Leaving the party: Award-winning author Julia Turshen on what comes after success

What kind of life becomes possible once you've achieved your dreams?

(Photo credit: Melina Hammer)

Julia Turshen is a best-selling author and podcaster. Over the past decade she has written a bookshelf worth of cookbooks and built a powerful brand rooted in a warm, accessible voice that speaks to home cooks. On her hugely popular podcast, Keep Calm and Cook On, she hosts fascinating conversations that start with food and spiral out to politics and culture with everyone from New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino to Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski. 

The political implications of food and of feeding people is baked into Turshen’s writing, whether she’s developing recipes designed to reduce food waste, or sharing ways to feed a crowd planning a protest. She writes with nuance, always looking for the ways what we eat can lead to larger cultural connections.

She also runs a website, Equity at the Table, a database of professionals across the food industry designed to promote the work and careers of women and non-binary individuals, people of color, and the queer community. 

After publishing her most recent book, Simply Julia, in March, Turshen started thinking deeply about taking a break from the work she has been doing for more than a decade. “I am currently on some kind of sabbatical or leave of absence from media work, and I am working full-time at an organic, small vegetable farm that's 10 minutes from my house,” she said. The past several years have made her question the idea of what a good life looks like, and what kind of work can provide satisfaction on a daily basis. 

Sherrell Dorsey and Annaliese Griffin spoke to Julia Turshen about her work pushing back against racism, misogyny, and appropriation in the food industry, how food helps us have difficult, cross-cultural conversations,  why she doesn’t call herself an activist, and Rick Ross’s lawn.

Sherrell Dorsey:  I want to talk about your website Equity at the Table. You’ve introduced me to so many people that I had never come across. I just watched High on the Hog, the Netflix documentary series about how American food really is Black food, and the influence of African-American cooks on our culture, and I feel like I’m being introduced now to all of these folks who cover food in this very dynamic and competent way. And I am someone who likes to eat, but I do not like to cook, so I find this all to be very fascinating!

I appreciate what you just shared, because I think if you're a food media person there's this expectation that you write or create for everyone. And it's just good to remember not everyone wants to cook all the time. Including myself. I am just so happy that you watched High on the Hog. I think it's so amazing, and I'm so grateful that they were able to make it. Everyone who's part of that program, it's so important, I just hope everyone sees it. If this is an excuse to get more people to watch High on the Hog, it's on Netflix, watch it.

So Equity at the Table launched in April of 2018. The origins of it were conversations I was having with friends and colleagues in food media. It's interesting to reflect on this now, because there's been a lot of attention to these issues, especially over the last year. I mean, there has been in pretty much every industry, but food media has really had a very overdue, I don't know, I hesitate to call it a reckoning. But there's been some action and activity and energy, dealing with the inherent and deeply seated racism and misogyny that are rampant throughout food, including food media, magazines, publishing, cookbooks, television, let alone restaurants and farms. Turns out white supremacy is just everywhere. 

Equity at the Table was born out of conversations, kind of like the one we're having right now, with friends and colleagues. We were just very frustrated at the lack of not only diversity, but also equity in places like food magazines, and cookbooks, and restaurants. And we were talking a lot about the fact that there are so many people who—to make something complicated simple—aren't just straight, white, cis men, who are really great cooks. Who are really great on camera talking about cooking, or who write really awesome recipes, or great stories, or interview people really well. People who are in positions of power often would say, and continue to say, Yeah, it'd be great to have a more diverse group, but I just don't know who to contact. We just kept hearing that over and over. I was pretty frustrated, I thought that was not an okay response. It was a lazy response. I just felt like, There's so many of us here

I write recipes for a living. So I'm very into solutions, and systems, and lists of things. So I was like, Wouldn't it be great if there was a directory online that was free to use and really easy to navigate where you could find everyone? I just had no idea what a task that would be to build. Sometimes it's good to not know how complicated something might be before you start, because then you might not actually start. With a wonderful advisory board and a very, very gifted and very generous web designer we created this site over three years ago, and people continue to use it and continue to join it. It's something I'm really grateful exists, and I'm grateful it's been useful for so many people. 

I’m so drawn to the details, the way that folks identify themselves, the links to their work. The images are really powerful and important, in terms of what do we see—who do we see? I work at the intersection of tech and journalism and there's this hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnEngineerLooksLike, and it’s all these amazing and beautiful women, so just a big middle finger to what we deem to be engineering. With Equity at the Table, all these women and non-binary folks with these amazing headshots, it's stunning and I can imagine for the industry it has to be pointing them to opportunities and resources.

It's really powerful to hear your reaction to it. I've thought a lot about what has helped make Equity at the Table as useful as it is, which is how I best define success—its usefulness. It's a really simple website, it's very clear how to use it. If it's not clear, there are instructions. It's free to use, free to join, there are no barriers or walls to get into this. I think that is really helpful. 

