Kitchen, n. Middle English kichene, from Old English cycene, from W.Gmc. *kocina (cf. M.Du. cökene, O.H.G. chuhhina, Ger. Küche, Dan. kjøkken), probably borrowed from V.L. *cocina (cf. Fr. cuisine, Sp. cocina), variant of L. coquina “kitchen,” from fem. of coquinus “of cooks,” from coquus “cook,” from coquere “to cook.” First Known Use: before 12th century
Okay, I am standing in a glass booth, a kind of vertical faceted bay window poking into a doorway at either end – looking into a kitchen. The first thing that hits you, is it is vast, large enough to roller skate around. It is a sea-foam blue with golden wood tones: some, not all, of the cabinets are painted a Colonial blue that, with age and the patina of cooking, have become almost aqua, and in contrast, the shiny copper pans and pots, hung in rows, reflect even more friendly glow into an already warm space. It is, no doubt, efficiently laid out but it invites with an informality of the familiar.
This is not just any kitchen. This is Julia Child’s kitchen. Squint, and you can see Julia puttering around in it. It is the real cook’s kitchen.
We all have curiosity about other peoples’ kitchens, especially of one of the most famous chefs in our lifetime, a woman who became a TV celebrity when she entered our homes (via another smaller glass booth) to demonstrate what French cooking was about, at a time when American food was at its lowest ebb. Her career spanned fifty years, her voice was unmistakable, her combination of love of food and expertise in its preparation made us all want to watch her shows. She was a cooking phenomenon, and her command of her kitchen and its utensils was awesome to watch. The thing is, it was her kitchen, really. Apparently, her husband designed the kitchen in their Cambridge home specifically for the TV cameras, breaking the barrier of the fourth wall and creating the original reality show. Having seen her show many times, I never paid much attention to the set, only to her. And here it is, beyond the glass.
Three years before Julia’s death in 2004, her now-famous kitchen was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Somehow it took ten years for me to catch up to it. Maybe I just never thought it would be so interesting. But it is. Of course, it has historical significance, but that doesn’t guarantee it having placeness. It does, though, so much more so than I had anticipated. It is a large kitchen, even by today’s standards. Funny, it doesn’t have that magic triangulation that defines distances between workstations, but it does have very nice flow. The color scheme is sort of timeless, yet of a time. There are distinct areas for specific tasks but they aren’t front and center – there is a unity to it all. And it is quite homey, not institutional in the slightest. It keeps that perfect balance of appearing cared for but not clinically pristine; it is not just for show but rather for use, despite having been a stage set. There are even a few items sitting in the dish drainer.
My first awareness of a kitchen, obviously, was my mother’s, the original dating from the 1930s but updated in the Fifties, and by the time I was paying attention, it already looked retro to me. It was not what you would call a real cook’s kitchen, but it was fully functional, whether it served lunch to kids, breakfast and supper on a daily basis, or large adult dinner parties. Growing up, I spent time in other mothers’ kitchens and, although some were larger or had more currency than my own, they never felt quite as comfy to me. Not like my own. And both of my grandmothers’ kitchens seemed, by comparison, archaic and quaint; they were not as cabinet-covered with more free-standing furniture, but with a country-style coziness factor.
My own adult kitchen was designed by me; our house, having been a commercial building, did not have one. The result is a hodgepodge of low cost and high design (high design being the 1930s to me). I claimed the original cabinets that had been replaced in my parents’ home (they had, for years, sat repurposed in the basement) and transported them 600 miles to my soon-to-be kitchen. Using my favorite touchstone for design, the 1939 Worlds Fair, I wanted the kitchen to have an Art Deco look and feel, in mostly white and black, with splashes of jade. It is not a modern kitchen now and it wasn’t when it was built – modern only in the sense of its design period. It is a large room, but it has that homey-ness that comes age-appropriately with its style. At least to me.
As kitchen design has streamlined and modernized, the warmth factor has suffered. Cozy eat-in kitchens are undesirable, country kitchens have become code for old and outdated. For a long while, people tried “warming up” a kitchen by putting dark wood cabinets on the walls. In the 21st century, a sleek Euro-modernism has prevailed and there seem to be very few kitchens, mine being one of the few, in the lower forty-eight that do not have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. This trend is to simulate a professional chef’s kitchen in the home. It’s rather ironic to think that as domestic kitchens have become more like restaurant kitchens, people have opted to eat out more than cook at home. Many modern kitchens look clean and empty, maybe a bit institutional, but not warm or homey.
But, back to Julia’s kitchen: One thing that is particularly nice about it is that the kitchen table sits right smack dab in the center of the room. My understanding is that, for the cooking shows, there was a center island with two stovetops. I prefer the setup in the museum, where the eating takes center stage instead of the cooking. I believe that Julia felt that way too. It is so welcoming, just as Julia was on-the-air, this kitchen bearing the same casual elegance as its proprietor did. In design, Julia’s kitchen is a harmonious composition of positive and negative space, natural and applied color, line and geometrical shape, metal and wood, form and function. Placeness. A kitchen should be the center of a home, the site that is both literally and figuratively a place of fueling up, of doing what is life-giving and where most time is spent; so it should be the most natural and comfortable of places. Julia’s kitchen is all of that, it seems, despite its being a studio – a place in which it must have been easy to spend one’s life and life’s work. Bon Appetit!