Peering through the acrylic window into Julia Child's kitchen, the festive, almost magical glimmer of copper pots and pans catches your eye. It's hard not to envision the delicious meals cooked and served there. But what was it really like to prepare and share a meal with Julia Child?
Chris Kimball, host of cooking show America's Test Kitchen, actually did cook with Child and shared meals at her kitchen table. He recently shared his memories with curators Paula Johnson and Rayna Green before speaking about the science of cooking at a museum program. Fittingly, the interview took place inside a gallery that will soon house a new exhibition, Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, which opens later this month. Julia Child's kitchen is the opening story in the 3,800-square-foot exhibition.
"She called me, just called me up. You can still hear the voice on the phone," Kimball said about Julia Child's invitation to come over to her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. "She always called you personally, she always sent you a note—one of those little postcards."
But her generous, warm personality also had a competitive side. Once when Kimball came over, "I walked in and... within two minutes she handed me this huge, plastic tub of oysters. And she said, 'Do you mind shucking oysters?' And I was the world's worst oyster shucker at the time. I'm slightly better now but still not very good. So I spent, like, ten minutes, cutting my finger, opening, like, two oysters. She asked if I wanted a church key and everything else. So finally I was completely humiliated and I said, 'I tell you what, I'll drink the wine, you give me a big glass of wine, and you open the oysters.'" Later, when museum staff inventoried Julia Child's kitchen, they found several different oyster-related tools and tableware.
"Julia liked to test you," Kimball said. "She was competitive. She wasn't just the kindly professor. She liked to stick it to you. One of the times I came over, there'd be a leg of lamb and she'd just ask you to carve it to see if you know where the H bone was. With the oysters, it was a test I failed miserably. But I think she liked people to stand up to her. I said, 'you do it,' and we got along fine after that."
Kimball's approach to cooking is highly scientific. As he explained in his talk at the museum, he and the team at America's Test Kitchen identify a hypothesis and then try to prove or disprove it. This is how, for example, they ended up recommending that you put vodka in your pie crust. (Dough needs water but it can make pie crust tough. Vodka results in dough that is moist but still easy-to-roll.) They tried boiling, braising, and roasting three different pot roasts and discovered that the cooking method had little impact on the juiciness of the meat—only internal temperature made a difference.
While we often think of Julia Child cooking with her heart and not by scientific methods, Kimball says that she did believe there was a correct way to accomplish tasks in the kitchen. "She was sort of the original test kitchen," Kimball said, sometimes "trying 20 raspberry soufflés to get it right." Together, she and Kimball tested a recipe for microwave bread, a fact that may surprise us today as we don't think of Julia Child and microwave cooking in the same breath. But, as the new exhibition will reveal, advocates of microwave cooking believed the ovens could be used for preparing all kinds of foods, including gourmet meals and bread.
Child thought of herself as "an instructor, not an entertainer," he said, and she "didn’t dumb anything down." After all, Kimball said, a broccoli recipe might go on for two pages.
Julia Child enjoyed trying new gadgets—which explains why there were so many of them when museum staff inventoried her kitchen. New food trends didn't always appeal to Julia Child, Kimball said, although she was always intrigued by meeting new people. "BBQ just wasn’t going to be Julia's thing," he said. Dark restaurants were a personal dislike and she always asked that the lights be turned up, something waiters unfailingly agreed to do but never actually did. Kimball chuckled, remembering her pulling "a massive flashlight" out of her purse to see her food at a particularly dark restaurant.
Above all, what Kimball remembered about meals at Child's home was "the casualness of it," he said. "I mean, the food was great. But it was just a real kitchen and no artifice about it." He'd bring over a lemon tart or watercress and pea soup. His first meal with Julia Child was oyster stew, wine, and bread. Another time, they had just "boiled new potatoes and caviar—that was it—with wine." "It was always simple. She never had the four side dishes, six courses—it was always one thing."