Julia Turshen, SIMPLY JULIA

Julia Turshen, SIMPLY JULIA

“It’s like you unveiled yourself over every dish.” Zibby talks with cookbook author Julia Turshen about the deeply personal nature of Julia’s 15th cookbook, including its revelatory essay on body image and self-worth. They discuss cooking when you don’t feel like it and the pandemic’s impact on the cookbook.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julia Turshen: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited. I’ve been listening to some of your interviews. I’m so excited to get to do one with you.

Zibby: Aw, thanks for listening. That’s nice.

Julia: You’ve had amazing people, so I’m very honored.

Zibby: Thanks. Simply Julia, let’s talk about your latest book and everything related to it. I loved this book because, yes, of course, it was a cookbook, but there was an essay before every recipe, which was so great. It’s like you unveiled yourself over every dish. Of course, food has so much to do with who we are and our experiences and memories. Tell me about the idea behind the format of this book and how it came to be.

Julia: I really appreciate hearing your experience with it. That’s wonderful to hear because I did pour so much of myself into this book. Every recipe has an incredibly personal story behind it. There are other essays woven into the book. There’s old family photos. It’s a deeply personal book. That’s my name and my face on the cover. It’s me for sure. In addition to being the most personal cookbook I’ve ever written, it’s the most practical one I’ve ever written. My career has been a mix of doing my own books and also collaborating with other people. Simply Julia is actually — I counted recently. It’s the fifteenth cookbook I’ve worked on. I was able to take everything I’ve learned from all of these experiences and put so much of that into this book. What my main goal is and what I’ve learned from working on all those books is I just want to help people feel comfortable cooking and feel as excited as possible to do it and also know it’s okay if you’re not always excited to cook, but when you’re cooking, to just feel really comfortable and really calm and feel that sort of friendly feeling of someone is in your corner saying, you’ve got this. It’s no big deal. It’s going to be okay. It’s just dinner. That is really the goal of Simply Julia. It’s all really, really easy recipes. It’s all for healthy comfort food. I take a long look at what those words mean, healthy and comfort, and try to offer my own definition, invite everyone to think about their own, and to just be there for you in your kitchen. That’s my goal. I hope that comes through. That’s great to hear that all that personal stuff came through.

Zibby: For sure. It’s funny you mentioned how this is for people even if you don’t feel like cooking. I couldn’t believe in your introduction how sometimes you just don’t feel like cooking. I would imagine you always feel like cooking. It would be second nature. You were like, sometimes you just don’t feel like peeling an onion. I’m like, really, even you? Then I’m reading along. I’m like, oh, she totally gets me. Then it’s like, staples that I always have in my kitchen. I was like, okay, she’s going to say the basics like olive oil, eggs, milk, or butter, I don’t know, something. Then it was like, kimchi and course mustard from this blah, blah, blah and corn tortillas, which is so interesting because I don’t even have corn tortillas. I usually have flour tortillas. My kids like those more. Anyway, we diverged there because your staples in cabinets and everywhere were just a little more exotic than mine. Then you as you unfolded all the recipes and found where you used a lot of them, it became very clear — although, I have the same olive oil, so I felt good about that.

Julia: I will say, a small, tiny tangent just because you brought it up, books are only ever done because we turn them in. A friend of mine, Amelia, she always tells me that. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is I really wish I gave as equal of a shoutout to flour tortillas as I did to corn tortillas because I love both of them. Hearing you say that, I think whenever our conversation is done — I’m feeling a little bit hungry. I should’ve had a snack before. I’m like, I cannot wait for the flour tortilla quesadilla that is waiting for me that I will be making. That’s on my mind. I’m so happy you brought that up.

Zibby: Julia, if you would like to take your laptop into the kitchen and make a quesadilla as we talk, that would be great. I would be all for it. Go ahead. You can show me how to do it your way.

Julia: I would, but then we would have two very loud dogs barking because they would want one too. Maybe after our recording.

Zibby: Given that my breakfast this morning was my kids’ Honey Nut Cheerios, I’m ashamed to even admit that, maybe I’ll be inspired for my lunch too and make what you’re making.

Julia: No shame there. I love cereal. I think pointing out that we’re not always in the mood to cook a totally okay thing to talk about. I’m very happy that you noticed that part of it and it resonated. I think about that a lot. I’m a cookbook author. I’m a cookbook author because I love to cook and I have my entire life. I have a lot of things going for me when it comes to making home cooking feel really easy and doable, including my love for cooking, including the fact that I work from home, including the fact that I have a kitchen that I’m really comfortable in. I have all these things going for me. Yeah, sometimes I don’t feel like cooking. I can only imagine people who — I know you have four children — people who have other things going on. I know if I don’t always feel like it, other people must feel that way too. We still want to make dinner or get through the day. I like acknowledging that because I just think it’s true. That’s part of home cooking, is cooking when you don’t feel like it.

