Siting Julia

Much was made last August of Julia Child’s centennial…. and though I enjoyed reading the tweets and tributes, it seemed cliche to chime in just then. However, last week I made my way over to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library to check out their exhibit “Siting Julia,” which  traces the chef’s path through various sites and times. A Cambridge resident, Julia was a friend of Radcliffe, and left her papers (including a 4,000 volume cookbook collection) to the Schlesinger. Their site has some wonderful photos of the famous chef throughout the years, as well as audio of her talking about why she things the preservation of culinary history is important. (There’s also a great story about a symposium held in honor of Julia’s centennial here, which contains some great photos and video.)

Walking through the display cases of letters, photographs, and accouterments, I was reminded of why I’d felt a kinship with Julia. Growing up, my sister and I weren’t allowed to watch much besides public television, so Sesame Street, Wild America, and the French Chef pretty much dominated our viewing time. At some point, my sister and I devised a cooking game, where one of us would play chef (imitating Julia) and the other would have to play the piece of food she was tenderizing, chopping and flambéing, which really served as a thinly veiled excuse to beat each other up. And parents worry about violent video games…

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A few years ago I read My Life in France, Julia’s account of some of her most formative years. I was struck by the fact that this woman revered as a cultural icon never set out to do that. There was no grand life plan; she was in her mid-30s before she even learned to cook. All of the fears and worries I had about not achieving life goals by the age of 30 sort of vaporized. I didn’t need to have it all figured and planned, in fact, I might have more fun if I simply followed my interests and let myself enjoy things.

I want something in which I will grow, meet many people and many situations,” Julia wrote to Paul Child shortly before they were married. She was 34 then.

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Julia Child takes on the lobster

Of course, we all know how the story ends.

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“Siting Julia” is on display at the Schlesinger Library Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., through March 22. Harvard has also digitized some 4,000 images from the Julia Child papers. You can browse them here.

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