Julia Turshen is a New York Times best-selling cookbook author, home cook (one of the all-time greatest, per Epicurious), podcast host, and food-equity advocate. Her newest cookbook, Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food, out March 2, celebrates the many meanings of “healthy” and “comfort” through simple, varied recipes, and also gives readers a closer look at her life through personal essays on body image and volunteering. For her podcast, Keep Calm and Cook On, Julia interviews interesting people in and around food, talking cooking, mental health, volunteering, and more. She also founded Equity at the Table, an inclusive digital directory of women and non-binary individuals within the food industry. She currently lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her wife, Grace, and their dogs, Hope and Winky. Here’s how she gets it done.
I don’t have much of a regular anything. I have battled anxiety and insomnia, which are close friends, for most of my life, so the time I wake up depends entirely on what happened the night before. This makes every day a little different. On average though, I would say I get up around 7:30 a.m. I’ll often wake up to my wife, Grace, reading the news on her phone, then I do the same, and we compare what we’re reading. The only other definite thing I start every single day with is a very strong cup of coffee that she [Grace] usually sets up for me, which is incredibly sweet. Then we’ll take our dogs out to the backyard, feed them their breakfasts, and drink our coffees as we work on puzzles and listen to NPR’s Up First and the New York Times’ The Daily podcasts before going about our days.
On procrastination and prioritization:
I describe myself as the most productive procrastinator. This basically means I’m always doing something, but I’m rarely doing the thing I should be doing. So, when it comes to how I prioritize things, I’ve just come to accept that the to-do list will never be done. It won’t. So, instead of focusing on crossing everything off, I revolve my schedule around the things that can’t be shifted around. I use the immovable things as anchors for the other tasks I add to my week. I’ve also found that breaking down tasks into very manageable chunks, and then setting a timer, works well for me. If I’m really struggling with something, I’m comfortable stepping away from the task I’m doing and coming back to it later, instead of just forcing it. I like to combat distractions by weaving work tasks into daily activities too. For example, I love taking really long walks. We live in an area with a lot of trails, so I’ll walk a section of one almost every day. If I need to edit audio for my podcast, I’ll listen to it while walking and take notes on a little piece of paper or on my phone.
On a typical (pandemic) day:
My ideal typical day involves equal amounts of time spent on my computer, in my kitchen, and outside. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but that’s the goal. Grace and I have both worked from home for our entire relationship, so we had no idea that our lives were so, kind of, well-suited for the stay-at-home aspect of a pandemic. We both have the freedom and flexibility to make our own schedules, and we take advantage of it.
On community-supported agriculture:
Grace and I do a weekly cooking shift at an organization called Angel Food East, a non-profit that delivers hot, home-cooked meals to home-bound individuals living with HIV+/AIDS and other chronic illnesses. I also do a lot of other community volunteering and run an online database called Equity at the Table. I am also a very, very, very big advocate of people joining their local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) because it’s a great way to support farmers, is good for the environment, good for your community, and good for your home cooking. We belong to a few different CSAs, including one run by this wonderful, wonderful farm called Long Season. They do a winter CSA, which is pretty unusual in our area, so we’re able to get fresh vegetables all year round. I love, on CSA pick-up day, to unload all of the vegetables and get the fridge prepared. I’ll make trays of roasted vegetables, make a soup, clean a bunch of greens, etc. It is such a stress reliever for me to do that. It’s very meditative, makes me feel really prepared.
On managing stress:
Cooking is a great stress relief for me. I spend so much time in my kitchen, it’s where I feel most grounded. I also try to spend a lot of time outside (I have never felt worse after taking a walk) and limit my time on technology. I try to remind myself that the things that matter most in my life are the things that don’t happen on my phone or computer.
On work-life balance:
I’m one of those very, very, very fortunate people in the world who has known what they’ve wanted to do their entire life and has gotten to do it. I have loved cookbooks for as long as I can remember, and they’ve been such a special part of my life, so [my work] has been incredibly personal. In my own books, I share a lot of my personal stories, so the lines between my life and my work are very blurry. The more I do my work though, the more interested I am in setting boundaries around it. I focus on setting boundaries around the time I put into things and being really present in my work and personal life. If I’m not done with something by the end of the day, I leave it. I know it’ll be there in the morning. There is no such thing as a cookbook emergency, and it’s not worth losing a night’s sleep. I don’t want to be typing on my phone as my wife is telling me something, I want to look her in the eyes, so I make sure to put the phone down. Setting those kinds of boundaries is really important to me, and it all comes back to my desire to be as present as I can possibly be. That’s how I want to spend my day-to-day life.
On diet culture and mental health:
I currently have two therapists. One is a cognitive-behavioral therapist who helps give me a lot of really helpful tools to manage my anxiety, and the other is a body justice therapist. What I was trying to do in my new cookbook, and what I’ve been working at personally for years, is disentangling myself from diet culture. [Diet culture] is one of the things that has definitely caused the most stress in my life. It was this language that was spoken for so much of my life, and I’m now learning a new one. So I listen to many podcasts on the topic, my favorite being Aubrey Gordon’s Maintenance Phase, and have changed who I follow on social media, which has really helped me. I’ve struggled with body image and the self-doubt around that much more than I have struggled with self-doubt in my career.
My ambitions have evolved so much throughout my life. I think my work in therapy, and my work within myself, has led me to care so much less about reputation and so much more about connection. My ambitions used to be very much tied to things that can be quantified, like book sales, and now my ambitions are very much about “did I do work that made someone feel heard? Or help someone feel seen? Did I do work that made someone feel less scared in the kitchen or did I do something that helped me truly connect to someone?” Those are the ways I measure my success now.
On people who are intimidated by the kitchen:
Home cooking is just one of the most positive forces in the world. Just think about how many people are cooking at home right now [during the pandemic]. A lot of people want to start with things that seem impressive, but impressive to who? Who’s going to be eating it? You should just focus on cooking something you really love. And look, simple food is really, really good food. You don’t need fancy ingredients to make good food, you don’t need to make complicated food for it to be good. If you’re feeling intimidated about cooking, or about doing anything really, I would try to follow that thought through and figure out where it’s really coming from. Like, who is telling you that it’s complicated? Question their motives!