Zibby: It was also really interesting how in this book — as we’re talking, it’s still December of 2020. I know this will come out after this. It’s still pandemic life. Yet you reference a lot of stuff from the beginning of the pandemic, how the pictures were taken even in April when everything was shut down and how you were finalizing it in February. You reference how some of the meals, I think it was some sort of beef stew or something, you gave to a lot of first responders. People were asking all the time, how to make beans, and so you came up with a recipe for that. Tell me about how you decided to — obviously, that wasn’t the original plan for this book, to include any of that because it hadn’t been happening. Tell me about that part.

Julia: I also will just add, I really appreciate that you really read the book. That doesn’t always happen, so I appreciate that. Basically, the timeline of the book, I sold the book and started working on it pre-pandemic. None of us had any idea of what the last year would hold for us. When COVID began, at least in the United States and in New York State where I live, I was basically at the point where I had written the whole book. I had tested all the recipes. All of the words for the book were done. I was getting ready to take all the photographs, which is a huge part of any cookbook. It’s the marriage between the words and the pictures.

Zibby: Which are gorgeous in this book, by the way. Gorgeous. Go on.

Julia: Thank you. The way we were able to make those gorgeous photos was unlike any photo shoot I’ve ever been a part of. I ended up working with an amazing photographer, Melina Hammer, who actually lives ten minutes away for me. We both live in a pretty rural area in the Hudson Valley. She is incredible because not only is she a great photographer, but she’s also a food and prop stylist. If anyone doesn’t know what those words means, a food stylist is someone who prepares all the food that happens in the beautiful photos in cookbooks. A prop stylist is a person who picks out the dishes and the napkins and the little jug of flowers or whatever it might be. It’s rare to find someone who does all those things, let alone someone who lives nearby in this pretty random place where we live. Because we did all the photographs right at the beginning of the pandemic, which was a lot of lockdown, we devised this wild system where I would prepare everything at my house. I would find reference photos for what I wanted the photos to look like. Then I would drop off a box of containers on Melina’s step every day. Then she would put the finishing touches on everything. Sometimes I would drop off my grandmother’s platter that I wanted the dish to appear on, things like that, or a little ceramic pot my wife made when she was a kid, just these little details that no one else would know, but they’re important to me.

That’s how we made all the photos. We made it at this very surreal time. I was thinking about, when it came time to do the photo shoot and to do it in this unusual way, we figured out — I didn’t know if that would be possible. I definitely thought, I’ll just postpone the book. There’s much more important things going on. Because I had the opportunity to complete it with someone as talented as Melina and to do it in this way that was quite literally very close to home, it felt like, why not just go for it? I felt some momentum and a sense of maybe some kind of motivation to complete this as quickly as possible because I do think that this book is just incredibly useful. There’s recipes that are really — I mentioned the word practical before. It’s an incredibly practical book. I want as many people to have it because I just want people to feel super comfortable cooking. I think the book really offers that.

There’s a lot of stories about things I made. I do a lot of community work where I live and volunteer work, so there’s a lot of stories about things I made for our local first responders. We have an all-volunteer EMT squad in our area who were and continue to respond to this crisis. My next-door neighbor who is the retired EMT of — I think she was in the squad for thirty years or something. She was feeling really sad to not be on the front lines. That’s where she had been forever. I was talking to her. She was like, “The one thing I can do is make them something to eat.” We went in on it together. Between the two of us, every week we were dropping off a big thing of this or that, including one of the recipes which is ropa vieja which is this really delicious shredded beef dish with all sorts of delicious aromatics. You just put it in the oven and forget about it. You don’t have to do anything. The stories come in and all that kind of stuff. I got to start the book before the pandemic, finish it during the pandemic. It feels just incredibly relevant and useful. It will be published about a year anniversary of, at least in our region, people being at home. We’re all cooking. I hope it just gives a little bit of spark for some new recipes and routines.

Zibby: It’s good. It’s very of the moment. Obviously, there’s so many stories from the past. I love how you throw in all this stuff with your family like the MixMaster that your grandmother gave you for your bat mitzvah, which is amazing. I got one for my — not a MixMaster. What do you call it? The stand-up kind.

Julia: KitchenAid.

Zibby: KitchenAid, yeah. I have a yellow one that I got from my first wedding which I still have. I seem to have kept that in my settlement or whatever. Literally, the kids will be making something and they’ll be like, “This calls for Kitchen Aid.” I’m like, “No, it’s fine. We’ll just stir it ourselves.” I don’t want to pull it out. It’s so heavy.

Julia: It’s so heavy.

Zibby: Then whenever I use it, of course, it brings back all sorts of stuff. You also had an essay in there where you showed a picture of you and your mom and talked about body image a little bit. Tell me a little more about that.

