One of the coolest events in Boston last weekend was a daylong symposium on the life and legacy of the inimitable Julia Child, who would have turned 100 in August. Hosted by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study's Schlesinger Library, which holds Child’s papers, the event featured panelists including several friends of Paul and Julia Child from the couple’s years in Cambridge.
One of the topics that came up was Child’s first TV kitchen, stocked with French and Scandinavian art and stylish appliances that belied its humble location: The very first episodes of The French Chef were filmed in a spare room at the Boston Gas Company after a fire at the local public television station. As it turns out, the kitchen’s iconic supplies— “carving boards, dessert dishes, all kinds of cutlery, beautiful colored casseroles” — came from pioneering Harvard Square design store Design Research. A few days later I called DR’s Jane Thompson, a designer and restaurateur, to ask her about equipping one of the most important kitchens in American culinary history.
This was one of the very first cooking shows on TV. Was it difficult to figure out what a TV kitchen might need?
She had her own pots and pans, but she wasn’t going to put them on TV, and PBS had no money. ... What she really needed was a complete mockup of a kitchen. Ben [Thompson’s husband] got these two ladies out of our kitchen department, who gathered all the casseroles and pots and plans, along with Marimekko fabric and decorative art and all that, and hauled it down to Boston Gas and set the whole thing up. ... What she was doing was sort of modern living demonstration of the big symbolic thing, which was [meals going directly] from the stove to the table. We didn’t have servants anymore, so they have to be nice casseroles and nice dishes because it’s all coming out of the kitchen, and we’re not living in the old elegant way.
It took five years for the show to get a real studio, and the very first location at Boston Gas didn’t even have running water. How did Child and her team prepare for each show in those conditions?
It was a huge logistical operation. They had to plan everything in advance, and cook everything in advance. ... She was such a high-energy person, and she was also determined to show people how they could live better, and how much better their food could be. She just drove on and on and never stopped, actually. It was a very courageous beginning.
Did Julia make any special requests?
You know, we didn’t grind pepper in the U.S. in the ‘60s; it was just sold in the can. But she wanted this pepper mill, and ordered the Peugeot pepper mill. It was the right one, the best pepper mill anyone ever had.
Here's Julia teaching you how to cook boeuf bourgignon in that early kitchen:
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
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