A Conversation with Julia Turshen
Talking to the cookbook author about fatphobia, how we can define "health," and her move toward farming.
Do I need to introduce Julia Turshen to a food crowd? Her cookbooks are best sellers and she’s written for everyone. Before I made my foray into food writing, I envied her quite a bit for seemingly having achieved all my dreams far before I was ready or able to do so, despite the fact that we’re the same age.
In this conversation, I wanted to understand her approach to creating “healthy” recipes and what inspired the one vegan chapter in her new book, Simply Julia, but I also wanted to discuss how privilege has manifested in her career and why she’s stepped away from the spotlight to work on a farm. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on today.
Julia: Thank you so much for having me. This is very exciting, and I appreciate it so much. Yeah, thank you.
Alicia: Of course.
Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Julia: Sure. I've listened to, I think, all of the interviews you've done. And I love this question so much. I love hearing everyone's response, so this is just very surreal and exciting for me to answer.
So I grew up in Manhattan until I was about eight. And then my family moved to the suburbs, about half an hour outside of New York City. And I was raised by my parents, my mom and my dad, who both worked full-time since way before I was born. So I was also very much raised by my babysitter, Jenny.
And I would say the food I ate growing up, I ate a lot of food outside of our house. We depended on Chinese takeout a lot. We ate a lot of pizza. We ate a lot of Jewish delicatessen food, Ashkenazi, all different, chicken soup and knish and that kind of stuff. My family loves a diner. [Laughter.] Lots of bagels, and occasionally McDonald's. I was a chicken nugget kid.
And I would say the food in my family's home—I was thinking about this, and I feel like it was divided between three basic food groups. Or not food groups, but items or themes. So there was a lot of packaged diet food. There was a lot of SnackWell cookies, Boca Burgers, stuff like that. In our house, there was a lot of food purchased from prepared food stores, so containers of pesto pasta, stuff like that.
And then there was also Jenny's cooking. And this was the food that I loved the most when I was a kid. Jenny's food that she would mostly prepare for herself and share with me is the food that I feel, I guess, one of the foods I feel most deeply connected to.
And it feels, I don't know, especially important to talk about right now because Jenny is from St. Vincent, which I'm sure you're aware of because of where you live. But there was just, or there continues to be, this really crazy volcano erupting in St. Vincent, looks like devastating the country. So thinking about Jenny and her family and St. Vincent right now is kind of top of mind for me. And if it's ok, can I just shout out a website?
Alicia: Of course! Yeah. [Laughs.]
Julia: Ok, so there's a website called https://www.feedstvincent.org/. So it's S-T-Vincent, https://www.feedstvincent.org/. And the chef from Food Sermon in Brooklyn, who is also a Vincentian, he's started this kind of meal response thing, ’cause a lot of people are in need there. So I'm really grateful that he set that up. And it’s just a very tangible, easy place for people to go to support just a country that is going through a very rough time right now.
That was a long answer. [Laughter.]
Alicia: I love the Food Sermon. Yeah, it's a great restaurant.
Where outside of New York did you grow up?
Julia: I'm sorry, I didn't hear what you just said.
Alicia: Where outside of New York did you grow up?
Julia: Oh, in Westchester County. My family moved to Harrison.
Alicia: I'm from Long Island, and so I always want to know. [Laughs.]
Julia: Yeah, totally. The bridge and tunnel connection, I’m with you.
And also, what you grew up eating was so very similar to what I grew up eating, which is pizza, Chinese takeout, that sort of thing. It's very, very similar. And it's also funny, because I didn't realize that we were born in the same year until I was googling you because for the entire time I've been writing about food, you've been the—a presence in the food world and in food media. And so, what made you work in food and how did you kind of become focused on home cooking?
Julia: I have been interested in food my whole life. I have been cooking since before I can remember, since I was a little, little kid. And I've always wanted to be in the kitchen, and I think some of that is because I didn't grow up in a family where my parents were cooking. I didn't learn to cook at my grandmother's knee or anything like that. I think I was seeking that kind of, I don't know, sort of domestic life maybe in some way without even realizing it. But these are thoughts I've had as an adult. As a kid, I just wanted to be in the kitchen. I thought it was just the greatest place. And I continue to think that.
But the thing that is, I think, most significant for me in terms of working in food media as opposed to just food in general—‘cause as you know, the food industry is one million industries under one big umbrella. But my parents worked in publishing. So my whole life, I have been exposed to print media, to books and magazines.
And I've had that early exposure. I've also had access to the publishing world since before I can remember. After school, when I would go to my parent’s office, I was walking into office buildings that I continue to go into now. I mean, I guess virtually [laughter] if I'm meeting with someone. But that definitely has informed my career. It's paved the way a lot of, for a lot of my work and everything.
So I think that's super important to mention, because I think when we talk about opportunity, especially within publishing, which is the most opaque industry and is allergic to transparency, I just feel it's super important to just talk about how we got into it, which I appreciate how much you do that.
