Smithsonian historians whip up enticing lecture

Paula Johnson and Ashley Young, historians at the National Museum of American History, gave a presentation on the late chefs Julia Child and Lena Richard via Zoom March 10.

The event included discussions of Child’s and Richard’s lives, racism in the culinary community, the chefs impacts on American History, and their inspirations. Their experiences differed because Child was white and Richard was Black.

Young began the discussion by sharing Richard’s journey to becoming a chef with the help of the Barrens, an elite white family she worked for. 

She said Richard went to culinary school in Boston, where she experienced racism as students had to give consent for her to attend classes and she had to eat lunch separately.

Young said despite the adversity, Richard “shined” in school and classmates were curious about her own cooking techniques. She touched upon how after graduation, Richard went on to build a “culinary empire” in New Orleans.  

“During her whole career, she faced pervasive racial stereotypes, but still celebrated her Black roots,” Young said. 

“Richard owned and operated catering businesses, eateries, a fine dining restaurant, an international frozen-food business, and was the first Black chef to have their own cooking show. She accomplished all of this during the racially segregated South,” she added. 

Young said on top of her career as a chef, Richard opened a school for Black people where she taught them how to get involved in the food industry.

Johnson said Child was also an educator as she created a culinary school in France called The Three Hearty Eaters. “Child was intensely curious about connecting people and food,” she said. 

Child was born into a wealthy family and attended Smith College where the president initially withheld her diploma because she thought Child wasn’t deserving, Johnson said.

She touched upon how after college, Child joined the Office of Strategic Services – the predecessor to the CIA. 

Johnson explained how Child ventured to China after World War II where she met her husband Paul whose knowledge of wine and food interested her. 

She said Child was a “much beloved” historical figure known for her 18 cookbooks and 11 popular television series, which aired between 1963-2000. All of which were filmed inside her Cambridge house. 

Johnson added Child was widely known for boosting professional cooking and inspiring generations of women to become chefs. 

She then debunked the myth that Child is French, despite owning a French restaurant and the name of her first cooking show “The French Chef.” 

“Child was very much an American in her outlook and optimism,” Johnson said. 

She discussed how historians have “loads of evidence” Child was social as she had friends across the country and was involved with many different educational organizations. 

Johnson added, “She was widely popular on television. Viewers felt like they knew her. They felt as if she was speaking directly to them. An astonishing number of people have something to say about her. We continue to hear testimonials of her impact from professional chefs!” 

Next, the historians discussed Child’s and Richard’s inspirations. 

Young said, Marie, Richard’s daughter, helped her mother’s cookbook become successful. 

She explained how Marie was a home economics major and transcribed recipes into the cookbook in a visually appealing manner. 

“The cookbook was very successful in New Orleans. Within weeks of publication word of her cookbook spread to other parts of the country, demonstrating the power of a network,” Young said. 

She added Clementine Paddleford, a nationally-famous food writer, helped advertise Richard’s cookbook and invited Richard to the New York Tribune’s test kitchen to give cooking lessons. 

Johnson said when Child was attending the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, her classmates motivated her to write “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” 

Johnson added, “Child seemed to collaborate with everybody!”

She discussed Child’s relationship with Avis DeVoto, an editor who helped Child publish her cookbooks. 

Johnson said they communicated regularly through letters in the 1950s and they were a “truly astonishing partnership.” 

The event closed with the discussion of Young’s and Johnson’s connection to Richard’s and Child’s recipes. 

Young said she and her mother cook Richard’s recipes to connect with her. 

“Cooking her food has been a tremendous learning experience. Her gumbo filet is phenomenal,” she said. 

Johnson said the blog, “Do Try This At Home,” makes her feel connected to Child. 

She explained how the blog is where people post about cooking Child’s recipes and how the recipes bring people together. 

“I love this because this is exactly what Julia Child was telling us all to do. I can still hear her telling us today,” Johnson said.