Last week at The Museum of Food and Drink, we joined authors Julia Turshen and Nik Sharma in celebrating their new cookbooks Now & Again and Season for a “Soup & Sip with Julia & Nik.” The event was put on in collaboration with Chronicle Books, Queer Soup Night (with soups prepared by Jesse Szewczyk), and Shannon Mustipher, and additionally we raised funds to support the Stonewall Foundation’s Levin-Goffe Scholarship, which supports undocumented LGBTQ immigrants. We spoke with Julia and Nik about how the LGBTQ community has become part of their work, their experience writing cookbooks as people with marginalized identities, and how cookbooks can be vessels for much more than just recipes. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
When did you first become aware that you were part of a community, and when did it become part of your work?
Nik Sharma: When I wrote my first book there were so many times when I went through insecurities, questioning myself. Julia was there for me, my husband was there for me, my friends were there for me—I could text my friend Ben at night and say, “Hey, I’m going through a crazy moment right now.” That’s what I really love about the queer community, that there are authors out there—successful people—who are willing to share their struggles with you and support you to go ahead. And that’s something that I hope I get to do in the future, with younger writers and people coming into the food scene. And when I found out, for example, that there are a bunch of writers that are from India, like Tejal Rao from the New York Times and Mayukh Sen, these vibrant voices who are so successful and doing well—and Mayukh is also gay—you feel a part of that success, in a way. And then there are people like Julia who, on the other hand, help create a tribe that supports you.
Julia Turshen: I’ve always been involved in community where ever I’ve lived, from a pretty young age. When I got married I feel like it became more important than ever—by then, I’d gotten to know myself better, and my identity and community and the intersection of those things really shifted. There’s a lot that makes the queer community so special, and one of those things is the notion of “chosen family.” That’s something a lot of us can probably identify with and share—the texting friends at night, talking to each other, that kind of thing. I don’t have that with straight writer friends. Maybe a little, but it’s different. We all want to lift each other up. Seeing you [Nik] shine makes me so happy. I think there’s something so beautiful about a community where it’s not about competition—competition comes from scarcity mentality, that “oh there’s only room for one.” And for us, if you’ve ever been othered in some way, I think we all just want to be together. That’s really special, and so intrinsic to food: Make a bigger pot of soup! Everyone is welcome.
Oftentimes the intended scope of a cookbook focuses on the nuclear family. Is that something you’re thinking about, or working around, when you’re writing your cookbooks?
Julia: On a technical level, so many recipes “Serve 4,” and there’s this idea of a mom, dad, two kids, and a fence. It’s something that I played around with in Now & Again—there are recipes that serve 8, there are recipes that serve 2. And building the book around menus, a lot of them tell stories through the book. Like, “this is something in my world that serves a larger group.” I think family is a beautiful concept but it can be a really tricky one, especially tricky in our community. Family is something we can all choose to define however we want. Nik and I both have a lot of animals in our nuclear families….
Nik: Julia and I have constant joke is that we’ve actually never had a conversation about food.
Julia: We always talk about our dogs. And plants.
Nik: Julia’s helped me put nails in the walls. I’ve had panic attacks trying to install things and I text you, “I’m trying to put a nail in the wall”—
Julia: I’m like, “Nik, get an anchor!” ([To Nik:] You need a gay woman closer to you. We live too far apart.) But I think the family question is really interesting in how it pertains to food and how we write about it. Being able to make a choice about how to describe how you serve a recipe and who you serve it to—those are maybe not the most obvious ways, but they’re really valuable ways to shift ideas and open minds and to use food to make sometimes-uncomfortable conversations more comfortable.
Nik: I want people to sit with me at the table and feel comfortable, but also be able to have a discussion that might be uncomfortable. I think it’s better to just do it an atmosphere where everyone’s relaxed, and food tends to do that to most of us. When I was writing Season I wanted it to be applicable to anyone, whether they’re gay or straight, whether they were from America or not from America—I wanted everyone to feel welcome and comfortable. That’s the reason why I decided just to share my story in the book, so people can maybe identify with the different parts. That’s the same thing that I want to do with photos. I have a tendency to show my hands. I want people to be able to imagine themselves in the kitchen.
There’s a long history of community cookbooks—Junior League cookbooks, or church ones, or, say, feminist collective cookbooks. What types of books have inspired you, as far as speaking for or representing different communities?
Julia: My parents worked in publishing and I was always around cookbooks—that’s how I learned to cook. I was surrounded by pretty eighties-bougie lifestyle cookbooks, in love with Lee Bailey cookbooks—he was this really funny gay man who threw lots of dinner parties that I imagined attending as a six-year-old. [laughs] It took a while for me to figure it out! He was never out or talking about it or anything like that. And I loved Ina Garten’s books and all these things, all these really familiar books. But at some point, I realized I wasn’t finding cookbooks that made me feel like I identified with them personally—I realized that books I thought I identified with didn’t represent me. And so my work became about seeking to create what I didn’t see.
