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CLAUDIA KOUSOULAS
Julia Child
Laboratorio
Lunch at the villa
A Julia Story


Every cook needs a Julia story.  Facing down the 16 page recipe for cassoulet, repeatedly flipping omelets or hunting down pig back fat to properly line your pate. It gives you home cooking credibility.

I have a friend who lived in the Child's Cambridge Massachusetts neighborhood and who ran into her the very day he was planning to make her meat loaf. The butcher case was out of veal, he looked up, there was Julia, he asked for substitutions, she suggested pork, and off he went.

He dined out on this story for years. I'm sure he still finds opportunities to bring it up. I'm using it now. But I needed my own Julia story.

So when the Smithsonian accessioned her kitchen for display in the Museum of American History I signed up immediately to help unpack and record the thousands of items that make up Julia Child's Kitchen (now spelled with a capital K).

every Friday for three months I'd be charged with following the meticulous procedures of museum  work, helping history along, and getting my own Julia story.

It sounds tedious - open a box, remove and unwrap items using two hands over a table (less likely to drop, less far to fall), record reference number, estimate date made, maker, materials, condition, inscription, object name, brand, kitchen location, name, description, any and all identifying marks, and research reference. Every item, fro the massive Garland stove to the lowliest potato peelers (and there were more than one) received this treatment. Think about this, think about your own kitchen. No wonder they needed volunteers.

But I loved it. I was in the presence of history, of artifact, of Julia. And when vacuuming out kitchen cabinets or carefully sorting silverware, I tried not to think of my own neglected kitchen, in dire need of sorting and vacuuming.

In my cotton gloves and in the site of curious museum visitors, I flinched when I vacuumed up a grain of rice or bit of bread crumb, maybe that was from the Nancy Silverton show. I could have saved it, put it on E-bay. Then I got a grip on myself and kept vacuuming.

While museum work sounds tedious or zen-like depending on your frame of mind, every day offered the excitement of opening up boxes. It might be potato peelers or a slimy dish rack or it might be an elegant set of Laguiole steak knives. My heart-stopper was peeling back the bubble wrap to reveal the "diplome" of "Mrs. Child"  from the Cordon Bleu. I took a picture.

On a small, dilapidated clipboard that apparently sat next to the kitchen phone were clipped two bread recipes - Buttermilk and Pan de Mie. Dusty and splattered, the grime of any busy kitchen, they felt immediate and if not exactly cookable.
Pan de Mie
from Julia's clipboard

1/2 cup milk
1/2 stick sliced butter (melt into machine)
1 cup cold milk
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar (into machine)
1/2 cup starter
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons yeast (1 with starter)
2 quart pan covered

They are really the sketchy reminders of someone who knows where they're going. No need to explain starters, rising times, shaping, or baking. On a clipboard, next tot eh phone, quickly jotted down - was it ever tried?

Being on the inside of the exhibit makes listening to comments from the outside all the more amusing. From one somewhat annoyed woman:

"I just moved too, I could be home unpacking my own kitchen."

from a group of high school students:

"She's that English lady who bangs on things and drinks."

from some kids to their parents:

"Are those people real?"

from a mother to her little girl:

"Julia Child cooks good things."
"I know.

She had undeniable charisma. Her kitchen on TV was her kitchen, the same jumble and grime we all face. And she transcended it all by applying joy, effort and curiosity. That's what I learned from watching the shows and unpacking her personal copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1970 Knopf first edition, object #0131.

In the front of the book is pasted a congratulatory note, "Bravo! Here it is, not off the presses and looking almost unreal after all this time. Love- From all the Knopf Admirers."

In the back of the book, a few blank pages are marked with a few notes on errors. They seem to have accumulated slowly, hopefully just these few, and then the dam breaks and four or five sheets of carefully typed notes on folded onionskin, keyed to page numbers are stapled in. Factual and grammatical errors, whole paragraphs regarding cooking lobsters are to be deleted and replaced. Stamina and enjoyment. That's what I learned.

So that's my Julia Story. I've been there and touched the artifacts. I've got my cred and my touchstone for time in the kitchen.
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