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.