Julia: That essay is one of the things I’m most proud of in the book. I’m just so happy it’s in this book. The essay is about, it’s essentially a reflection on body image and self-worth, both my own and all of ours. I included that essay because this book, it’s about healthy comfort food. So often, I see healthy cookbooks that are, in my opinion, a little bit of kind of a disguise for some disordered eating or restricted eating. I say that because I’ve been part of that. I grew up very much in diet culture. I grew up with a lot of restrictive eating and disordered eating. I don’t know the right word for it. I think I’ve clawed my way through that and tried to get to the other side of that. That’s something I continue to work on in my personal life and in therapy and in conversations with my wife and my closest friends and my mother, who you mentioned. There’s a picture of us when I was really little. I feel like it was vital that I share some of that in this book because this book is a book of “healthy” recipes. It’s a book of things to prepare to make you hopefully feel really good. I wanted to talk really honestly about how I’ve felt about my body and about cooking and about eating. I mentioned earlier, I’ve loved to cook my whole life. While that has always been true, I’ve always had a fraught relationship with eating the food I’ve cooked. That’s complicated.

I think it’s worth at least attempting to untangle. I don’t know that I have the answers by any means, but I think it’s really important to be honest about that kind of conversation, especially in a book that promotes healthy eating. It comes back to, for me, defining it as a very kind and holistic relationship. Healthy don’t mean skinny. They’re not interchangeable words. I, in that essay, talk about that I have really struggled with the idea of just the word fat and fat phobia. That’s something that’s been a through line in my entire life. I think it has for many people, especially women who are home cooks. I just wanted to talk about that and help in whatever way I could to destigmatize the word fat in a healthy cookbook. I think that’s pretty powerful thing and something I haven’t seen done before in this kind of cookbook. I’m happy that it’s part of it. I really appreciate the support of all the people that worked on the cookbook to really be excited to include that and to open up this conversation a little bit more. That’s the essay. When I was digging through old family photos to incorporate into the book, there is this really sweet photo of me when I was really little sitting on my mom’s lap that we ended up attaching to that essay. It feels really poignant to me because this is something my mom and I discuss a lot and I think we’re both working through both separately and together. To have that photo of me before I even really realized what I was so steeped in just feels powerful in some way and also very healing in a way.

Zibby: I loved it. I was so happy you put it in. It’s funny. I guess, not funny. I shouldn’t preface this with, it’s funny. My grandmother recently passed away. We were very close.

Julia: I’m sorry to hear that.

Zibby: She was ninety-seven, so it’s okay. My mother just sent me all her belongings. I’m wearing her sweater, because it came last night, for the first time. She, her whole life, was obsessed with the word fat, per your conversation. This is something, of course, that goes generations and through families and whatever. She would always say walking down the street, “Is she as fat as I am? What about her? What do you think?” Her body barely changed her whole life. Yet she was obsessed with it. I’m like, “You’re eighty-six,” or whatever she was when we would talk about it. Nobody’s looking. Some of these things, they’re just so entrenched in someone’s DNA that if they’re not worked through at a young-ish age, they’re just not going away ever.

Julia: Wow. I think it speaks to the comparison that diet culture kind of encourages, for us to compare ourselves to each other. I know I’ve had a hard time looking at pictures of myself whether I was in a smaller-size body than I am now or a larger one. I compare myself to myself. Your grandmother walking down the street and pointing that out, that’s such a good example of that. What I think a lot about now is, what would it be like if we swapped comparison for compassion? What would that feel like? I don’t know exactly how that happens, but I think thinking about it and just being able to talk about it in a setting like this is part of it, I hope. That’s really sweet that you’re wearing her sweater. I love knowing that.

Zibby: Not to mention that it fits. I’m like, huh.

Julia: What does that mean?

Zibby: What does that mean? It’s funny. Your book, it could so easily be a memoir with recipes if you changed the font and format. Not that you need more ideas or anything, but I feel like you have so many stories in you. Even that one essay and how much that just brought up, you can write an actual — instead of formatting it as a cookbook and putting it in that aisle, I feel like you should also do, it doesn’t have to be that long, but a memoir. Maybe you have a few recipes at the end of chapters. I’m trying to think. I was looking behind me. There’s this book by Phyllis Grant. It’s called Everything is Under Control.

Julia: Oh, yeah. That book is amazing.

Zibby: That’s her story, but then there’s a recipe. Then you’re in the memoir aisle and you reach a whole nother group of people who maybe like food but they’re not going to try to cook. Just put that on the backburner because I think you would write a really great memoir in and of itself with all these stories, and one that I would really like to read. Anyway, just keep that in mind.

