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No. 2472:
Julia Child

by Andrew Boyd

Today, bon appétit! The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

photograph of bon appétit sign

I couldn't tell if the irony was intentional or accidental. But there it was, situated between the two exhibits I'd made a special trip to see at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. One was Inventions at Play; the other, Science in American Life. They were both a little disappointing. I'd hoped to see a celebration of American inventors and scientists. Instead, I learned that invention was fun, and that America played an important role in developing the atomic bomb and birth control pills. Interesting, but not what I'd expected.

image of smithsonian map

So I was pleasantly surprised to find, right there in the middle of it all, none other than Julia Child's Kitchen. The real thing — a donation from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home. Pans. Well worn cookbooks. Stove. Cabinets. It's set up just as she'd worked and entertained in it for decades. By kitchen standards it's unremarkable, but that's part of the charm. For me, there was a special attachment since, as graduate students, my wife and I lived in an attic apartment across the street from the Childs. We never ate there, but she was as genuine in person as you'd expect from her television appearances.

photograph of kitchen

Child popularized fancy French cooking at a time when America was serving up canned meat and TV dinners. She was among the very first television cooks, and her success propelled the genre forward. Think how many cooking shows there are today.

Child never set out to change the television landscape. It just happened. She was such an engaging guest on a Boston public television program that she was invited back — permanently. The French Chef debuted locally in 1963, but quickly developed a national audience. Awards, notoriety, and good-natured satire soon followed.

At six feet two inches, Child was tall. She wasn't heavy, but she wasn't skinny, either. She never quite came to terms with low-calorie cooking; her answer was to "eat smaller portions." And there's never been a voice that's quite the same.

[audio of Julia Child's Kitchen

Julia Child was funny. Not "funny" funny, but endearingly so; the aunt you always wanted — warm, ready to wrap you in her arms, and just a bit nutty. She was American comfort food, even as she prepared grand French meals. And she remains a truly inspirational figure to men and women alike — someone who found success in life simply by enjoying it. Everything else was just icing on the cake.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

An updated version of this episode can be found at 3188.

Bon Appétit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian: Accessed March 10, 2009.

The audio of Julia Child was taken from the web site of WGBH in Boston.

All pictures by E. A. Boyd.