And the second part of your question about home cooking, I have always been a home cook and I proudly identify as one. If someone calls me a chef, I feel like I'm always looking over my shoulder, like, ‘Who are you talking to?’ [Laughter.]
And for me, home cooks and chefs are just different things. And I'm really happy to be a home cook. I think they're both worthy. They're both valuable. They're just different. And I try not to confuse them, because I'm really proud of what I accomplish in my home kitchen and I'm proud of what other people accomplish on a daily basis in theirs. And I'm so happy to be a home cook who writes for other home cooks. I try to share all my recipes and stories from that sort of shared place, I would say.
And I guess the only sort of professional cooking experience I've had, in addition to recipe writing, is I did work for many years as a private chef. But that was always me cooking in other people's home kitchens. I still think of that—even though it's not just sort of the daily relentless grind of home cooking within your own home, and it is paid. And yeah, I guess you could call me a chef for that. Whatever, I don't care what you call me.
But that, to me, just continued to inform my life as a home cook. And I just had access to many home kitchens and access to many families who had the ability to hire someone to cook for them in their home, which is a really interesting, fascinating experience. And at the end of the day, I think everyone just wants to feel very taken care of. I think that was a big takeaway for me. I mean, I have other takeaways from that time, but I won’t bore you. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, you mention kind of the relentless grind of home cooking. How are you feeling in the home, cooking, after working on cookbooks—we're in a pandemic. How have you been relating to food over the last year?
Julia: I mean, it's made me appreciate the fact that I love to cook so much. I'm so grateful for that.
I don't know. I feel like I'm always kind of ruminating about home cooking and home cooks, and always thinking about the labor that is home cooking. The undervalued, unacknowledged, just—I think, really—not very well-understood labor. And I'm someone who gets acknowledged and credited for that labor. I get to put my work out there. I get to make a business, a career out of it. But I'm doing what many people are doing everyday without any credit or acknowledgement.
And when we cook at home—again, you know, this—but we're not just making dinner. We are planning for it. We're maybe keeping a budget. We are keeping endless mental inventory of what's in our kitchens. We're trying to use things up. We're probably taking other people's needs and desires into consideration. We're shopping. We're also cleaning up. We do so much cleaning up.
That's part of why I don't put—this is a sidebar in a tangent. But I don't put times in my recipes, ‘active time’ or ‘prep time’ or whatever, because I just feel like it's endless. Are we including washing the dishes and cleaning the counter and the grocery shopping? That's all part of making the recipe. So I just don't put that, because then I feel like I'm measuring myself against it or something. I don't know, it just makes my head spin. And am I asking other people to measure themselves against it? I just don't like that kind of vibe.
Anyway, so yes, home cooks are just incredibly valuable. We sustain households, communities, and this is really important work that often just doesn't get the credit that I think it so deserves. So, yeah, I definitely am so happy and proud to be a home cook, especially over the last year. And I'm also really happy and proud to have the opportunity to celebrate my fellow home cooks who don't often get that—I don't know—cheer or celebration.
Alicia: Yeah, no.
It's funny, because I think over the last year, it's the first time I've really thought of all that labor that you just mentioned that goes into it. I think it's been so apparent to me in a way that it wasn't before, where before, when I would cook dinner, it would be part of, more of a—what felt like a full day. And now it feels more just the only point of my day.
I just see it also clearly. That mental inventory, I have felt the weight of that mental inventory of what's in the kitchen over the last year in a way that I never have before, which is interesting. And actually, maybe I want to explore that deeper because it really is such a—it’s so much pressure, I feel.
Julia: Yeah, for sure. I'm nodding out loud. [Laughter.]
Alicia: No, but it's funny. And, it's a lot of different complications there of trying to keep life afloat and also make sure if there's food in the kitchen, etc, etc.
And, it's been better to get inspiration from cookbooks like your new book, Simply Julia. And I wanted to—it's hard for me, and I don't really talk about it. The only time I've written about kind of ‘health’ in my newsletter, it was—I literally put it in quotes, so that I wouldn't be kind of making a judgement because I do feel it's so difficult to talk about. People are so connected. You don't want to tell anyone a food is bad or a food is good. And health necessarily kind of says, ‘This is good.’
And so I wanted to ask how you kind of decided to approach that idea, as well as the issues of fatphobia, which are so deeply connected to ideas of health and how we talk about them.
Julia: I so appreciate you asking this, and kind of giving the context for how you've gone about it in your work or, or not gone towards it, because it's super sticky. I'll just back up for a second, because something I just heard you say that I feel is tied to this is just that feeling of pressure within home cooking.
Having nothing to do with health, but that's something I just think about a lot. I think in the age of social media and cookbooks and stuff, I think, in general, I see and feel and observe the sense of pressure that home cooks feel, that I think a lot of people feel. I think this measuring of ourselves against each other and ourselves. And that's something I try to push against as much as I can in my work.
