There was plenty to rivet viewers of Julia Child's early television appearances, but her unapologetic use of wine was especially captivating in an era when sitcom couples drank milk with dinner and slept in separate beds.
The Smithsonian's food exhibit opens in November.
"Using wine and alcohol as savory cooking ingredients was unheard of on TV in 1964," biographer Bob Spitz wrote in the recently-published Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. "Not only wasn't it done, it was an unwritten taboo...audiences were particularly finchy when it came to drinking alcohol."
Child didn't down nearly as much booze as blinkered viewers later recalled (at least not on camera: According to Spitz, a college pal encountered her "shitfaced, prowling the Hubbard House corridor on her hands on knees." She toned down her carousing after college, but continued to enjoy a martini before dinner.) Still, her easy way with a wine glass while cooking persuaded a generation of homemakers that it wasn't scandalous to serve wine with supper.
In recognition of the role Child played in mainstreaming wine, the Smithsonian Institution is mounting its first exhibit on American wine in conjunction with the re-opening of Child's kitchen later this year. The popular display has been moved and fitted with a ceiling, and will now serve as the lead-in to "FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000."
The 3800-square foot exhibit will include sections on counter-cultural movements, Tex-Mex cuisine and backyard grilling. But project manager Nanci Edwards says the section on wine provides the National Museum of American History a unique and unprecedented opportunity to exhibit objects associated with the nation's wine industry.
"They're going to really understand the place of wine on the table," Edwards says of future visitors, adding the exhibit should combat "any fears they have that wine is elitist."
Although wine grapes are now grown across the country, the exhibit is primarily focused on California: There aren't any specific references to Washington viticulture.
"California is very much the bulk of the story," Edwards says. Objects in the exhibit include vintage winery t-shirts, tools from UC Davis' wine-making department and one of the first bottles of white Zinfandel.
"The case can be made for how pink wine saved old wines," says curator Paula Johnson, who enthusiastically quotes Child on wine's importance: "Wine is part of the food chain."