Our web designer suggested that we continuously have the site randomize when you load it, so that you're not seeing the same people every time you go to it. So you're not seeing everyone whose name begins or ends with the letter A, or you're not seeing everyone who's part of whatever group first. It continuously gives you a different group of people, when you open the page. That in and of itself is such a simple thing. But I think it speaks to the purpose of something like Equity at the Table, paying attention to those kinds of details. Who gets to be seen over and over and over? Why is it that way? Just taking a moment to think about that.

You're totally speaking my language—those details do matter. Especially in terms of visibility. I was talking to a designer earlier today about decolonizing design, and how you design for equity, and I think this is such a clear example. 

There's a mantra that we have on my team about who gets to be called a genius. This is a very direct parallel to the way we think about the white guys with big platforms, who've always gotten to tell us about what our future is. Those who started with backgrounds that guarantee their success. 

That's so interesting to hear because it's true in every industry, right? So many male chefs are called geniuses. And it's not a word used to describe female chefs very often. Female chefs are often described like, Her food is so comforting. It's so warm, it makes you feel like you're being hugged. And those are all great things. I want those things. But it’s very gendered language.

There have been some catastrophes in food media recently, not just around gender, but also around cultural appropriation, ethnicity, race, equity. I know Bon Appetit came crashing down this year after BIPOC folks who had been working there revealed that they were paid less, promoted less often, and in general marginalized in the company culture, compared to the way their white colleagues were treated. What were your reactions, and your actions, following some of these major conversations?

My reaction was a mixture of relief that the stuff was finally being reckoned with, and also just honestly, a lot of skepticism rooted in what is going to actually come out of this, what actions will take place? And my other reaction was that this is so overdue! And, you know, anything that I've contributed, whether it's helping to launch Equity the Table or whatever, that's frankly overdue. It's all overdue. 

I think the reason the Bon Appetit story was amplified was because it was about individuals, but it's a pretty universal story of most workplaces. Food media can be a pretty loud bubble, but it burst out of that bubble because I think a lot of people can relate to that story. 

When you look at the people who spoke up and put their careers on the line, and were the people who had the most to lose, it was mostly women of color who weren't getting paid what their colleagues were getting paid, and didn't have the security of the contracts their colleagues had. I think when we look back in history we see that pattern—those are usually the people who have spoken up and who have made things better for all of us. I don't know what the right word is, I don't know, I just really respect those people. I really just appreciate their contribution to the industry that I have been a part of for a long time. Because that is not something required of them to give. That's not something I think all of us necessarily deserve, that generosity. 

In terms of my action, it was trying to do whatever I could to support those colleagues, whether it was amplifying what they were saying, whether it was helping to raise money for some of them, or asking them what was most helpful as opposed to assuming I knew what was helpful.

I think what was most helpful, or what I heard, was to listen and to be quiet. I don't think anyone needed my hot take anything. And I think also to continue to hold myself as a white person in food media accountable for my actions, and to hold other white people in food accountable for theirs. So those are both things I continue to try and do. Part of holding myself accountable is realizing I don't have very much that I feel I need to say very loudly at the moment. That's part of why I'm working at a farm. I feel a desire to be quieter in my work than I have been and to just spend more time thinking. So that's what I'm doing right now.

Annaliese Grififn: Can you elaborate on that? It's so interesting to hear someone say, “I feel like I need to be quiet.” That's not very common in our culture, right?

Well, I mean, what a hypocrite I am, saying this in an interview?

I didn't apply for this job at the farm to be part of the crew this season because of what happened at Bon Appetit. It wasn't like that at all. I've spent a long time working in cookbooks and I just reached a burnout point. And also a really positive point. I put out a book this year in March called Simply Julia. It is the book that I am probably happiest with that I've ever worked on. I am so happy with this book. Sometimes I think it's really good to know when to leave the party. I had a wonderful experience making this book, I had a wonderful experience putting it out, I felt like I got to say all the things I really have wanted to say and it's taken me a long time to even know what those things are. I just really don't have that much more to add to the cookbook world at the moment. 

Throughout the pandemic I have felt very grateful to live where I live, which is in an agricultural area. I live near a lot of farms. I really love being outside. I feel like I'm getting to think about food in a way I've never thought about it before. My appreciation for the labor, the physical labor, the true blood, sweat, and tears that goes into growing food and providing it. I feel like I get that in a way only experiencing it can kind of teach you. 

I spend all day doing repetitive tasks that keep my body really busy, but let my mind just wander. So I'm getting to think about a lot of the things we're talking about, I'm getting to think about things that have nothing to do with what we're talking about. That's been an experience I'm really glad I've been able to give myself.

For so many cultures, food is a dynamic meeting point for conversation and for everything we experience in life, from baby showers to weddings to funerals. I’m thinking about the Sunday fish fries that I grew up going to that were also about family politics. 

Your book Feed the Resistance is this very unique approach to fostering community and connection through food. I also enjoy the way you engage other cooks, particularly on social media and your podcast, trying each other's recipes and having these very authentic conversations. How do you fashion these creative ways to have hard or very pointed conversations against the backdrop of something as freeing for many people as cooking or baking?

