage cabinet and onto carts and transported them upstairs. Starting with a tiny tin butterfly, we worked our way across the peg-board’s rows until we finished with the final item, a black steel skillet. In between, there were tin gratins, cast iron muffin pans, and a branding iron with the initials “JC.”
Kristen: Cataloging pots seems straightforward, but it becomes perplexing quickly. Every pot and pan needed to be described so that it can be differentiated from the others. We measured, described, numbered, and photographed all of her pots (with lots of help from cooking Web sites to determine the difference between a regular or splayed sauté pan) and entered the information into the museum’s collections database. This seems simple enough; however, Julia sometimes had multiples of the same pot, like the five tin gratin pans that are all the same size! All of a sudden you’re looking for minute details to tell one pot from another.
What’s it like to get up-close and personal with Julia Child’s kitchen tools?
Kristen: One of the things that I love so much about historic artifacts is the way they bind different generations together. I love holding objects and wondering who held it before me. What were they thinking about? What path did this artifact take to end up here in my hands? Cataloging Julia’s pots prompted all of those questions in the most acute way, since we know so much about her. Turning her things over in my own hands always made me wonder what she had used each one to make. I would look at tiny scratches or large burn marks and wonder what had happened and what had been Julia’s reaction.
Jillian: We discovered delightful details that clearly tie the items to Julia. Nearly all of the copper pots, for instance, contain the mark of French cookware store E. Dehillerin, where Julia shopped during her years in Paris. We also noticed tiny bits of green copper polish residue around the rivets on many of the handles, a reminder that these were cherished and well-cared-for items. Perhaps the most charming detail we noted was the brand “PC” on a few pot handles. These were likely the initials of Paul Child, Julia’s husband and co-designer of the kitchen.
Installing the Copper Pots- Take 1 (July 28, 2009)
Jillian: Before the museum opened, we brought the pots to the gallery where their pegboard and beautiful new case waited. We wanted the kitchen looking its best, so before installing the new items, we tidied up. Wearing socks (to protect the delicate floor) and wielding diapers (to gently dust the objects), we worked our way around the kitchen.
Kristen: After a furious day of cleaning, we installed the hooks to hang the pots onto the wall, making sure everything was in exactly the same place that Julia had them. After the hooks were on, we (very, very carefully) hung all of Julia’s pots up to make sure that everything fit and looked correct. Then we took everything down! This was a “dry run,” a practice at the museum to make sure everything works, so that if there is a problem it can be corrected before the actual installation.
Installing the Copper Pots- Take 2 (July 29, 2009)
Jillian: One by one, our team hung the items just as they were in Julia’s Cambridge, Mass., home. The last object, a copper sabayon bowl, was placed on its hook and we all took a step back to admire the wall. Julia’s kitchen was complete once again!
Kristen: Museum specialist Joe Criste closed the case with a Plexiglas cover and we moved out.
Jillian: While we were installing, people crowded around the windows, peeking in to see what we were doing and lamenting that the exhibition was temporarily closed. As soon as the pots were safely on the wall the curators decided to reopen. When we were ready, the security guard raised the gate at the exhibition’s entrance. Within moments, it was packed to the brim.
What will you take away from this experience?
Kristen: I have always thought that handling artifacts from great historic figures makes you want to do great things yourself. I find it hard to look at Abe Lincoln’s top hat and not be seized with an urge to go out and change the world. It was difficult to hold Julia’s pots and pans without wanting to be the best chef in the world. As it stands now, I am probably the worst cook ever. I “make” cereal and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mom gave me a copy of “The Joy of Cooking” when I moved out of the dorms in college, but the only thing I ever looked up was how to bake a potato. After my encounter with Julia though, all I’ve been thinking about are the fabulous dishes I’m going to start making for everyone. Even if it takes me a long time to get to a place where I can do that, it was Julia that got me started. And in the end, that’s what is so great about history for me: it connects and inspires all of us.
Jillian: The new wall is a hit, and it’s abundantly clear to me—once again—that there is truly something special about Julia Child.
Kristen Chasse and Jillian Brems are interns in the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.