Talk to any number of culinary notables about the genesis of their love for food and you will get stories worthy of Proustian tale. Stories about how wild sparks flew at their first taste of a ripe mango, or a first experience casting out and catching a fish from the depths of dark waters.
For home cook and writer Julia Turshen, square one was the exceedingly humble, but utilitarian, bunch of celery. To be clear, celery wasn't exactly what inspired Turshen to delve headlong into a life of culinary creation, but it served as a way to engage discipline and practice and go through stacks upon stacks of celery. As a child, she decided that perfecting her chopping and dicing abilities were step one toward becoming the sort of chef she dreamed of being. Her parents gladly indulged the young Turshen and the result was countless bunches of chopped celery served up to her exceedingly supportive family in just about every means of preparation one could imagine.
Turshen reflects upon this formative time in her 2016 cookbook Small Victories (Chronicle) and shares that the patience and confidence shown to her by her family aided in the process of her own self instruction. "The day no celery landed on the floor: Small Victory!"
Moving on from celery, Turshen stayed the course and followed her victories, no matter how small, toward an esteemed career as a chef, author, activist, and podcaster. Turshen has collaborated with numerous luminaries of the food world, including Dana Cowin and Gwyneth Paltrow, on cookbooks. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Bon Appétit, where she notably gave a glowing review and launched the Kingston Jamaican eatery Top Taste into a place of renown.
She is well into the fourth season of her podcast, "Keep Calm and Cook On with Julia Turshen," where she consistently does deep dives with both culinary professionals and social justice advocates to discuss everything from cooking to mental health. Epicurious has called her one of the 100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time and the New York Times has described her as being "at the forefront of the new generation of authentic, approachable authors." All of this approachability and authenticity lends itself to the conceit and name of her latest cookbook for home cooks, Simply Julia (HarperWave, 2021).
Calculating Home Cooking
Turshen views home cooking as both extremely "vital and universal" but laments that it doesn't get the celebration nor appreciation that it deserves. "We live in a society with so many factors about how to calculate your worth," she says. "Within that reckoning and calculation, my love of home cooking gives me daily opportunities to feel connected to the things I'm cooking."
Simply Julia is Turshen's effort, not just to share recipes and a bit of that connection with like-minded denizens of the kitchen, but to share, in a very personal manner, her struggle and process throughout the years. Alongside recipes for one-pot meals and her father's beloved turkey meatballs, Turshen opens up in a series of essays that pepper the text with reflections on everything from how taking singing lessons upped her kitchen game to her struggles with body issues. The essays are revealing and vulnerable and help to dispel that often ubiquitous notion that cookbook writers come to us as fully formed virtuosos in the kitchen. "I had only ever felt two things in my life: happy or fat." she remembers in one of these essays and goes on to liken her eventual awakening toward a place of self-appreciation as her personal Matrix moment.
When asked about why she chose to make this particular offering so personal, Turshen grows excited. "I am so happy that essay is in the book and without question this is the most personal book I have ever made," she says. Turshen goes on to say, "Its really valuable to have a nuanced conversation about food. I think of cookbooks as this conversation between author and reader, and I really value my readers. Cookbooks often underestimate what readers can hold—like balancing the idea of healthy comfort food with body image." The book draws direct connections between memory and recipe, as many of the recipes reveal connections, some dating back to childhood, between author and dish, and this is where the comfort element factors into the text. "Food is one of the easiest and most tangible ways to find comfort, and honestly I don't think of a single food when I think of comfort food, I think being able to cook for others is incredibly powerful. Giving yourself what you want when you want it is just incredibly comforting."
Giving Back Through Food
Turshen lives with her wife, Grace Bonney (founder of blog Design Sponge) and their dogs in Ulster County. Turshen contends that living in the Hudson Valley, as opposed to her previous address in New York City, has definitely and positively informed the way she cooks. "Living here has changed a lot of how I approach cooking," she says. "I think New York City is one of the hardest places to be a home cook, as you are usually working in small kitchens, carrying groceries in walk-ups, grocery shopping, etc." And with the pandemic and the incentive to stay home and carry on cooking, Turshen's focus has become hyperlocal, as she has a rule that if she can't find something within a 30-minute drive from her house, it doesn't go in a recipe. "I have long written recipes for home cooks. Now my whole life is at home," she says. We are eating 90 percent of food at home and now I am the person I write cookbooks for."
Despite spending almost all their time in the Hudson Valley currently, Turshen and Bonney maintain their longstanding connection to both charitable and social justice organizations like God's Love We Deliver (an organization out of New York City that delivers nutritious, medically tailored meals for people too sick to shop or cook for themselves) and Angel Food East in Kingston, doing much the same to serve the local Hudson Valley community. Both Turshen and Bonney volunteer their time to do everything from raise awareness to cook and package meals for hungry recipients. "I really believe that when you begin to think deeply about food, you come to understand that it is tied to every issue that needs our urgent attention: the environment, racial injustice, class division, and so much more. Using food as a lens to look at all of these issues helps make them feel personal, because—they are personal. For all of us. Food not only reveals all of our inequities, it also offers so many solutions such as mutual aid programs, farming collectives, pay-what-you-can cafes, and gleaning programs. Food helps us connect the dots."
You can subscribe to Julia Turshen's podcast "Keep Calm and Cook On" at her website.