I am going to answer your question, but now I can't stop thinking about fried fish! 

I think there is this cliched idea or overly romanticized idea that food can be the answer to lots of really difficult situations. I think that is a bit of a trope in food media. At the same time, any social media post, or magazine article, or newspaper article about the politics of food, a lot of people will respond with, Stick to food, leave the politics out of it. 

I think a lot of people view food media as an escape from difficult things, which, to a certain extent, I totally understand. I grew up reading cookbooks, they were my bedtime stories, they made me feel safe and taken care of. I always like to joke that cookbooks are books that you know are going to end well, nothing bad is going to happen. But as I've gotten older, I've come to understand that everything about food is political, because pretty much everything has political implications, and especially food because food is about people. 

In terms of fostering those kinds of moments or interactions, food is not the answer to any of the really difficult things that our culture or various cultures are up against. But food to me is one of the easiest and most tangible ways in to those conversations. 

I recently did a podcast episode with a friend of mine, who's also a cookbook author, Reem Kassis. She’s Palestinian, and her book The Palestinian Table  came out in 2017, and I got to interview her when The Arabesque Table, came out a couple of months ago. Then a couple of weeks later there was horrific violence in Israel, Palestine, and then the ceasefire. I just felt a little weird sharing that conversation on my podcast without addressing what happened right afterwards. 

So we met back up on Zoom and had this really wonderful, vulnerable conversation. I'm a Jewish-American cookbook author, and she's a Palestinian cookbook author. We didn't talk about any recipes, we didn't talk about what we were making for dinner. But because we have this shared love of food and shared love of telling stories about food, we were able to have a nuanced, complicated conversation about something really hard, at least in my experience, something that's been hard to talk about, especially with people I'm close to. Food was the way into that conversation. 

We were able to share some really important thoughts and points with each other using food as a metaphor. She brought up how Jews, which, I include myself in that group, we are part of a diaspora, as are many people in different cultures. When you equate just Jewish food with Israeli food, you're wiping out so many different cultures, the way that talking about race can erase details—whiteness removes people from various identities. I grew up as a New York Jew and my understanding of Jewish food is delicatessens and bagels, which has everything to do with Eastern Europe, more than the Middle East. 

Food is just a way into these things in a way that feels very friendly and very familiar. I think it's a way to engage people who wouldn't otherwise engage in these types of conversations. So I love food for many reasons—I love eating it, I love making it, I now love growing it, but I love how it helps get us to those really tough places a little bit more easily.

Do you consider yourself an activist?

I appreciate you asking that because that is a word I've heard a lot of people use to describe my work, but it's definitely not how I identify myself. For me, that word is reserved for people who are activists. That sounds really simple, but people who do activism work all the time. And I don't think that's what I do at all. 

I'm very active in various communities that I'm a part of, and I think that I'm someone who's existed in many different communities with a very large amount of privilege. So I try to act as responsibly as I can with that privilege. I do like talking about the intersections of all these things you're talking about, food and activism. So if that word allows me to listen to those conversations more or be part of them in some small way, that's great. 

Have you thought about what you would like to do next?

I'm laughing because I have an idea. I don't know if I will actually do it. I would like to start a lawn mowing business, because that allows me to be outside, but I can sit on the lawn mower and it would be easier on my body. I live in a place where a lot of people have lawns, and it's a good, reliable business. I love that it has nothing to do with food. When I'm not doing that, I think I want to try writing a romance novel. So that's where I am right now. Who knows, maybe both of these things will happen or neither.

I love it. 

You get to see a task from start to finish very quickly, it’s so satisfying. I don't know, I'm into it. I like the smell. I want an all-woman crew. There's electric lawnmowers now. It could be a whole eco thing. 

This article came out recently with rapper Rick Ross saying that he saves a million dollars a year by cutting his own 200-acre property line. He's saying the same thing. He loves to just sit out there and mow his lawn, and he'll bring a cigar with him and he'll take his hat off and just reflect on his life. And he's like, I just cut my own grass, I saved money, and I cut my grass. It was the most fascinating thing.

I love it. At a pretty young age, I feel like I've accomplished what I have wanted to my whole life, which was work on cookbooks. It feels really wonderful to have done that, and to also feel like I don't need to necessarily continue doing that. I'm just really into having a satisfying day-to-day life. Working on books means working on something that takes so long. You're always thinking about the future. When is it going to be done? When are you going to promote it? Then also being scared of that because then it's over? I like the appeal of, “I mowed this lawn today,” or however many lawns today. I don't know. That's where I am right now. Me and Rick Ross.

This was a conversation between Sherrell DorseyAnnaliese Griffin and Julia Turshen, edited for length and clarity by Annaliese Griffin and Rachel Jepsen. Reply to this email if there's someone you'd like to see us interview in the future.


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