Our cookbook of the week is Simply Julia by Julia Turshen. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Breakfast nachos, red lentil soup dip, and any frozen fruit and cornmeal cobbler.
In Julia Turshen’s eyes, cookbooks can be like Trojan Horses. Enthusiasts welcome their comfortable, familiar and seemingly predictable packages. But unforeseen ideas can lie between those sleek covers.
“Cookbooks are incredibly powerful,” says the Hudson Valley, N.Y.-based author. “They have the power to reach a large number of people, and to reach people in a way that’s a little unexpected.”
In her new cookbook, Simply Julia (Harper Wave, 2021), Turshen does just that. Sandwiched between recipes for the almond chicken cutlets she created for her wife, Grace, and a “weeknight wonder” spinach and artichoke dip chicken bake, she offers an intimate account of how she started “untangling the knot” of body image issues.
“My entire life I’ve just loved being in the kitchen. It’s where I feel most excited, most calm, most confident, most curious — all these wonderful, wonderful things,” says Turshen. “And at the same time, for all of my love of food and preparing it, it hasn’t felt that positive when it’s come to the consumption of it. My relationship to eating has been way more fraught than my relationship to cooking.”
Entitled On the Worthiness of Our Bodies, the aforementioned essay, along with Turshen’s approach to healthy comfort food, is clearly resonating. Within 24 hours of the book’s publication on March 2, she received more messages and social media support than ever. And the conversation has continued.
The book’s subtitle — 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food — hints at what sets Simply Julia apart. Rather than using the word “healthy” as a synonym for weight loss, restriction and deprivation, Turshen’s definition is guilt-free, holistic and nonjudgmental.
She acknowledges that “healthy” and “comfort” have many different meanings, which vary from person to person. The recipes Turshen features in the book reflect the “low-carb-high-quality life” she shares with Grace, who has Type 1 diabetes, and meet the needs of the homebound community members they cook for in their volunteer work. (She emphasizes plants and grains, and is mindful of her use of ingredients such as butter, sour cream and sugar.)
For Turshen, healthy food encompasses more than just what she eats. It includes fostering connections to where her food comes from, who she’s eating with and who she’s cooking for. And, as an extension, the readers who have related to her story in Simply Julia.
“I feel so connected to everyone who’s reading it and cooking from it, and people I’m hearing from. I’ve been having these incredibly vulnerable and honest conversations, which leave me feeling deeply connected, and I really value that,” says Turshen. “To me, that’s the point of making cookbooks. That’s the point of cooking. That’s the point of eating, is to feel super connected.”
As someone who cooked at home every day pre-pandemic, Turshen’s understanding of the labour of home cooking has only deepened over the past year. For all the role entails — planning, shopping, cleaning up, managing finances and tracking inventory — home cooks too often go unacknowledged, she says. “It’s a lot of work and cookbooks have a tendency to romanticize cooking in a way that doesn’t always acknowledge the reality of it. My goal in this book was just to be honest. And it feels like a relief to do that, like I’m not putting on a show.”
Cook this: Breakfast nachos from Simply Julia
Cook this: Red lentil soup dip from Simply Julia
Cook this: Any frozen fruit and cornmeal cobbler from Simply Julia
Easy, another word Turshen uses in the book’s subtitle, plays a key role in her approach. She uses a non-stick skillet in many of her recipes, for example — not because it requires less oil or butter, but because it’s effortless to clean. As a result, this ease is likely to draw people into the kitchen more often.
Turshen was also mindful in her selection of ingredients. Affordability and availability guided her choices — “If I can’t find it within half an hour of my house (which is in a rural area), you won’t find it in this book” — and she offers many substitutions and variations. She often talks to other home cooks, asking them not only what they love to cook and why, but what keeps them from cooking, and these conversations have informed her work.
“Even though this book is so personal to me, it is also in service of my readers. It’s not in service of my ego,” says Turshen. “I have accumulated all this information and I just want to share it. The world is really stressful and I know how many people go into their kitchens and feel even more stressed, and I just feel like that’s something we can cross off the list. That’s not where we need to feel stress. And if I can help with that, I would really, really like to help.”
Through years of therapy and personal exploration, Turshen has worked towards feeling as excited, happy and liberated about eating as she does cooking. Simply Julia is the professional expression of this endeavour, and in addition to being the most practical book she’s written, she sees it as the most personal as well.
She stresses that she has benefited from the work of others who have led the way in dismantling diet culture and challenging fatphobia, and appreciates the opportunity to pay it forward by articulating emotions others may feel, but struggle to find the words for.
“I am so grateful to the people I have learned from because it’s honestly changed my life. I used to feel really challenged by my body and by eating every day, every single day. I’ve alleviated a lot of that in my life and it’s just given me a lot more life,” says Turshen. “And that feels really wonderful. So I feel like the best way to express my gratitude is to extend that feeling to more people if I can.”