I basically feel like the kitchen is the one place where I don't feel anxious in my life. [Laughter.] Everywhere else, I am so anxious. And that's why I take medication and see a therapist and have supportive friends and boundaries in my friendships and all these things. Anxiety is a big part of my life. And it's really interesting to me that it's not a part of my cooking life. And I feel that's a place that causes stress and pressure for most people. So I feel like that is this big knot I am constantly trying to untie and understand and just be aware of.
And I'm saying all this, because what you mentioned just really resonated, but also because everything I just described to me, for me personally—I can only speak from my own personal experience—but that's all rooted in diet culture. In the sense of perfectionism, this sense of trying to attain the unattainable. And I'm talking about thinness. [Laughs.]
And the more I understand about diet culture and the role it's played in my life—I mentioned I grew up in a SnackWell’s Cookie home. The more I understand the roots of diet culture being the roots of everything that's problematic in our world, which is racism and white supremacy and these things that, I don't know, you do such a great job of tackling in your work.
And I've been the beneficiary of reading work like yours, reading work like, I don't know, Sabrina Strings’ book Fearing the Black Body, really understanding this—The Body is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor.
Work like this has really changed my life, because, as I told you, I've loved to cook forever. It's where I have found so much joy, so much curiosity, so much connection to other people. So much confidence. I feel my most confident in the kitchen, not because I think everything I cook is great. I just think that I can figure it out. And that feels really good. But I have not felt the same competence, or joy, or positivity when it comes to eating. Cooking and eating have been kind of separate things for me.
And my whole life, I felt so drawn to food in ways that have sometimes felt obsessive. Which I think is true for honestly a lot of people in food. I've talked to a lot of people about this. I think that issues around eating, whether it's living with an eating disorder, or disordered eating, or just any sort of obsessive feeling about food, I think it's incredibly common. It's part of what brings us to it. I don't know, what you're asking and this whole topic is such a huge topic. And I think I need to just slow myself down while I'm talking about it, because I think I'm trying to talk about so many things.
But basically, yeah, the subtitle of my new book is ‘healthy comfort food.’ And I know that those words bring up a lot for a lot of people, including myself. And I guess the reason I wanted to go in that direction and go for it is because these issues have been a big part of my life. I have loved cooking, but I have had intense issues with body image and disordered eating and restrictive eating.
These are things I've been working through personally, and my work is really personal. So I chose to share with us more publicly, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to write a healthy cookbook that is not about weight loss. This is a healthy cookbook that doesn't equate the word ‘healthy’ with skinny.
And I guess in terms of thinking about your question about why I've chosen to address this publicly, I'm not the first person to do so by any means. Some of those books I just mentioned, there's many more like them. I just do think fatphobia is everywhere. It's everywhere. Diet culture is everywhere. And so, I think it needs to be confronted from everywhere.
And for me, that definitely includes mainstream cookbooks, because mainstream cookbooks, ones I've been lucky to produce and be a part of, they go a long way to influencing how we understand terms like healthy. And they have definitely informed how I've thought about healthy, and I used to think it just meant skinny. And coming to understand that it doesn't—it's just something I feel really strongly about sharing.
And I guess in some ways, I think I wrote this book to kind of change my own definition of it just for myself and therefore kind of hold myself accountable. And hold myself accountable in a really positive way for myself to just, continue to treat myself with compassion, and to try and do that for other people. I don't know, I feel like everything I'm saying is a little bit vague. [Laughs.] But it's a big, it's—no pun intended—a very weighty topic.
And I just think health is a really—it reminds me of the word ‘natural’ on food packaging. It's overused, so much to the point where it both means nothing and it also means something that it doesn't mean. It's come to mean that. And I just think that's honestly really dangerous. And I don't know, I feel I just want cooking and eating and food to be as safe of a thing as possible.
So, I think this is an attempt to be part of that kind of conversation. I don't know. Those are some rambly, separate thoughts, but I'm happy to talk about all of this or more. But yeah, it's definitely—ok, I’ll stop.
Alicia: No, it's so loaded. It's so loaded.
And I feel it, because I write about, not about veganism or vegetarianism. And people tie these things to restrictive eating. There's a big strain of vegans who are recovering from an eating disorder and veganism is a safe way to still be mindful, I guess, of what one is eating.
But I've become really, really intense, like you were saying, about talking about the way that fatphobia is an expression of anti-Blackness. And the ways in which we have to talk about it as a European beauty ideal is the same as blonde hair and that sort of thing. We have to make it as though it's as neutral as that. Its meaning is as neutral as that, and we have to talk about the reason that we are kind of obsessed with it. [Laughs.]
And so I really think it's important to address in the way that you have, because people are very weird about food. And because our culture has made us weird about food. And I don't mean weird about food in a negative way. We don't, especially as women, etc., etc., we don't feel very free to eat in a way that maybe our bodies are telling us to. We just don't.
