The Everyday Radical Julia Turshen on the quiet power of cookbooks

By Julia Turshen

In late February, the SFA held our Winter Symposium in Birmingham, Alabama. One hundred and eighty curious writers, readers, thinkers, eaters, and chefs joined us for a day of talks about the power of narratives to effect change. One of the speakers was cookbook writer Julia Turshen, whose most recent titles are Feed the Resistence and Small Victories. Her wife, Grace Bonney, is the founder of the website Design*Sponge. What follows is a snippet of Turshen’s talk, one that has stuck with us and prompted thoughtful discussion in our office and in our homes.

I have loved to cook since before I can remember and taught myself how to do so through cookbooks. I was the kid who couldn’t fall asleep without reading a cookbook. It was like looking at a forecast of the meals I might get to cook one day in my own home when I was a grown up. It was pure fantasy on the page.

As I got older, though, I realized that these pages that meant so much to me didn’t actually fully reflect me. It is why I intentionally bring my full self to my work, which means my identity as a proud gay woman. It is why I’ll intentionally do things like title a favorite cake recipe “Happy Wife, Happy Life Cake.” The most gratifying part of what I do has nothing to do with the food. It’s hearing from other gay women what it means to see the word “wife” written so often by another woman. This moment of connection is such a powerful moment of feeling seen and heard and illustrates what my friend Sara Franklin calls “the quiet power of cookbooks.”

Cookbooks might not be an obvious flag for the LGBT community to fly. But it’s exactly that that makes cookbooks so unexpectedly powerful. They reflect our everyday. They normalize anything that is other. They live in intimate spaces and moreover people can cook from them! They bring your not only onto their coffee tables, but into their bodies and their memories. Cookbook readers put out a veritable welcome mat for cookbook authors. This is incredible access. And with this access we get a chance to tell our stories and create more visibility, understanding, and even change.

Maybe next time you cook at home, you’ll use a recipe written by someone who doesn’t look like you and understand what the food means to that person. Or maybe you’ll choose to go to a restaurant run by someone who is not from where you’re from and you’ll ask them about the thing on the menu you don’t recognize. Maybe you’ll invite a neighbor over and get to better know them or break bread with someone with opposing views and talk about the differences in a safe space. When it comes to expanding our perspectives, exercising compassion, and feeding change, there is no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

Julia Turshen is a writer and recipe developer. Her most recent books are Small Victories and Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, the latter of which benefits the ACLU.

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