Interview by Samantha Hahn
Julia Turshen is a writer and the author of Small Victories. She has co-authored many cookbooks including: Spain…A Culinary Road Trip with Mario Batali, It’s All Good with Gwyneth Paltrow, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen with Dana Cowin, and The Kimchi Chronicles, Hot Bread Kitchen: The Cookbook, The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries, and Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food. She hosted the first two seasons of Radio Cherry Bombe and has written for Vogue, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Saveur, SELF, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Lucky Peach. She lives in upstate New York with her wife, dogs, and cat.
We are long time admirers and asked Julia to share some thoughts on reading, writing, eating and cooking with us.
Samantha Hahn: Julia your interest in food and books seem to have converged. Can you tell us about your first book writing experience and how it felt to put your passion for cooking into words?
Julia Turshen: The first book I worked on was Spain…A Culinary Road Trip, the companion cookbook to Spain…on the Road Again (the PBS program). I learned so much during that experience, but was especially thrilled to combine the stories of particular places and people with really do-able recipes. It was instantly clear to me that giving people recipes that they will hopefully want to make at home is one of the most effective ways to help people travel without leaving their home, not to mention just cook at home, period.
SH: Have you always been passionate about food? What was food and cooking like in your home growing up? Did your parents cook? Were there any particular cookbooks around the house that you were inspired by?
JT: Always, always, always. I have been cooking since before I can remember. When I was growing up, my parents worked full time, but sometimes cooked on weekends. During the week there was lots of take-out and my babysitter cooked a lot. I was very fortunate to be raised by two parents who worked in publishing, so there were so many cookbooks in our house, not to mention all sorts of inspiring printed matter. Lee Bailey’s books were, and continue to be, the most inspiring to me (and, fun fact, my parents helped Lee design a number of his books).
SH: What were some other books you enjoyed as a child? Any favorite books, authors or characters?
JT: It’s a tie between Julia Child, Harper Lee, and Walt Whitman.
SH: When did you really feel that you knew you wanted to be a cookbook author? Were there any particular books on writing or books with a writing style you admired that served as reference for you when penning the books you’ve worked on?
JT: I have wanted to write cookbooks since I started reading them, which was when I learned to read. In fact, I loved them even before that. As a really young child, I would just flip through the pages and covet the photos. All of Laurie Colwin’s books and Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking were particularly inspiring to as a writer who writes about food. Of course M.F.K. Fisher, too. I also turn to a lot of poets to help me hone my description ability, which is key to both writing about food and writing instructions in recipes. Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams have all helped me be an effective cookbook author.
SH: Cooking and writing are such a huge part of your profession but in following your wife Grace on social channels we see that you are often cooking up delicious food at home. How do you separate the cooking solely for pleasure and cooking for “work.” Is there a difference?
JT: In some ways there is no difference as I archive so much of what I cook in some way or another, whether it’s as formal as a cookbook, or just in my own memory or as a snap on Instragram. If I am not cooking, I am usually thinking about cooking and this daily, constant practice gives me a lot to tap into when it comes to writing recipes. That said, dinner is usually just that and I’m not writing down amounts or overthinking. When it comes to writing recipes, I hope to give readers the skills to cook with this similar kind-of relaxed vibe.
SH: I read this quote on Eater: “Julia is all about dispelling home cooking fears, making the task approachable, practical, and rewarding.” Can you elaborate on how you do this personally? What are three tips we novices should internalize before heading into our home kitchens?
JT: That’s lovely! Glad to hear they think so. Three tips: (1) don’t worry too much, it’s just a meal (2) sometimes nothing is better than a baked potato with sour cream, a.k.a. keep it simple (3) always make a little bit more than you think you’ll eat…there’s nothing better than leftover anything with a fried egg on top.
SH: It might be absolutely impossible for you but can you point to one favorite recipe in your book Small Victories? Why is it your favorite? Is it the most fun to cook or the most delicious?
JT: This is very difficult! I think the most popular recipe is the one for Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs and I must say I really love them. They’re really easy to make and they’re really good. I love when simplifying a recipe gives you a better result than normal. To me, that’s an ultimate small victory.
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