Julia Turshen on Social Media, Social Distancing, and Cooking

[Photograph: David Loftus]

Those of us who love food—so, pretty much all of us that call this website home—are adjusting to a new reality in which we can’t frequent our most loved neighborhood restaurants, and gathering with loved ones to cook and share meals is highly discouraged. For the first time in our lives, it’s possible that sharing food with friends and family could do more harm than good. In these bizarre, unsettling times, I and so many others are turning to the internet for some sense of normalcy. On Twitter, chefs and food writers are going back-and-forth with their followers, offering all sorts of cooking advice. On Instagram, many food folks (including myself) are doing the same, offering to help people get creative with their pantry essentials.

As restaurants first shuttered and stay-at-home orders went into place, Julia Turshen was one of the very first people I noticed using social media as a tool to connect with folks over a shared love of food. Julia is a cookbook author, podcast host, and the founder of Equity at the Table, an online directory of queer and nonmale food professionals. Like the rest of us, Julia’s Instagram followers had snatched up whatever produce was still on store shelves, grabbing a can of chickpeas here, one of baby corn there. They asked her via Instagram DM (direct message) what meal could possibly come of these seemingly disparate puzzle pieces, and she provided ideas for cohesive menus. Then, as schools shut down and kids started spending much more time at home, Julia launched a daily food-writing class on Instagram Live (which I had the pleasure of joining as a guest last week), where parents and their kids could tune in and follow a prompt.

Following along with these short classes, and watching chefs and authors like Julia chat about beans, greens, and everything in between has provided me with a sense of calm. Stuck inside and bored out of my mind, I’ve been inspired and invigorated by the way Julia is using social media to stay connected with friends and strangers alike over a shared love of food. I called Julia to hear more about how she’s using the good corner of the internet to stay connected and to get some tips on how we can all stay in touch and keep cooking together—so to speak—during self-isolation.

I’m so happy we could find the time to chat amidst all of the craziness. To start with something non-coronavirus, when did you first realize that cooking and talking about food were great tools for connecting to other people?

Cooking has always been the most grounding part of my life, and it's helped me to feel connected to other people, but I would say most of all, to myself. I've been reminded of that many times in this A.C. (after coronavirus) world.

The times I have felt the most calm and collected while this is all happening are when I'm in my kitchen cooking.

It feels like a lot of the way that you connect to food, even when you're writing recipes, is about being in community with other people, and so I'm wondering how coronavirus and not being able to have face-to-face connections is impacting you?

I'm not with friends and family in person. I'm not doing a lot of the cooking I typically do in my community in person. Those things are off the table, but I also feel like there's so much on the table, and I have never been more in touch with my friends and family. I feel like I don't know where the days are going, and then I'm like, "Oh, I'm on the phone all day, and I'm still talking to my friends." I'm talking to my family and we're FaceTiming, and we're so in touch. I'm talking to my neighbors more than ever. I'm finding things I can do basically using my phone.

How does social media play into staying connected?

Before coronavirus, I was actively trying to spend a lot less time on social media, because it's not the place where I usually feel happiest. Now I feel like I'm spending so much time on social media, but it actually feels really positive and really happy, and I feel so connected. Not just with the people who are my touchstones. I’m also feeling connected to a much bigger community, and finding ways to engage online that just feel really, really positive.

On that note, you’ve recently started helping home cooks on Instagram figure out what to do with all the pantry staples they’ve bought. Why did you start doing that?

I think we're all looking for ways to be helpful when we feel so helpless. So it feels nice to be able to offer something. I am not in any way on any front line whatsoever. I'm not working in a grocery store. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a janitor. Those are the folks on the front lines, but if I can keep some people company while we're all at home, by all means. . . . I know how anxious I feel, so I can only imagine how someone who's not used to being at home all day and who's not used to making their own meals is feeling. One little thing I can do is listen to some random ingredients someone has and tell them a bunch of things they can cook.

In addition to helping folks figure out what to cook, you've started doing these amazing daily food-writing classes. How did that idea come about?

I saw what Wendy MacNaughton was doing on Instagram. Wendy is an amazing illustrator. She started offering these daily drawing classes via Instagram Live geared toward kids who are home from school. I saw her doing that and I was like, "Oh my God. That's so smart and that's so cool and what a nice thing." So that is where I got the idea to do what I'm doing.

When I was a kid, I remember how helpful it was for my own sanity and anxiety to cook but also to just read about cooking and talk about it. So I decided to offer little food-writing prompts on Instagram and to talk through them on Instagram Live. When we write about food—whether you're young or old or whatever—you're pressing pause, which is helpful.

Another nice thing that a lot of people have mentioned—which was not something I thought of at first—is that they're using these prompts when they talk to their family. One woman specifically, she’s using the prompts to talk with her grandmother who's in a home for the elderly. They can only talk on the phone and she can't go see her. Asking people, "How are you feeling today?" is important, but as more days and weeks and months pass by, it's important to have other things to ask each other. Asking the people in our lives—especially the older people in our lives right now—like, "What was your favorite thing to eat when you were a kid?" or "If it was your birthday, what would you want?"

These are silly questions, but they allow intimacy with your family that is really welcome right now.

What advice or guidance would you give to people in their kitchens who are looking for ways to connect and find some extra joy right now?

I think just feeding ourselves and the people around us and keeping ourselves and the people around us healthy is number one. And healthy can mean different things for different people. This is already such a stressful and unusual situation we're all in, so taking away any added pressure is super important. In terms of finding joy, I think remembering that, if it's available to you, cooking is one of the easiest and most tangible ways we can find joy. We can do it in maybe baking a cake, using our baking supplies, which are very shelf-stable, and we can bake the cake for no other reason than like, "Hey, we're at home, and we have more time than usual, so I'm going to make a cake."

Or it can be joyful to be like, "Okay, my parents can't come to my house for lunch right now, but I can eat my lunch over FaceTime while they eat their lunch." And we can laugh at how weird that is but also how grateful we are to have this technology.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.