Friday, June 10, 2016

Everything, Including the Kitchen Sink: Julia Child and "Food" at the Smithsonian

On a recent business trip to Washington D.C., there were two things I wanted to see: the Newseum and Julia Child's kitchen, reassembled as it was in her Cambridge home, now on display at the Smithsonian.

Visitors to the Smithsonian's National Museum of
American History can see Julia Child's reassembled kitchen from her
Cambridge home.

"Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000" is a new ongoing exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History that chronicles the nation's trends and concerns surrounding food during a 50-year period of great social, political, and economic changes. While it is only one part of the exhibit, Julia's kitchen is truly the main draw of "Food," as is the TV monitor that continuously plays snippets of her shows on PBS. One of the more poignant sights of my trip was a lone woman who sat glued to this monitor the whole time I was viewing the exhibit, as if channeling a simpler time when people were entertained by watching a comical but confident Everywoman bone a chicken.

One of Julia Child's legion of fans
enjoys a nostalgic moment at the Smithsonian's
"Food" exhibit.
While food on TV is now an everyday thing, it has morphed, like so much else in our everyday lives, into glossy and surreal perfection. Sadly, these slick culinary aspirations are juxtaposed by the new normal of bad manners and human cruelty. Cooking has taken on the same role in our entertainment as gladiators or midget wrestling, with competitions like "Hell's Kitchen" and "Chopped." While you can learn a lot about cooking by watching professional and semi-professional chefs vying with each other for the approval of snarky celebrity chefs or the chance to start their own restaurant, you also are a captive audience to the same conniving and dread as viewers of shows like "Survivor" or "Naked and Afraid."

Julia Child's famous pegboard storage for an array of pots,
pans, and baking vessels. She outlined the shape of each
piece on the wall, so that there was a place for everything
and everything in its place.
In Julia's day, watching someone cook on television was a novelty. But while she was far from the first person to demonstrate cooking on air, she was the first person who made it look like anyone could - and should - attempt Boeuf Bourguignon or a Queen of Sheba Cake. With her somewhat hysterical warble, her lack of pretension, and the occasional fumble, Julia served up more than recipes and techniques; she gave ordinary home cooks an invaluable sense of confidence.

Julia's kitchen at the Smithsonian appears surprisingly - or not surprisingly - almost shabby in the dark "Food' galleries. The counters, which were built to accommodate her statuesque proportions, are tidy and uncluttered. The sense of order is echoed in the astounding array of pots, pans, and gadgets that hang from pegboard on her signature green walls. There is even one of those coated wire drainboards that every home had back in the day, next to the kitchen sink. Next to a jar of Sue Bee honey and a row of turquoise metal canisters is Julia's ubiquitous jar of Skippy peanut butter. She is reported to have loved the stuff, as well as Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers.

Julia Child's outsized whisk and copper
bowl were used to demonstrate how to
make omelettes on the first-ever
episode of "The French Chef" in 1963.
Julia's picture also hangs in the cafe at the National Portrait Gallery. A generation or two after her influence on American cooks, we have lionized The Chef. Thomas Keller's portrait graces a hallway of the gallery's most recent acquisitions. His commanding stance while holding a basket of fresh produce could be compared to a portrait of one of George Washington's generals poised to charge into the fray, which hangs in the same gallery.

But back to the "Food" exhibit - and the issue of hunger. Among the news clips and magazine articles featured across from Julia's kitchen was a black-and-white photo piece on hunger from an old magazine. Next to that was a colorful illustration on the cover of Life that depicted a healthy, well-fed toddler riding in a shopping cart as his mother's gloved hand continued to fill the overflowing conveyance.

We waste a shameful amount of food in this country. And we talk about feeding the developing world while fellow Americans starve in the streets, in schools, and at home.

That weekend, I visited Dupont Circle, lured by the legendary Kramerbooks and the adjacent Afterwords Cafe. It was one of those early spring afternoons where the weather goes from sunny and pleasant to sunny with an icy wind. The scene reminded me of the Abbott Kinney neighborhood in Venice, which is posh in a sort of rundown way. Sadly, the area also has a homeless contingent that belies an unpalatable truth about our society in upscale urban areas, where people spend extraordinary amounts of money on simple things like omelets and tee shirts, while other human beings live, sleep, deal with disease and yes, sometimes eat, on the same sidewalks.