Julia: Yeah. I, again, am just nodding my head really vigorously over here. You can't see me, but just please know that that's happening.
I could not agree more. And something that I write a little bit about in the introduction to the book, when I'm sort of talking about the word healthy and something I think about all the time, is the fact that I think it's a word and a feeling that I think is up for all of us to define for ourselves. And I think having the agency to define it individually is incredibly important, because we live in different bodies. [Laughs.] That is obvious, but I think that maybe isn't always obvious by the way these things are written about.
And, for me, I definitely define healthy using that word you just used, which is free. It's feeling freedom. It's feeling freedom from these imposed sort of pressures and restrictions and everything you said, beauty ideals, and all these things. And it's feeling free from judgment, and it's feeling free to make choices.
Freedom to me is an incredibly important part of what it means to feel healthy. And I also know that the word freedom is incredibly loaded as well. And I don't know, I just appreciate the opportunity to just talk about these things with people like yourself, and many other people. Because I think that's how these things can change is through these types of conversations, right?
Alicia: And to also talk about vegan stuff, you have a chapter on vegan meals in the book. Which I think is great, because I do think people think of eating a vegan meal as something daunting. I mean, it's funny to me, of course, because I'm like, ‘I don't even know where I would put cheese in a meal. I don't know where you put the meat. I don't know.’ [Laughter.]
But I'm always kind of talking about people in food media having sort of a responsibility to talk about the ways in which meat is a destructive force in our planet, in the way that it is industrialized, etc., etc. And so, how do you approach that idea that the food system is a huge part of global greenhouse gas emissions? Meat is also the biggest culprit in that. How do you approach that personally, and also in your work in a way that isn't alienating?
Julia: Yeah, great question.
I don't know that I have the answer here. But I can just tell you some thoughts I have on this. And I guess my disclaimer is that my thoughts on this are constantly evolving based on information that I am finding. Information that's new to me, that's not new information.
And, yeah, not to keep saying this, but a lot of that information for me on this topic comes from you and your newsletter. It comes from other people I read and talk to who either identify as vegan or work in farming or work in policy work, or cook for their community or feed their community in other ways. People who are attached to the food system in very conscious ways. I would say people I've learned a lot from who I know you've talked about a lot in your work are people like Karen Washington, people like Leah Penniman. I don't know. The more I learn, the more I learn, which is true for all of us. [Laughter.]
So I don't know. In thinking about this, I was thinking about ‘How do I decide what I put in my books, or what I put on my table?’ Which are very similar things. And most of these decisions come from the people I am feeding, the people I am cooking for. The person who I do that for the most—if that's a sentence, I'm not sure—is my wife, Grace.
My home kitchen is me and my wife and our two dogs. I would say our dogs are the ones who consume the most meat in our household. So I don't know, that's maybe a sidebar thing, but would be interesting to talk to you about ‘cause you have a dog, right?
Julia: Yeah. ’Cause veganism and dog ownership, I think, is a very interesting topic. Yeah, I could talk to you about so many things. But I'm going to try and answer your question.
I think a lot about who I'm cooking for and what their needs are. And so in our household, I mean, I basically, I'll eat anything. I'm very lucky to not have any allergies or anything like celiac disease, like my body can handle most foods. I'm grateful for that. I try to be selective about what I eat based on what I like and what supports my local farmers and all that kind of stuff.
But in terms of meat consumption in our household separate from our dogs, we—my wife, Grace, doesn't like red meat. She used to eat a lot of pork. She's Southern. But she just no longer really likes it. So we eat a lot of vegan and vegetarian meals, and we also eat chicken and fish. We have the privilege to be very selective about where we buy, those items or all these items.
And something that's been on my mind, which was interesting to hear you talk about a lot of people who are recovering from eating disorders or disordered eating turning to veganism, the way I have continued to, I guess, just heal my disordered eating has been through the framework of intuitive eating. And this is something I would say I'm probably, I don't know, I don't think I'm at the very beginning stages of but I'm not out of the dark space altogether. This is something I'm just continuing to figure out for myself.
And within the framework of intuitive eating, it's really important to me to not impose restrictions on myself and to just listen to my body and to get to know my body more. And the minute I imposed any restriction, I'm going to cut out whatever it is: sugar or dairy or vegetables. I mean, I'm not cutting out vegetables. But whatever the restriction is, it doesn't matter. But the minute I hear, ‘I'm cutting this out,’ that brings up a lot of not great stuff for me. So I try to not do that.What I tried to do, which causes no triggering things for me, is to just be really conscious of where I'm getting my ingredients. Which is a privilege to have that just time to think about, to have the money to choose where I spend it and all that kind of stuff.
