Julia Turshen: Magic, Poetry & Food Stories

Small-Victories_cover_webJulia Turshen’s Small Victories is one of my favourite cookbooks, and I’ve only had it a couple of months. I love the sense of welcome in its pages.

While I was testing for our recent review I made her Aunt’s Chicken Soup, her Dad’s Chicken & Leeks & the Ricotta and Turkey meatballs – which was the first meal she cooked for her wife Grace. Last weekend I made her Dad’s Famous Meat Loaf. Small Victories bursts so vividly with personality it’s like being sent her own cookery notebooks in the post.

“I’ve always loved food,” she says. “But what I am most drawn to are the stories behind the food. For me, food has been the best way of connecting with my family, both past and present. Whether it’s cooking for the people I love now or asking what my late grandparents cooked and baked, food is this amazing invitation to really get to spend time with people and know them.  I like to think it’s taken me my whole life to create the book because I first had to accumulate all of the stories and recipes.”

After hearing her say recently on the brilliant Bon Appetit podcast that her “passion forever has been combining cooking and writing” I was really interested to know how this had informed Small Victories, and the sense of how she wanted it to come across in the design, in the writing voice?

“I did have a very clear idea of how I wanted the book to feel and look and sound,” she says. “The simple way to sum all of those things up is I wanted it to feel like I was with you in your kitchen as your friend helping you make decisions and reminding you not to worry too much. Pen to paper, it took me about a year to write the book and develop and test the recipes and organize the photo shoot.”

I wondered about inspirations. Does she have favourite cookbooks?

“There are so many cookbooks that I love!” she says. “The ones I especially cherish are the ones written by Edna Lewis and Lee Bailey. I also really love Laurie Colwin’s books, even though they’re not technically cookbooks.   All of them were great writers who successfully evoked a particular sense of place and time through their descriptions of food.”

Speaking of great writers, Small Victories is introduced by none other than Ina Garten, who is – it’s fair to say – a legend. As a neverendingly  amateur cook, I’ve found Ina Garten a great comfort over the years; there is just something relaxing and hopeful – reassuring – about her programmes. So it seems entirely in keeping with the credo of Julia Turshen’s work that someone like the Contessa would be an admirer. I asked Julia what makes Ina Garten so special?

“I love how you describe finding her a great comfort,” she says. “I think it’s that feeling exactly that makes her so special. I also think she is one of the world’s best recipe writers and most thorough recipe testers, so not only is she comforting, she’s also incredibly reliable and trustworthy, which is in and of itself so comforting.”

“It was only later when she and I became friends,” writes Ina Garten in her Foreword to Small Victories, “that I came to really understand Julia’s special brand of magic.”

 

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peachbourbon_utensilsThe true to life & reassuringly human tone of Small Victories sings along with the production of the book – right through to the utensils in the photographs, and the fact that the book is shot in her own kitchen.  Visually, the pages rattle like a great drawerful of real kitchen things – collected & cherished things.

“We shot it all at my house,” she says, “so it truly is from my kitchen to yours. I didn’t hire a food or prop stylist. My friend Larry helped me in the kitchen and we cooked every single thing you see in the book. Larry has an amazing collection of dishes and linens and he lent me some and Andrea Gentl, in addition to being an incredible photographer along with her husband Marty Hyers, also has the most incredible dishes and cookware, so she brought lots, too.”

I love this aspect of Small Victories – the equipment, the spice drawer, the stray herbs. I particularly like the way the pictures capture working hands, real pots, real cooking and baking in action (not to mention dogs in inaction!). Some books seem staged, but here it’s like a deeper fascination at work. Thinking about my own kitchen, I was interested to know about her most precious kitchen equipment and this utilitarian appeal in the photos?

misono_detail“I’m so glad that resonated with you. They’re all real! My favorite, most indispensible piece of equipment is my chef’s knife that my wife Grace gave me a couple of years ago. It’s from a Japanese shop in New York called Korin and it’s a Misono 440 (which makes it sound like a sports car!). My most cherished item is a ceramic mixing bowl that my mother gave me that I remember using every single weekend during my childhood. It’s nice to have it in my own home now.”

Part of the reason this aspect is so striking of course is because the quality of photography in Small Victories is so precise and crisp, and the targets so keen. I wanted to know about her involvement during the photography, how that process worked. I sort of imagine, I said, a very collaborative process?

“Oh yes, ” she says. “I had major input. It was incredibly collaborative and just so fun. Everyone stayed at my house and we felt like we were at Camp Cookbook. It was so exciting to watch all of my recipes come to life through their talented lenses.”

As she mentions in a recent interview for Edible Brooklyn, the groundwork for Small Victories was done in her small kitchen in Brooklyn, and then the book was finished in the kitchen in her new house upstate. Always geekily interested in kitchens, I had to ask about the ideal Julia Turshen kitchen?

