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The Art of Eating (& Living) Well: Cookbook author Julia Turshen & Chef Kate Williams at Literati

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 1:45pm by christopherporter

Kate Williams and Julia Turshen

Chef Kate Williams (left) and cookbook author Julia Turshen talked food and social justice at Literati.

“For Grace, whom I fell in love with then and do again and again …” --Julia Turshen’s dedication in her newest cookbook, "Now & Again"

Had food writer/home chef Julia Turshen and creative-community blogger Grace Bonney never fallen in love, I may not have been introduced to the cookbook author’s work. I had loosely followed Bonney’s work at Design*Sponge for years. While I’m not in the habit of following the personal milestones of strangers, the moment I found out Bonney was married to Turshen, I thought, “Well, she’s gotta be cool,” and promptly followed her on Instagram. I’ve been intrigued ever since. 

On Monday, September 24, Turshen visited Literati to talk about her latest cookbook, Now & Again: Go-To Recipes Inspired Menus + Endless Ideas for Reinventing Leftovers. She was in conversation with chef Kate Williams from Lady of the House restaurant in Detroit and journalist Ashley Woods. 

After the audience settled in the space, reinitiating us to fall time in Michigan as we figured out where best to lay our umbrellas, Woods began the talk by asking Turshen and Williams how food and community became entwined for each them. 

Turshen explained that, for her, it was a long time coming. This part of her story starts in 2016. She had a great experience traveling in order to promote her cookbook, Small Victories. But after the 2016 election, she found herself flooded with fear and anger. But Turshen also asked herself what she could do: “One thing I know how to do is put out a cookbook.” That cookbook was Feed the Resistance, and Turshen donated more than $19,000 in proceeds from the book to the ACLU. 

Woods dug in with a follow-up question about whether inclusion was an ideal that both Turshen and Williams value: “Are you inviting people to the table who don’t look like you?” Chef Kate Williams, who was speaking at Literati rather than celebrating her restaurant’s first anniversary, said that inclusion is important to her but acknowledges that it is still a work in progress. When she moved back to her native Detroit, she realized that it was the only place where she wanted to have a restaurant. As she embarks upon year two of her restaurant, she asks herself questions like, “How do you walk the walk as an employer?” and “Are we still a restaurant for the neighborhood?”

Clearly seeing the connection between a nose-to-tail restaurant and a book about leftovers, Woods asked a question suggesting Now & Again is a sneakily excellent way to address food waste in the economy. The book is “totally a book about food waste without saying so,” according to Turshen, who stated she believes in the cookbook as an incredible tool for all kinds of resistance. “It’s like sheet pan chicken with a side of social justice," she said. 

Turshen also believes in cookbooks’ potential to inspire. “We take in cookbooks differently,” she says, elaborating that we use them to literally feed our families.  Her “Happy Wife Happy Life Cake” from Small Victories illustrates this. She describes the cake as a pride flag in a cookbook and has enjoyed seeing it pop up on Instagram. A quick Instagram peek (#smallvictoriescookbook) shows several gorgeous photos taken by home cooks of the cake as well as photos of other recipes from the book.

“There’s a tomato skin in this. I’m like, yeah, that’s how tomatoes grow.” --Kate Williams

Despite what Instagram would sometimes have us believe, food isn’t always beautiful. Woods asked Chef Williams about this, wondering if sometimes using ugly food can be subversive. Williams pointed out that “smart chefs have been doing it forever. Moving to Detroit made it click for her. But, she says, there were many failures along the way: “There’s a lot of stuff we fermented that we just didn’t want to eat.” 

Noting that women are often asked how being female has made things difficult for them, the Woods asked a different question: How has being a woman heightened their experiences? Made them better? Williams answered, “I grew up bossing around boys. I knew that I had bigger balls than everyone in there.” She admitted, though, that it is harder to find investors. Lady of the House stands for empowering women and she has found that most of the money the restaurant makes is from women traveling to visit this woman-forward establishment.

Turshen answered differently:  “I guess that the cheeky answer is that I don’t know any different.” She also made a point to acknowledge that her whiteness impacts the way she is and how she's received in the world, but also that her gayness does, too. When she is figuratively invited to the table, she asks herself who is missing and asks what she can do to bring others to the space. She also supposes that being a woman has made her life a more emotional experience, which she celebrates.

“I loved food since before I can remember.” --Julia Turshen

When the conversation more directly focused on why they have chosen their career paths, Turshen revealed her parents worked in publishing and they were always making printed material.  Her parents were supportive of her interests, and she has always known she wanted to make cookbooks. Books comforted her and she said, “Rubber cement is the scent of my childhood.” Williams, on the other hand, has only really worked in restaurants and feels a connection to the idea of family and being a hostess. She recalls her childhood, a sister among three brothers, and describes dinner as the center of the day. She wanted to create that in her restaurant.

Not surprisingly, both women have been influenced and inspired by cookbooks. Williams cited Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, an 1800s Italian cookbook. It’s interesting that a chef who holds central the idea of empowering women would find this book that, say, compares sauces to women, inspiring. But it is the attitude toward hosting that moves her, the idea that hosting someone for dinner is taking responsibility for their happiness. Turshen finds inspiration in Edna Lewis’ Taste of Country Cooking. She matter-of-factly describes Lewis as an important black woman chef who was not celebrated during her lifetime. Turshen finds the book to be beautifully written and appealing to her as a cook and as a writer. 

When asked about their next chapters, Williams said she wants to figure out the employment model that keeps both guests and employees happy and that she’s seeking the honest and right thing to here as an employer. Culinarily, she wants to get weirder with the food and the drinks, stating, “Well, we only have 16 menu items and one of them is a whole chicken.”

Turshen is working on a book with a friend and she is also brewing an idea for another book of her own. Finally, she is working on the EATT (Equity at the Table) database, which seeks to, as they say, be the change she’d like to see when it comes to inclusion in the food industry. The database features women and gender non-conforming people, primarily focusing on people of color and the LGBT community.

As I asked myself what’s next, I realized that I had gone to Literati as a Julia Turshen fan and left inspired both to get cooking in my own kitchen and to check out Lady and Pups restaurant.


Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Public Experience and Desk Service Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.

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