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Exhibit at Smithsonian explores history of America's obsession with food

Whether you're stuffing your face with a KFC Double Down sandwich or watching Gordon Ramsay roast professional chefs on "Hell's Kitchen," you're sharing in one of society's biggest obsessions: food.

"Food is hot," said Paula Johnson, curator for the new exhibit "FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000," which opened recently in Washington. "It's a topic people are very interested in, as evidenced by TV, books and blogs."

Johnson's exhibit, on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, examines the transformation of food and the ways it has shaped American culture.

Julia Child's kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Mass., serves as the centerpiece of the exhibit. Johnson says the inspiration for the display came from "wanting to place Julia Child's kitchen in this greater context about food in the 20th century."

"We thought about Julia as a voice [of] change, inspiring people to try new things," said Johnson. "She was one voice of change in a sea of other influences. There have been changes in social and cultural history, which are reflected in immigrant groups. So we wanted to look at that and changes in work patterns and who is at the table, if there's anyone at the table at all."

To show the transformation of food, Johnson incorporated media and interactive components into the displays. Clips from Child's TV shows "The French Chef" and "Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home" are featured in the exhibit.

"Visitors love the videos," Johnson said. "It's addictive. People will sit and watch those clips, which have that wonderful humor Child is known for."

Another video from the History Channel shows changes in food technologies and how and where people eat.

As an interactive components, there is a 22-foot-long table where people can have a seat and talk about anything they want — "hopefully, food," Johnson said.

"We thought we kind of need a table because of the name" of the exhibit, she said. "It's kind of a welcoming area. The table itself is a little experimental; we've had book signings and discussions there."

Other attractions include a behind-the-scenes look at work in a Napa Valley vineyard.

"One exhibit looks at some of the back-to-land, communal living, where people are making homemade yogurt and bread," Johnson said. "You see some of that today again, shopping locally. It's fun to see people make connections between the past and the present."

Another section of the exhibit looks at the phenomenon of drive-through restaurants, which started in the 1950's and are now a big part of America's eating habits.

As about her favorite part of the exhibit, Johnson said it's hard to choose just one.

"I have this attachment to Child's kitchen. Also, I love the wine section because the Smithsonian team conducted 15 to 20 years of research to produce its content," she said. "If visitors could take away one thing from this exhibit, it would be food and change. They are things that seem very contradictory, and that's fine because there's room at the table for everyone."

If you go

"FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000" is at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free. Go to americanhistory.si.edu for more information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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