Nik: I had a different experience with cookbooks. I didn’t grow up wealthy, so encyclopedias and cookbooks were my window into the world. I started using those to understand and see what people were doing in different parts of the world. For me it was very exciting, I was coming from this place of curiosity. I feel like the language that writers use, the photos… Visual quality has now become a big thing. But those are the things that drew me in. I was learning and absorbing knowledge. Now the books that I’m drawn to are the ones that teach me about the culture of a country that I never experienced growing up. It’s my way of learning about the past, the history of a country, where ingredients come from, how they changed over time. And then also how food is related to race and gay culture, too. It’s just fascinating. Cookbooks are actually a text book. They act as a great source of reference.
Julia: The author Laurie Colwin—who didn’t really write cookbooks, but sort of memoirs with recipes—talked a lot about how if you look at a culture’s cookbooks, that’s how you’ll really learn about day to day life. More than any history book, you really learn about people through cookbooks. That makes a lot of sense.
In light of your books, books that are more than just recipes but have a voice and perspective and a larger offering—in terms of that scope, what, to you, makes a good recipe?
Nik: One that works. That’s always a big number one. And it has to be something that engages someone. The books and recipes that I always remember are the ones that have a story to tell. I might not cook the recipes, I might not remember what the recipe was a couple years later, but it’s the story that I walk away with. Those, I feel, are the richest ones—the story that’s embedded inside.
Julia: I agree. I think of a recipe like an iceberg. You see this little thing, but so much went into it. Every decision—even how a measurement is presented or an instruction. I try to answer questions before someone might even know they have them. To me, a good recipe, it hooks you. You want to make it, and you want to remember it. Hopefully you’ll have such a nice experience that you make it again, and you’ll become a repeat customer. And then you’ll be like, Oh, I made that thing I thought sounded really great, so maybe I’ll try this other thing that I’d never have thought to try... Building that trust is really the most valuable form of currency we can have as authors
Nik: We want people to connect with our books at the end of the day.
[Audience question:] How do you address authenticity in your work—what does it mean to you?
Nik: I think the main thing is just to acknowledge the people or the culture that the thing comes from. I think Julia does this beautifully. She’s always looking to help people from different communities and give them a voice. I’m not a fan of either word, tradition or authenticity. A recipe that was handed down to me by mom, was made by her mother, who probably got it from my great-grandmother—it’s changed so much over time. That’s not the definition of what’s traditional or authentic. I also view both of those terms as chains. At this point in my life I don’t want people throwing me into a box and telling me I have to do something that’s traditional Indian. I honestly don’t know what that is. I didn’t grow up in a traditional Indian household. For me, those kinds of words actually make my skin crawl a little bit. I want to be free. I want to do what I want.
Julia: To me it’s about the story, and it’s about giving credit. Saying, “How did I learn about this thing and what does it mean to me? Why do I think you might enjoy it, too? What has it done to make my world bigger?” Similar to Nik talking about growing up with cookbooks and what he learned about this country through cookbooks—I got to learn about the whole world through cookbooks and it made my world so much bigger than my suburban teenage life. To share those stories and never claim authority over anything I don’t have any authority over is important.
Audience question: What role has social media played in your work, and in helping you redefine relationships and determine what community is?
Julia: Grace and I share things about our personal life in a way that helps connect us with other people—I don’t know what other medium would do that that so easily, and quickly, and allow us to have such direct connection. It’s an amazing thing to put out a cookbook in the age of social media. In general, you see people share recipes and stuff, but when I wrote my first cookbook I wrote about Grace’s favorite cake, called “Happy Wife, Happy Life Cake,” because that’s how I think of it. To have people, via social media, tell me what it means to see a woman talk about her wife so regularly and so frequently in a cookbook, something people put on their coffee table and in their grandmother’s room and that their father in law will read... The social media component of getting to have that connection in addition to the book is really amazing and so valuable.
Nik: With this book, I really wanted to be—not a role model, because I feel like that creates this image of perfection and I’m not perfect—but I always think about when I was a kid questioning my sexuality, questioning who I was, and there was no one to look up to or look at and say, “Okay, they were fine at the end of the day when they came out.” I’ve been really honest about my life and sharing it publicly, and that is my hope, to be that person to someone. The internet has been something of a free market for that kind of stuff. I also think it’s amazing that Julia and I are living in a time where two queer authors are with the same publisher, and have all this support from a mainstream publisher. It’s just fantastic that we live in this time when we’re both open and we know that there will be authors after us who will never have to think about being gay as an issue.
Photos by Steve Viksjo