So these are things I think about. But in terms of the book itself, yeah, there's a chapter of—it's vegan one pot meals for the reason you kind of suggested. I think a lot of people think of a meal without meat in it as something like, ‘Well, what's it going to be? What's the centerpiece of this or something?’ I talk to home cooks all the time. I talk to home cooks on social media all the time, like, I am in this ongoing conversation with people who are cooking at home. And I know this comes up for a lot of people. So that's why I wanted to make it one pot meals. Make this feel really simple, because it can be simple, but also make it feel cozy and familiar. And I don't want to other it.
But yeah, that chapter is in a book that also has a chapter of chicken recipes. And I don't know, in terms of being conscious of the food system and climate change or climate crisis and how it infects all this, I don't know. If I were to write this book today versus when I started working on it, that's something I've thought about. Would it still have the chicken chapter? I'm not sure. I don't know I'm continuing to learn and I'm just grateful to learn.
I feel like I would like to share this with you if it's ok. And maybe we'll get into this with some of the questions that are coming up. I've taken a big pivot, and I, a couple weeks ago, started working and I'll continue to be in this job for the rest of the year. I have a new full-time job. And I'm actually working at my favorite local vegetable farm. And I have taken a step back from cookbook world and food media and stuff. Everyone I work with is vegan. We're talking about this stuff all day every day while we're farming. And I feel my mind and body just absorbing a lot of new information.
So I don't know, maybe we can talk in a few minutes and see—I don't know. It's super interesting.
Alicia: And I love that you're working in a local farm with people who are vegan, because a lot of the narrative around veganism that we get online, I'm gonna say. [Laughs.] And it's terrible, because in the pandemic, I've just been online. Twitter is the only way I know what people are doing or thinking about. It's affecting my book that I'm writing, obviously, because I'm writing it in a pandemic. I'm not out in the world talking to people.
And so, I'm just hearing what these people online have to say. And I identify as vegetarian now, because I do eat local eggs and local goat cheese. And sometimes I'll eat pizza with—just out of just a sense of communal joy, I would say. [Laughs.]
Julia: Yeah, pizza has a lot of communal joy. I agree. [Laughs.]
Alicia: People are really upset with me about this. Even though I am, all I promote is the idea of centralizing vegetables in your diet and stepping away from meat as the centerpiece of your eating. But the vegans are very angry with me all the time.
And I think it's because they're not really understanding how ecological systems work. And I'm probably gonna upset any vegan who's listening to this, but sometimes there's just a real disconnect in terms of actual farming and how an actual agro-ecological system would function. And how localized food systems would work. I mean, obviously, you would eat very little animal product. That's just it.
I live in New York State. I live a couple hours north of New York City. And if I were 1,000% vegan who ate no animal products and was also very aware of all the things you just said, I would also never eat a banana, or a lime, or an avocado, or these things that I think are very prevalent in a lot of vegan recipes and stuff. And I don't know. It’s all fascinating.
And it's just interesting about the sort of the conversations happening on Twitter, too, because this idea of upsetting the vegan stuff, which I'm sure we're both doing in many ways. But it's also like, yeah, upsetting the vegans who are active on Twitter, which I think is one group. Again, I just keep using the word interesting.
And I don't know. I think, again, there isn't a one-size fits all for everyone. I think that's why we have to define healthy for ourselves. I care about you as a person in the world, but I don't care what you eat. That doesn't matter to me. But I am interested in it. I'm curious about how you make these decisions, but what you eat has zero impact on my life.
I mean, maybe the decisions about who you're supporting and stuff, maybe it does have an impact. I don't know. This is complicated. But I think the judgment and the measuring against each other, which I think, again, rooted in white supremacy and racism and diet culture. Everything we're talking about is connected, even if it doesn't maybe seem that way. I don't know, I think that's something I'm very passionate about, is just trying to remove judgment.
Alicia: Yeah, no.
And I mean, it's hard because there is—the collective impact of what we eat is real. And I mean, that's why we need systemic change, to make it easier for everyone to make choices that are healthy for the earth, healthy for us as human beings, because we do feel—and I mean, this is a bit woo-woo. But we do feel the impact energetically of how healthy and how good other people feel. That has an impact on all our lives.
Julia: I mean, I am a gay woman who's working at a vegetable farm in the Hudson Valley. I'm all for the woo-woo. That's fine. I'm with you. You don't have to explain that to me. [Laughter.]
Alicia: But it's real. And I think it's important to talk about. Yeah.
It's hard, because I want to talk to vegans about my own choices and my own kind of—but then I'm kind of considered an ex-vegan. And that's a really bad thing. [Laughs.]
Julia: It's really interesting, ’cause it almost—there's a parallel here to me about conversations I have with people in the queer community, where what does it mean if you, I don't know, have always been a lesbian and then you date a cisgendered man or something?
