NEW YORK — Bestselling cookbook author Julia Turshen concentrates on the raw material of each recipe — ingredients, utensils and ounces. But behind the food is something else.
“I’ve always been drawn to cookbooks because I think they’re this remarkable way to share stories,” she says. “I think food is just a vehicle for these stories.”
By that measure, her latest offering, “Simply Julia,” is as close to an autobiography as a cookbook can be, from her handwritten recipe titles to the inclusion of old family snapshots, photographs of her at home, essays and a peek into her life with every dish.
“The thing that weaves them all together is that they all really have a very personal story attached to them,” she says by phone from her home in New York's Hudson Valley.
The book is a compilation of 110 healthy comfort dishes, from turkey shepherd's pie to Hasselback carrots. There are 87 vegetarian recipes, 42 vegan ones, a chapter on chicken dishes, and egg-free and gluten-free options. They require no hard-to-find ingredients.
“What concerns me is that I think a lot of people see more difficult, more time-consuming, more expensive ingredient cooking and think that is somehow the goal,” she says. “Food doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated to be good.”
Each dish has a strong tie to the people and places close to Turshen's heart. There's a mushroom and barley soup that is her dad's favourite , a stew from her mother-in-law, cookies from a close friend, and dishes inspired by an aunt and grandparents.
Turshen reveals the muffins she likes after a run, a drink adopted from her childhood babysitter, and sweet and salty peanuts that mimic a taste from her days living in New York City. Readers learn what five spices she considers musts, and the five things always in her fridge.
Many of the dishes celebrate a tie to her wife, Grace; Turshen hears from many gay women about how affirming it is to see such relationships mentioned in print.
“That is part of why I share so much of myself, because I think it’s a way to help just create and sustain representation," she says. “My hope with getting to show up as my full self is that it makes that possible for lots of other people.”
Julie Will, editorial director of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins, said Turshen has a talent for writing for the home cook — with no unnecessary steps, ingredients that are interchangeable and everything very unfussy.
“The point of view is very specific, but I think that the recipes are universally appealing,” Will said. “Who doesn’t want to know how to make delicious, healthy comfort food that is relatively easy to make?”
Turshen's other books include “Feed the Resistance” and “Small Victories.” She started Equity at the Table, a database for food professionals with a focus on people of colour and the LGBTQ community, and she also has a podcast, Keep Calm and Cook On.
Will, a longtime fan of Turshen, said she saw the new book as an opportunity for the chef to be more front and centre , with her name in the title and her face on the cover.
"It felt like it was time for Julia to be more fully recognized as the authority in the space that she is in and for her to have the opportunity to do something that felt a bit more personal," said Will.
Turshen started the latest book with the notion of offering 10 chapters — like breakfasts, vegan one pots and weeknight dinners — each with 10 recipes. But soon each chapter grew to 11 dishes.
“I always want to give a little extra,” she says. “It’s kind of how I approach cooking. I always cook a little bit more than I think my wife and I are going to eat so we can always have a little something extra for the next day.”
Along with the dishes are deeply personal essays about body image, fat phobia and anxiety. Turshen has never done that in a cookbook before, and said writing them was both scary and liberating.
“They felt incredibly cathartic to write,” she says. “It’s the kind of reflection I hope to see in many cookbooks because I think talking about how we feel when we eat and how we feel about our bodies is obviously incredibly tied to what we cook.”
Though the bulk of the book was written before the pandemic, there are nods to COVID-19. Eagle-eyed fans will note the window of Turshen's kitchen is open on the book cover, and the last image is of the author wearing a mask. It was the first time Turshen and her wife had let someone into their home in months, and everyone was masked and tested.
Turshen collaborated with local photographer Melina Hammer on the book's interior food photos during the early weeks of the pandemic. The author would create a dish, pack it up and leave it on Hammer's doorstep, ready to be assembled and shot.
The pandemic has made Turshen even more careful, since her wife lives with type 1 diabetes. In many ways, the book is a perfect response to the virus, she says:
“I think we all want simple recipes to make at home that are healthy comfort foods," Turshen says. "I think that’s pretty evergreen, but I think it’s pretty important right now.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press