To the Servantless American Cook (That’s You)

Design Quarterly 104: Julia's Kitchen - A Design Anatomy

Recently, I was looking through Design Quarterly 104, published by the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) in 1977. My friend Waltraud loaned me her copy–the first in a series of design anatomies that analyzed the tools and working methods of professionals. In this case, it focused on Julia Child.

I remembering visiting Julia’s kitchen at the Smithsonian several years ago and wished I could have spent hours studying its organization. But the Design Quarterly 104 (“Julia’s Kitchen: A Design Anatomy,” by Bill Stumpf and Nicholas Polites) addresses it well and I enjoyed reading all about it. The poster (shown below) that came with the publication includes a series of photographs of some of the tools Julia used.


In addition to an inside look at Julia’s kitchen, I was intrigued by Part 1 (“The Kitchen – A 20th Century Perspective”), which highlighted the history of the kitchen in America. Under the section called “Present Trends”, there’s a discussion of the postwar industrialization of food production, which references an article in the January 24, 1977 issue of The New Yorker called “Tomatoes” by Thomas Whiteside. In this piece of investigative reporting, Whiteside discusses the difficulty of finding truly fresh tomatoes in markets today–meaning 1977. Does that sound familiar?

He writes about how agri-business and food breeding technology have transformed the tomato into an almost unrecognizable synthetic substitute. Major growers in the U.S., with the help of the USDA, have bred new varieties of thick-skinned tomatoes that can be picked when green by equipment, gassed with ethylene, and loaded on trucks to ripen en route. “Instead of the simple fragrant, tender, juicy and glorious tasting fruit we once knew,” writes Whiteside, “we see stacks of transparent sealed boxes containing sets of three or four pinkish globes, still pallid after their stay in the gas chamber, resting peacefully in their plastic tubes, each of them embalmed in a thin coat of wax for cosmetic effect, and all uniformly dry, mealy, and insipid.”

(That’s what we have to look forward to in Michigan this winter–if we want to eat “fresh” tomatoes from the grocery store.)

Interestingly, the Design Quarterly goes on to say, “We are encouraged to hear Americans protesting the technological debasement of food. We are heartened to know that middle-class women and men of all ages are taking up cooking as a hobby, even when they work at regular jobs….We are cheered to see people signing up for cooking classes, attending wine tastings, buying books about food, raising their own vegetables. These things indicate to us that a healthy grass roots movement is growing across the land. We disagree with those who view it as a fad, and instead regard it as expanding awareness about food.”

Sounds great! But that was 1977. Is it me, or are we spinning our wheels against industrialized food? The increased popularity of farmers’ markets, CSA’s, local farms, and the launch of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program make me hopeful that eating local and healthy food isn’t a fad.

We can all take a cue from Julia, whose passion and spirit for cooking was also practical and laden with common sense. If you’re looking for guidance in the kitchen, her cookbooks are actually teaching books–as if she were beside you right there in the kitchen. And if Julia’s focus on French cooking is too narrow for you or seems overwhelming, try Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. A homemaker from St. Louis, Missouri, Rombauer self-published the cookbook as a way to support her children after her husband’s death. It’s a comprehensive, practical sidekick for the kitchen, which I affectionately call my bible.

Come on, America! Let’s start using our stoves instead of our microwaves!


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