I think these communities and cultures where labels take on a lot of, I don't know, weight and import and stuff, I think the world isn't black and white. [Laughs.] And there's a lot of nuance. And it's hard to figure out where you sit in the community that relies on labels to define yourself. And I think that gets really amplified when you enter spaces like Twitter, where there's very little room for nuance, which is why I don't spend much time-
Alicia: I need to stop. [Laughs.] And it's hard to get off when you're a writer, and when my work really depends on—I can look at the hits to my newsletter, and they're mostly coming from Twitter. I have to engage somewhat, but I am trying to engage in a more healthy way. Which, obviously, this is not what we're talking about, but I am engaged in a more healthy way. I don't see any one's responses to me unless I follow them, and so that's changed my whole life.
Julia: That's cool. That’s smart. Good for you. That's great.
I mean, I know, this isn't what we're talking about. But it's also-
Alicia: Social media is such a big part of our lives. I love to ask about people's relationships with social media, because I think it's useful also for the readers or the listeners to know what it's like for people who are kind of, I hate this phrase, but creating content and having to be on social media on this professional level. But it is work. It is labor.
Julia: Yeah, no.
And it definitely feeds into our income. If you're getting hits on your newsletter that you're getting—there's paid subscribers, including myself. Highly recommend it. Very good investment. I get it.
I'm trying to get people to buy my book. Because, yes, I believe in my book, but I also have a mortgage I'm paying. These are actual things. And I think we don't talk about a lot of stuff like money and all that. I mean, you talk about it, but that's rare. And I don't know, the way social media plays into this, I think it's tied to everything we're talking about. This kind of sense of pressure, or exceptionalism.
For me, when I used to check things like likes, or comments, or my ranking on something like Amazon or something, which is just not something I recommend anyone do. When we're checking these numbers, to me, it always just felt like how I used to feel when I would step on a scale and check my weight, which I haven't done in a long time. I threw out my scale a while ago, because it didn't make me feel good.
And this kind of constant measuring. I feel like you kind of spoke to this earlier. I just feel it's worth mentioning now because I think there's a connection between these things. And something that's been really helpful for me is like, ‘Who provided these numbers? What are they getting out of it, because they're probably the person getting, or the institution getting, something out of it?’
This constant checking, we're doing it because someone provided these things. These rankings, these numbers. It's a big part of why I joined the farm crew, because it means I'm spending at least eight hours a day not on my phone or computer. And that feels revolutionary for me personally. And even in just a few weeks, I've noticed the difference in just how I feel. And honestly, to go back to this word, I feel healthier. I feel more free. I feel less judged, I'm judging myself less. I just don't care about these things, these numbers. And that feels honestly a relief.
Alicia: No, it's real.
Julia: Sorry, we can continue.
Alicia: Yeah, I mean I love the—any tangent is good. [Laughter.]
And I wanted to talk about your past cookbook Feed the Resistance. The website Equity at the Table, which is a database of food professionals who ID as queer, Black, Indigenous, person of color, women, non-binary. As a white food writer with a big platform, why have you taken on these political projects in food?
Julia: Excellent question.
I have taken on these projects because I feel like I have the time, the money, and the access to do so. And it feels like a responsibility to do so. I don't consider myself a leader in these projects. And when I say that I'm not trying to abdicate responsibility, I just want to be very clear, again, about how I see myself. Sort of the home cook versus the chef thing. I think that leaders in the space know a lot more than I do. I am someone who's trying to actively learn more all the time, and trying actively, to connect with more people all the time. Because that makes my life more interesting and richer. There's a lot of really wonderful things that come with that.
And I don't know, I've been thinking about this in anticipation of talking to you because you were kind to share some of these questions ahead of time. And because of these relationships, I have had the tremendous opportunity to have people be generous with me and call me in. That is incredibly valuable. I try to surround myself with people who hold me accountable. And I try to hold myself accountable, as a white woman with a lot of privilege in the community. And the space I work in.
I mentioned to you, I grew up in publishing with white parents. It wasn't like I had to figure out how to get in the door. I was on the other side of it. And so I just think, I don't know, I think my thoughts on this position and these projects and stuff are again constantly evolving.
And that evolution is, it happens in conversations like this one and ones I've had with many people. I try to talk to people who have had different experiences than I do, different perspectives, who have different levels of access than I do—both less and more. And I know what it's like to have the kind of access and agency I have. So I just basically feel I just try to do whatever I can to create more of that for more people. I feel really grateful for the moments and people who have talked to me along the way.
You mentioned Feed the Resistance, which came out in 2017. I was thinking about, because you have interviewed Tunde Wey.
Alicia: No, I haven’t, actually. I love Tunde Wey. I've never actually spoken to him. Which is funny, because I think we're fans of each other's work. But I haven't invited him for an interview yet, because I feel like I'm not ready. [Laughs.]
Julia: Yeah, no, I get that. I mean, I think you are, but I mean whatever. You’re a person, he’s a person. That's so funny. I really am totally a very regular reader and listener. Maybe I've just heard the two of you talking about such similar things, I imagined I've heard a conversation. Whatever. Anyway, you can cut this out.
