The Democratic Kitchen

Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian
Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian Institution

Julia Child’s kitchen presents an interesting case in domestic design. There is a clearly delineated philosophy behind it. In itself, that’s not rare; however, to have it reflect so directly the philosophy of  a practitioner and influential teacher is not as easy to come by. It’s a workspace, and a democratic one at that.

It’s quite fitting that it was bequeathed to a national museum. As far as I can tell, virtually all of the Smithsonian’s facilities are free from admission charges (except the Cooper Hewitt Museum in NYC) and are open virtually every day of the year except Christmas. Access has no barriers. That, of course, was the centerpiece of the efforts of Julia Child. In the foreword to Mastering The Art of French Cooking from 1961, she began:

This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with producing something wonderful to eat. Written for those who love to cook, the recipes are as detailed as we have felt they should be so the reader will know exactly what is involved and how to go about it….No out-of-the-ordinary ingredients are called for. In fact the book could well be titled “French Cooking from the American Supermarket,” for the excellence of French cooking, and of good cooking in general, is due more to cooking technique than anything else. And these techniques can be applied wherever good basic materials are available.

The 1983 introduction of the revised edition remarks that the new advances in technology, such as the food processor, have further lowered the barrier to cooking excellence by simplifying the drudgery; the recipes, in many cases, were revised to reflect that. But from the beginning, it seems as if Julia’s first rhetorical task was to remove the aura of preciousness from fine cooking:

We have purposely omitted cobwebbed bottles, the patron in his white cap bustling among his sauces, anecdotes about charming little restaurants with gleaming napery, and so forth. Such romantic interludes, it seems to us, put French cooking into a never-never land instead of Here, where happily it is available to everybody. Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere, with the right instruction. Our hope is that this book will be helpful in giving that instruction.

The emphasis, as in most craft literature, is on education about materials (ingredients), tools (batterie de cuisine), and technique. What is also striking though, is that as her career moved on, she also gave a lot of attention to discussing her rationale for her work environment and mise en place. In other words, it wasn’t just about raw materials, tools, fixtures, and skills—attention was also given to workflow and the assortment of jigs that shape it.

In the “Design Anatomy” issue on Julia’s kitchen from 1977 in Design Quarterly composed by Bill Stumpf and Nicholas Polites, the delineate some of the difficulties in finding good analysis of workspaces:

Industry has a tendency to pander to immediate market interests, seeing research narrowly through product eyes; government has a fixation on consumerism and regulation; and, designers rarely have the time, motivation or money required to carefully analyze a philosophical question. (12)

They go on to assert that Julia’s kitchen is “artless,” because it reflects not only successes but failures; it is also “easily perceived,” “small scale,” and “productive”(13). The analysis they offer is useful to anyone interested in domestic design. Throughout, I was reminded of a lot of contemporary writing about woodworking tools and materials.

Julia in her kitchen

Julia Child’s batterie de cuisine, translated by some on the Internet as referring to “pots and pans” is impressive to say the least. But she wasn’t what you would call a tool collector, nor was she snobbish about perfection. The labeling of her tools as a batterie is telling; one does battle with the food, and the tools are the artillery. In Mastering The Art of French Cooking, she suggests that a cook seek out a restaurant supply to acquire good serviceable tools. Obviously she had a big assortment of things (enough to equip a couple of restaurants by some estimations) but they were acquired over the course of a lifetime. Stumpf and Polites summarize her attitude on tools:

Julia’s kitchen is remarkably affordable. This has been achieved by applying four principles. The first deals with the feeling for what is elegant and common and the fact that these qualities are not mutually exclusive in an environment or object. Julia hangs her array of fine French skillets and pots on common pegboard. The cupboards are of pine, yet the drawer slides are of commercial quality, the wine collection is racked on common pine wood shelves and labeled with masking tape. Good quality chinaware is set upon an oilcloth table covering, and so on.

One of my favorite tricks pictured in the analysis is the labeling of all spice jars with the first letter of the name of the spice written large on masking tape, to assist finding and replacing the jars on the spice rack. This seems an essential innovation for less than perfect eyes like mine. I noticed that many people who visit the display at the Smithsonian comment on the oilcloth table covering. It’s a far cry from the carefully woven Arts and Crafts table drapes of not so many years before.

The second principle deals with the long term value of tools. She will buy the least expensive if it works well and endures under heavy and prolonged use.

The third principle focuses upon sources of supply that deliver good value. Julia’s stove was purchased used, and she shops for utensils in professional shops and hardware stores,not design conscious boutiques. In short, Julia loves her tools but is not dominated by them. First, she loves good food and is a good cook. That perspective is never lost on the best of everything kind of environment.

The arguments among hand tool woodworkers regarding boutique tools is something that grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard; this is where the real bourgeois privilege rears its ugly head in tool geek land. I have nothing against those who can buy a $250 panel gauge (ultimately just two sticks attached together with a bit of brass), but it just doesn’t seem to be a solution for the vast majority of workers. There are obviously tools that are worth more than the sort of mass market “tool resembling objects” that the primary gurus of woodworking rail against, but it troubles me that there is seldom a middle ground in these discussions. A person can buy used (as Julia Child did on some items) if and only if one has the expertise to do so.