Julia: I appreciate that. The idea of working on a book that didn’t involve all the logistics of recipe testing and photographing food sounds really relaxing to me. I love that. What’s cool about cookbooks, though, especially one like mine where I’ve had the opportunity to put so much writing and put so much of myself in, what constantly amazes me is that because it is not a memoir, because it is a cookbook, all of these recipes get to become part of other people’s lives. People come back to cookbooks in way they don’t necessarily come back to other books. I know when I read memoirs that really move me, it’s rare I’ll read it twice. I might underline some stuff and reference it or think about it over the years and share it with a friend. A cookbook is something you keep returning to. It forms a kind of relationship between myself and the people who cook from my books. That is something I value so much and I’ve come to find to be just absolutely the most gratifying part of what I do. I talk to a lot of people I’ve gotten to know just from being a cookbook author. I get to hear about how a soup or a cake or something that has meant a lot to me that’s maybe a family recipe, maybe it’s something that’s my wife’s favorite thing, whatever it is, then all of a sudden, it becomes someone’s birthday cake every year. It becomes not about me. It becomes about them and their family or their friends. It’s a very profound experience. I really appreciate it. I don’t know what to say about it. It’s really special.

Zibby: I’ve never thought about that from the point of view of a cookbook author, that thrill that you must feel knowing that what you do, what you’ve created is then replicated. I’m trying to think who else that would even refer to. Maybe songwriters. What other type of book leads to repeated experiences on the other end of the page? You’re right. It’s so neat.

Julia: It’s really surreal. It’s very special. Being a cookbook author also in the age of social media — social media’s complicated. One really beautiful thing about it is getting to see actual pictures of things people are cooking. That never gets old. I remember when I published my first solo cookbook. I was seeing that happen and people making my lasagna recipe, my meatball recipe, these things that are just part of my weekly life at home. I was seeing pictures of those recipes appear in other people’s kitchens. I would cry each time. I would hope that if you write a cookbook, someone would cook out of it. To actually see it, I didn’t anticipate how emotional that would be. I’ve learned to not cry each time. I’m also an easy — I cry at the commercials and all of that stuff. It’s a very emotional experience. It’s really amazing. I’m just very grateful for it.

Zibby: I am vowing that I am going to make one of your recipes no matter how badly I botch it up. I am not the best cook. I’m going to do it. I’ll tag you, and you’ll cry.

Julia: They’re very forgiving. I believe in you. It’s going to be great. Even if it’s not perfect, it’ll be great.

Zibby: I know on your podcast, “Keep Calm and Cook On,” that you always ask people about their most meaningful childhood dish or thing that they used to cook or eat or whatever. What is yours? I’ll end my podcast by stealing your question.

Julia: Oh, wow. I feel like I’ve just turned my chair around. The thing that I loved most when I was growing up, off the top of my head — so many things. The first thing that popped into my head is my dad’s meatloaf which I did a version of in Simply Julia as meatballs, mostly because I’m impatient. They just cook a lot faster. My dad’s famous tex-mex meatloaf which was famous amongst me, my mom, and my brother, it’s a really genius idea. Both my parents worked full time when I was growing up. The only time we really had a family dinner was usually Saturday night. My dad often cooked. For his meatloaf, he would combine whatever kind of meat, whether it was just ground beef or a mixture of things. Then instead of the usual eggs and breadcrumbs to help stretch out that meat in the typical meatloaf, he would put a jar of salsa and he would crush a bag of tortilla chips. Then he would put a ton, like a ton, of cheddar cheese in it and on top of it. It was so good. We all looked forward to it so much. Saturday night dinner was great. The meatloaf was out of the oven and wonderful. The best, best thing was Sunday when we would have cold meatloaf sandwiches for lunch. I think that was really my favorite. My dad, he makes the best sandwiches. There’s a tex-mex turkey meatball recipe inspired by that meatloaf in the book. That was the first thing to come to mind. I now feel like I want both a quesadilla and a meatloaf sandwich.

Zibby: I don’t want to hold you back. Also, by the way, I’ve been doing these anthologies. I have one coming out in February and one next November. I would love, if you have any interest in contributing, a recipe with a little story for the second one. That would be amazing.

Julia: That’s clearly my favorite thing to do, is a recipe and a story. Yeah, I would be delighted.

Zibby: Perfect. I’ll follow up.

Julia: Please do.

Zibby: This has been so fun. I feel like I could just open the door that’s behind you and follow you into your kitchen and watch you make all your stuff. I will leave you to go to your life. I’ll go back to mine. It’s nice that I got a little entre into yours for the morning.

Julia: Thank you so much. This really was so fun. It went by so quickly. I really appreciate you sharing, especially about your grandmother and stuff. I’m glad we had this opportunity. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll be in touch.

Julia: That really went so fast. Thank you very much. Please do send me whatever details about that. I would love to be a part of that.

Zibby: Awesome. I’m thrilled. I will.

Julia: Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Go eat. Bye.

Julia Turshen, SIMPLY JULIA

Simply Julia by Julia Turshen

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