But Tunde was someone who—he wrote an essay for Feed the Resistance. He was part of it. I had reached out to him. And I was thinking about a conversation I had with him where he called me, basically—I don't know, I haven't talked to him about sharing the story, but I hope it's ok.
He was like, ‘Are you the right person to be doing this book?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don't know if there's a right person. I don't know that I am the right person. Here I am, the person doing it.’ And I don't know, it's just a really interesting conversation that I just really appreciate. But he took the time to have this conversation with me and not just about me.
That's something I try to do in my life, personal and professional. I try to talk to people rather than about them as much as I can, ‘cause I have definitely benefited from that. I'd rather throw a lot of darts against the board and see what sticks and learn from the mistakes I make along the way, and just try and create safe spaces within my own life personally and professionally for the people I care about to have the same kind of space to get it right. And also get it wrong, ’cause we're not always going to get it right. So yeah, those are some thoughts.
Alicia: No, for sure.
And I wanted to ask you about kind of—and I ask a lot of people about it. Do we think that the big moment of Adam Rapoport stepping down from Bon Appétit, has it—is it really going to change anything. And I've always said, I'm a mixed race white woman. And I've always been kind of conscious about how much easier it is for editors to give me an assignment or put me in a position than it would be for a Black or visibly Latinx writer. And what has kind of been going through your head during these moments, and how have you kind of decided to respond to it using your work?
Julia: Sure. Again, really appreciate this question, and all you do to ask other people the same question. And yourself.
I guess what's been going through my head right now, is what's been going through my head for a while. I know it's been going through yours as well based on things you've written about, and the Food Writers’ Workshop. I remember the first one, I went. And it was right after Equity at the Table started, within days, I think. It just felt really great to be there.
It was awesome to see what you and your fellow—I don't know what you would call them, colleagues, organizers, or whatever—put together just a conference that cost exactly what it costs to put on. Wow. That felt novel.And just with this tangible information, and I think all of that is very true to Equity at the Table, which was free to use, always will be. Free to join. This is not something that's scaling. And, anyway.
So yes, I think that this ‘reckoning’—I put it in air quotes, because I'm not sure it is actually a reckoning. I'm not sure. But I feel like it's—I know it's overdue.
And in terms of what I'm thinking about now, I'm actually working on something that I'm really, really excited about that has not been a very—it's not been a public thing at all, because I don't think it needs to be. But I think it's worth just kind of talking about here, because I think it answers your question.
So I have been working with a really wonderful literary agent, which is not a unicorn. That is a thing that exists. There are few and far between. But this wonderful literary agent, Cindy Uh, who is an agent at CAA, which is a huge agency. I know Cindy, because she's a member of Equity at the Table.
And she reached out to me, it was a few months ago, about working on a book with a client of hers, working as a co-author, which is something I've done a lot of. And I just didn't think I was the right person for the job, and I also wasn't looking for that job. I was approaching the burnout that has led me to work on the farm, which is maybe funny. I don’t know. [Laughter.]
But I got to talking to Cindy about how did my name become one of the very small number of names on the post—it that someone like her or a cookbook editor reaches out to when an author is looking for a collaborator? ‘Cause it's not a very long list of names. And we got to talking about this.
So we have, over the past few months, been working on this—I don't know what to call it. Workshop, I guess, that we started. We’re in the middle of it now. And basically, we are working with five writers who are all either women of color, or queer, and or queer. Basically all the same people who are part of Equity at the Table.
But five people. And we are doing this workshop where we're meeting every Sunday afternoon on Zoom, and we're basically giving all the information of what it is to make a cookbook, what it is to be a collaborator. And we've broken it down. We've made this whole syllabus. Cindy has really taken charge on that. That's awesome.
And what I think sets us apart from other things is it's not just the information. We're also trying to create a lot of connection and access. So, we are not the ones giving this information. We have brought on agents and editors, high powered cookbook agents and editors who are sharing the information and getting to know these writers.
And I think the combination of those two things, the information but also the access and the relationships and the connection, that feels incredibly important. Because, as you know, because you've done this, you can provide information. Someone can Google how to write a book proposal. I can give you ones I've done before. I can tell you exactly how I make them. I'm happy to do that. I do that all the time. But that's not the same as helping create a connection between the gatekeepers who get to make the decisions about who gets to be hired. And working on this is something that has just fueled me, and it's honestly left me feeling much more positive about the industry that I am taking a pause from because I have not felt so positive about it for a long time.
And I guess what's going through my mind right now, to answer your question, is the difference between working on a large scale, working on something like Equity at the Table, which has a lot of members, that reaches a lot of people. That's very big, right? Working on something like Feed the Resistance, which, again, had a lot of contributors, got a lot of press, tried to reach a lot of people. These large scale things.
What I am really interested in now is something on a slightly smaller scale but that has a lot of impact. These five writers, that will make a very big impact, ‘cause that is literally doubling the number of go-to collaborators. And that feels important.