“I love a kitchen that’s got plenty of counter space but isn’t too big,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to pivot and find whatever you need. My ideal kitchen is any kitchen that my wife and I can be in together and that we can invite friends and family to. Those things are way more important to me than any appliance or material.”

Which of course led me to another question. What kind of food does she prepare at home?

“My wife Grace and I cook and eat very simply and veer towards healthy food,” says Julia.  “We eat lots of vegetables, salads, and simple things like grilled or roast chicken and scrambled eggs very often.  From the book, the Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs, my Aunt Renee’s Chicken Soup, the Indecision Grilled Chicken, and pretty much all of the salads are on regular rotation in our house.  I also regularly make variations of all of these things (such as a Vietnamese-influenced chicken soup).”

And Scottish produce (well, this is North Sea Scullery after all)?

“I love Scottish oatmeal,” she says, “and eat it often as porridge or put it into things like my Toasted Oat + Apple Muffins.  My Jewish family loves mushroom and barley soup, which is essentially a variation of Scotch Broth.  Speaking of soups, I also really love Cock-a-Leekie soup which reminds me a lot of my Dad’s Chicken + Leeks. Is Kedgeree considered Scottish?  I love it so much!”

Now there’s an interesting question – the Scottishness of Kedgeree? I lay claim to the Arbroath Smokie for Scotland of course, I say, and our own smokey five miles of protected geography. Later, I send her the recipe by Christopher Trotter which suggests a 19th Century Scottish regimental cook may have had something to do with it …

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julia-turshen_webJulia Turshen is a poetry major. I will never be less surprised to find out that a cookery writer is also a poet.

North Sea Scullery is often pondering the similarity between poems and recipes, not just things like the physical structure and look of recipes on a cookbook page, but also that sense of collection, particularly of deeply personal or important recipes – and whether for cooks and chefs it is like choosing twenty poems for a pamphlet, perhaps?

Julia thinks so.

“Yes, I definitely think there are parallels in choosing them. In both scenarios, you want each poem or recipe to be able to stand on its own, but you also want them to be in harmony with each other. There has to be some string that ties them together, whether it’s a perspective or a particular attention to detail.  And with both, the order is incredibly important.”

So is there something similar about the distilled essence of experience in a poem that is similar to a recipe?

“I think there is absolutely something similar about the distilling of an experience into a poem and distilling a dish into a recipe,” she says. “I’ve always felt like writing recipes is no different than writing poems. Both forms require that you be at once economic and descriptive. You need to say everything without saying too much and evoke so many things without overwhelming your reader.”

I have to ask: is she writing poetry still?

“I go off and on writing poetry. I find that when I’m very happy, which is luckily often, I don’t write as much poetry. It’s always been a tool to help me work through things rather than celebrate things. Though I do really love writing it and this is a good reminder that it can be both of those things.”

This instinct for working through and celebrating seems to me to inform a section at the end of Small Victories, Give Back, where she lists US and International organisations campaigning to feed the hungry across the world. I say to Julia that it’s something I’ve never seen before in a cookbook …

“It’s my favourite part of the book,” replies, “and it’s something I wish weren’t so rare. For people who haven’t seen it, it’s two pages at the very end of the book that list a lot of ideas about ways to give back to organizations that address important issues like hunger and social justice through food. I included the section because I think there’s an inherent understanding that anyone reading a cookbook (mine or anyone else’s) has access to food and a desire to prepare it. I believe that this understanding comes with a responsibility to help other people who don’t have the same luxury. Small Victories is all about empowering home cooks whether they’re making dinner for their family or helping someone in their own community. Every single meal is a small victory and having enough to eat is simply a human right.”

In the end Small Victories is inspirational stuff – not just the thematic idea that we can have small victories as we cook, but also that if we learn one thing, we can discover 200 things. This actually happens as you cook through the book. If we also take time to learn from those we love, it says, and share what we learn, then share again, the victories may well be much bigger.

“I am beyond happy with how it turned out and very proud of it,” she says. So I ask, what next?

“In terms of another book, my wheels are always turning … stay tuned!”

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“Roast Chicken is truly the equivalent of a great song,” writes Julia Turshen in Small Victories. “It never gets old.”

For me, Small Victories will end up the equivalent of a great album –  the sort of record you like so much that eventually you have a copy in every conceivable format since ’78s. Like London Calling by The Clash.

It’s just one of those cookbooks with a strong heart – filled with “what am I going to make today” recipes. It has a completely uncontrived philosophy of sharing and learning in which all the recipes work together to give you not just great food to eat, but an insight into what Julia Turshen is all about, what she thinks, what’s important to her. Dish by dish.

If I can borrow words from Julia’s favourite poet, Mary Oliver, cooking meals from Small Victories is a bit like this:

“First you figure out what each one means by itself … then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.”