Alexandra Lange | Essays

Cooking for Crowds

I saw Julie & Julia last night, was duly charmed by Meryl Streep, wished for the first and perhaps only time that Stanley Tucci was my husband, agreed that Amy Adams could never play a bitch, and got very distracted by the lamps. Nora Ephron, or at least production designer Mark Ricker, must have spent a fortune on cute lamps, from the Artemide Tolomeo desk lamp on Julie’s desk, to the bullet-shape, paper-shaded bedside lamps in one of the Childs’ European bedrooms (I think it was Oslo, where their living room appropriately featured Scandinavian modern, a welcome change from all that French gilt). The Childs’ progress through Europe was rightfully accompanied by the changing styles of the postwar period, but I think Julie’s apartment was a bit overdone for L.I.C. Would a cubicle-dweller and an Archaeology magazine editor really have Anthropologie bedding, Fiestaware, and vintage Thonet chairs? I felt like the Le Creuset French oven (the one overlapping kitchen item from Julia to Julie) needed a footnote, “*purchased at T.J. Maxx in Texas.” Yes, we are used to ridiculous New York apartments in movies, but not when the whole point is that our heroine needs to rescue herself. Fishs Eddy hotelware would have been more like it.

Besides, all those lovely interiors distract from the real design revolution Julia Child engineered. While she was making French recipes more scientific and more accessible (i.e. more American) she was also democratizing the way we cook and the way we entertain, with a little help from her Cambridge community. In the early days of The French Chef, Julia Child (via her husband Paul) met up with Benjamin Thompson, architect, designer, and creator of Design Research Inc., one of the first modern design stores in the United States. He and his staff provided pots, pans, platters, plates and graphic textiles for Julia’s television kitchen and dining room, restocking the set each Tuesday with the latest European imports. Julia also told him what to buy for the store, which soon started selling copper pans and garlic presses, Peugeot pepper mills and French knives. New food required new equipment and that equipment suggested more casual ways of entertaining. Ceramic pots pretty enough to go from oven to table were part of her patter. In the servantless home, who wanted to replate every dish? I doubt the French would have suggested an omelette party, with a camp stove and fixings set up in the living room (I can’t find the clip on YouTube, but it was recently shown on WLIW).

In the movie, Julia’s plates are far more pedestrian than those lamps, and we only see her entertaining in a rather formal, if whimsical, manner in Paris. Marimekko didn’t enter her life until 1961, when she moved to Cambridge, Mass. In my Cambridge childhood I passed by Julia’s house all the time, as it was near my father’s office at the Center for European Studies. The woman who cooked for CES, Merry White, published a cookbook with same title as this entry, which served as my mother’s Bible — more ethnic, more stews, more 1970s than Mastering.

I know this because I am co-author with Jane Thompson, Ben Thompson’s widow, an urban planner and former editor of I.D. Magazine, of the forthcoming D/R: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle, 2010). In the book, there is an oral history of Julia and D/R, and I only wish the book were out now to join in the Julia renewal.

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