And it's not that the other stuff doesn't feel important. I guess in general, I've tried to reach a lot of people with my work, whether it's in cookbooks or in other work I do. And I think I'm just at a point in my life right now when I'm just much more interested in much more personal connections, including stepping away from cookbooks to work on the farm and work with a small group of people in person every day, and not try and reach thousands of people online.
I want to know the people who are buying the vegetables we're growing, and I want to know the people that I'm working with. And that feels just really—it's nice to have both these things in my life. And I guess that's what's on my mind, right now. I don't know, this is incredibly cheesy what I'm about to say.
But something that has helped me just—it's given me a really helpful framework for everything we're talking about as to just try and think about food media, making it and consuming it, in the same way I think about making and consuming food. And I just try to think about, ‘Where does it come from? Who is making it? How are those people treated? What is the level of access and agency?’
I don't know, I think all these things apply for both. And that just helps me organize the stuff in my head because otherwise, it feels really overwhelming.
Alicia: No, it is overwhelming. And we do need our own little methodologies for dealing with. Because it's overwhelming. The world is overwhelming. It's so hard to do any right thing ever.
I was having this conversation with friends yesterday about whether it's okay for us to go to Costco in Puerto Rico, because—and it's like, I cook all the time. I bake all the time. I make recipes for other people to make, to influence other people to do vegan baking. And I need a lot of stuff, unfortunately, to do that. And the way to do that is in an affordable manner is to go to Costco.
And I don't know, we don't have a car. You take kind of the climate impact of being people who don't drive every day, who don't put a car on the road. so what is it to kind of have some imported food in that— Anyway.
So the whole thing is this whole kind of arithmetic around what choices can you make that are good for the planet and your local economy? And what choices are good for you as a human being who has to also work? [Laughs.]
Yeah, I mean, I'm so with you. And these are things I think about often as both, to use this dreaded phrase that I think we both don't like, but as a creator of content. But also just as a person who feeds myself and my loved ones, and exist in this world.
And I just think, I don't know, hearing what you just said, trying to figure out the right thing? I'm trying to understand that. I think with the options that exist and the systems that exist, I don't know that the right thing is available to us. So I think we are just, all, just, I don't know, doing the best we can with what we have. And we have different things. I just feel calmer about it when I'm like, ‘Oh, there isn't a right answer, because these things aren't built to support the right answer.’
So I think we're figuring, I think we're building the plane while we're flying it, whatever other analogies work here. And I don't know, I feel like I get things wrong all the time. But I'm trying to understand that that just is what it is. And part of why I get things wrong is because we're not set up to get things right. And that is the issue. Not so much my personal choices, though those are important.
Alicia: No, they are important. And I mean, to get now to this question, why for you is cooking a political act?
Julia: Again, hear you ask everyone this. I'm always like, ‘How would I answer this?’ And now? Oh, my gosh, we have reached the moment.
Is cooking a political act? Absolutely. It's a political act. 100%. I don't think it's always a conscious political act. I don't think every single time I, I don't know, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich am I like, ‘This is political.’
But I think that every time we spend money on anything, including food, we make decisions that have a political impact and make decisions that give feedback to systems that we are very attached to, whether we want to be or not.
I think also another sort of part of this is that I think every time I share something I cook, whether it's a cookbook or an Instagram post, I think that sharing, that amplification, that attempt to communicate something, I think that is inherently political. So that's something I think about a lot.
I love that you ask this question, because I think it reminds us that, or at least it reminds me, that I think we often think about political as something like capital P, right? ‘This moment, I'm voting. I'm advocating for this politician or something.’ These things that are incredibly important. But I think our lives are political. We exist in political systems. So everything we do is attached to that. And I think that it's kind of designed to make us not realize that.
So yeah, I think my everyday cooking at home is totally political, as are so many other parts of my life. And the fact that I don't realize that often is, I think, part of both the problem and maybe the solution, or a solution.
Oh, my gosh. I have so many other thoughts based on everything you ask, and that is just, I think, a testament to the work you show. So thank you.
Alicia: Thank you.
No, you're too kind to me through this. I keep saying I need to get some people on who are going to be contentious. [Laughs.] I don’t have to do that. ‘Oh, are people bored? Are these too kind? Am I not challenging myself enough by not sparring in any way?’
Julia: I think that's the Long Island in you. [Laughter.]
Alicia: Well, again, I appreciate so much you taking the time out today to talk about all this. I'm so excited to hear and see more about your work on the farm and to continue to get inspiration from your cookbooks.
Julia: Well, thank you so much. And I really appreciate your time. I appreciate the time you make for all the amazing people you have on this. I'm really grateful to be one of them. And I just continue to look forward to learning from your work too. So I guess this is some mutual appreciation. And I think that is A-ok. I don't think you have to get the haters. That’s fine.