Brunch at Afterwords Cafe.
I had a late brunch at Afterwords - a Mediterranean omelet seasoned with fresh thyme, with a side of honey-sweet bacon. A huge cafe mocha came in a large water glass wrapped in a paper cuff. Julia Child, with her love of humble supermarket ingredients, would have been impressed with its chocolately depths, achieved by the mere addition of Hershey's syrup.

I decided that I would give my leftovers to one of them when I left the restaurant. The amount of food I had left was as daunting as the generous portion that I initially received. There were enough eggs, potatoes, and bacon remaining for two or three small portions. I pictured the people I didn't give food to being angry or hurt. I considered leaving the leftovers on the table to avoid that.

Desserts glow in Thiebaud-esque perfection at the
Newseum's cafe, which is aptly named,
"The Food Section."
A few days later, I viewed the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery at the Newseum. There were the famous images that depicted atrocities of war; a well-known photo of a returning POW and his family's jubilant reception; an Olympic swimmer being congratulated against a dramatic backdrop of the American flag. But one that really struck me was a photo by Kevin Carter, who was documenting the famine in the Sudan in 1993.

The haunting image depicts an emaciated child that appears near collapse on the parched ground, with a vulture practically a foot away from her. Although the authenticity of the photo is in question - the girl's parents are reported to have left her for a moment while receiving food from a UN plane distributing aid - it is a stark view of what was happening throughout the beleaguered region. Carter had also witnessed other life-altering sights such as gruesome public executions during the era of apartheid in South Africa. In the end, it was all too much for him and he committed suicide a year after taking his Pulitzer-winning image.

The 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum pays tribute to the press
that told the story of one of America's darkest days
Journalists and others in communications often find themselves hardened by the work - almost. At times, the wonder of the benign topics I cover in my work is somewhat blunted because of the regularity with which I visit them. But the "news" must go on. I've been binge-viewing episodes of "Lou Grant," a show I did not quite understand in its heyday, being in elementary school at the time (mine was the last truly naive generation).

I am struck by the issues that Lou and his staff faced each week, issues that resonate today within the profession, along with journalism ethics that seem to be a thing of the past these days, given the 27/7 news cycle. It is no longer just about scooping the rival news outlet, but about inundating the universe with your own merciless repetition of a top story. In the end, the quality of the work suffers, and the public is no better informed than it was before.

Another thing that has gone the way of the
dinosaur in favor of the "delete"
button. Claes Oldenburg and Coosje
Van Bruggen's "Typewriter Eraser,
Scale X," in the gardens at the
National Gallery of Art.
But I'll climb off the soapbox now. The Newseum was a breathtaking experience. The admission provides entry for two consecutive days, which gives you an idea of just how dense the exhibits are. There is, of course, tons of reading to do - a newspaper (remember those?) from each of the 50 states is displayed daily on a terrace overlooking the Capitol. More vividly, tools of the trade like a news helicopter suspending in the lobby, as well as historic artifacts like a news tower that was mangled on 9/11, tell the story of journalism in America and beyond in a most poignant way.

Journalists are said to enter the profession in order to make sense of the world, but they are also only human beings, with all the prejudices, fears, and egos that everyone else has.

In the end, the food server at Afterwords put my leftover breakfast in one large takeout box. I walked out of the cafe and handed it to the first person I saw, a woman who was sitting near the restaurant's door. I couldn't use my second day of admission to the Newseum, and ended up giving it to the cab driver that took me to the airport, a man who had a master's degree in political science from his native Ethiopia.

Many weeks later, I covered a commencement ceremony for a high school in LA's Koreatown. One of the graduates expressed in a speech his gratitude for things like terrible food in the school's cafeteria, the ability to share his own small resources with a homeless person, and for his family, friends, and the opportunity to learn.

As has happened many times over the years, I had another of those moments that makes me glad I do what I do for a living. If only Kevin Carter and his contemporaries in The Bang Bang Club had been able to witness a few more of these kinds of moments of humanity - difficult to do when documenting the bloody scourge of apartheid in the 1980s. Perhaps we'd be able to hear his firsthand stories today, and perhaps his tragically blighted views of the world, which led to suicide at age 33, would have been somehow salvaged.

One of the pithy quotes that adorn the walls of the
Newseum. This one kind of says it all.

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