That’s hard to acquire when a craftsman first starts out. There have been attempts to address this, but Julia Child’s second principle, of “buying the least expensive if it works well and endures under heavy and prolonged use” is generally lost on woodworkers. Also conspicuously downplayed (though sometimes addressed) is the fourth principle:

The last principle deals with the gradual acquisition of good quality objects. One doesn’t buy a collection of cooking tools and then hope to cook with them. One learns slowly, adding tools to suit new recipes and processes. Only by knowing how to cook can a cook truly evaluate the worth of a tool. . . particularly a new tool. (18)

The Design Quarterly articles go on at great length about her stove, with extensive photographs as if it were a sculptural object, but in the end the detailed discussion of workflow in Julia’s kitchen is the real pay off. I will have much more to write about that later.

Julia’s kitchen is indeed a philosophical space. It’s not at all anarchistic, it’s structured in such a way to generate as much of a dialog as possible all the while keeping a sort of easy expertise in flux, ready to be modified and experimented with. It’s a democratic kitchen, which like Julia’s recipes, is within reach of everyone.

Julia’s Kitchen

Julia Childs

Until the last year or so, I was completely unfamiliar with Julia Child. My only real exposure to cooking shows was Martin Yan —”If Yan can cook, so can you!” I managed to make a fairly decent lo mein twenty or thirty years ago from that. Modern cooking programs do very little for me. The whole “cooking challenge” nonsense that seems to dominate these days really leaves me cold, and haven’t found much in the genre that really excited me.

I had thought, until I started watching (perhaps due to her screechy patrician voice), that Julia Child was too precious for me. Besides, I had never (as far as I knew) eaten French cooking, so my interest in the subject was low. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about Julia.

One of the best tangents that Witold Rybczynski triggered for me lately was the Walker Museums “design anatomy” issue on her kitchen from 1977. Julia’s kitchen was a habitation that just screams “I am alive!”

julia-jacques500I’ve been watching Julia Child videos for the last year or so, and Jacques Pepin too. What’s different about them from most of the cooking shows out there is that they present an environment that is not hostile or competitive, an environment where everything is simple and possible.

Cooking is about being alive, and celebrating life—not winning prizes or celebrating rare ingredients or techniques. It’s all very average and normal—the opposite of precious. Part of what makes this possible is the environment in which it is enacted, the kitchen.

Building on the essay by David Kirsh I linked previously, Matthew Crawford describes the kitchen as a jig deployed by an expert in an interesting way:

A physical jig reduces the degrees of physical freedom a person must contend with. By seeding the environment with attention-getting objects (such as a knife left in a certain spot) or arranging the environment to keep attention away from something (as, for example, when a dieter keeps certain foods out of easy view), a person can informationally jig it to constrain his mental degrees of freedom. The upshot is to keep action on track, according to some guiding purpose, one has to keep attention properly directed. To do this, it helps a great deal to arrange the environment accordingly, and in fact this is what is generally done by someone engaged in a skilled activity. Once we have achieved competence in the skill, we don’t routinely rely on our powers of concentration and self regulation—those higher level “executive” functions that are easily exhausted. Rather, we find ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes with a minimum expenditure of the scarce mental resources.

High level performance is then to some degree a matter of becoming well situated, let us say. When we watch a cook who is hitting his flow, we someone inhabiting the kitchen—a space for action that has in some sense become an extension of himself. (The World Outside Our Heads, 33)

This cuts to the heart of what I’m trying to figure out through my reading and research. My home, as Krista describes it, is a “co-habitat.” I would like it to be a place for skilled work in living. Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and Design triggered a new round of research into specific rooms beyond the kitchen, but for starters, the kitchen works. In Julia’s case, it’s a workshop but it’s also a social and collaborative space.

On what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday, Jacques Pepin wrote a touching memoir about their relationship for the New York Times;

Julia and I started teaching together at the university. We argued on stage, stealing each other’s mise en place. We felt comfortable together, had a good rapport, a good time, and we respected each other. Our affectionate disagreements resulted in heated, opinionated discussions; we had conviction, enthusiasm and passion for our métier. This resulted in our doing a couple of three-hour PBS Specials called “Cooking in Concert,” both of which were filmed at B.U.

Eventually, these specials led to our doing a series together for PBS at Julia’s house in Cambridge. Both the series and companion cookbook were called “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.”

I find it interesting that the sort of special spatial arrangement that Crawford was writing about, a cook’s “mise en place” is featured in Jacques memories. And in deep sympathy with the sort of situated and contingent world view that the articles about expert intelligence that the AI articles I recently mentioned, Julia and Jacques worked with no plan:

We did not follow recipes, creating them as the shows were filmed. We cooked like friends, spouses or couples do: cooking and drinking together, arguing, then sitting down and sharing the food.

Using Crawford’s framework, it seems safe to say that inhabiting a kitchen means being comfortable enough with the arrangement to admit contingency and disagreement, but also embracing the sort of synergy that comes from not being in total control of events as they unfold. It’s about having a loose sort of arrangement within a carefully specialized regimented environment that allows a maximum of creative potential. Knowing where things are enough to be comfortable, but not being so attached to a planned layout that you can’t release control and allow chance and character to enter the world.

In short, as Van Gogh would say, the kitchen and the people and tools in it should have character. The latest round of readings I’ve been doing have brought out a lot of interesting aspects to the character of various kitchens. Julia’s now resides in the Smithsonian, with good reason. Jacques is out there on Facebook, and the world will really be diminished when he’s no longer in it.