How Julia Turshen Fosters Queer Domestic Life on Zoom

I look up from my cutting board to see dozens of faces in little Zoom squares all chopping onions. “Make sure you tuck your fingers in!” I say, always my first note when I’m teaching someone how to confidently use a knife.

I used to avoid cooking demos because everything about them made me anxious. I’ve worked on 15 cookbooks in as many years, which means I have spent a lot of time not only writing cookbooks, but also getting the word out about them. Hence, the dreaded cooking demo. Now don’t get me wrong—it’s an enormous privilege to publish, let alone to have anyone show up to see you talk about your book. But the skills required to make a cookbook are very different from the ones required to perform, and in-person demos always felt like a performance to me. I was constantly sweating.

But when Simply Julia, my last cookbook, came out around the one-year anniversary of COVID-19, all of the promotion pivoted to online. The pandemic meant I could demo from my kitchen, the place where I am most comfortable, over Zoom. It may sound like a paradox, but with no one actually in my kitchen (except for my spouse, Grace, and our pets), I could embody the experience as part of a community more than I ever had before.

Cooking on Zoom has had a profound impact on how I see, and experience, queer visibility. There’s no stage, and I don’t feel on display the way I used to every time I mounted a podium to talk about my books. Everyone joining doesn’t have to just watch, they can also cook with me. In the old days, I’d hold up whatever book I had most recently published and talk about the importance of being actively, loudly queer. It felt like such an important message, but one that was sometimes hard to get across. Now, logging on from my own home with my own family, and I’m just a queer person who gets to show how they’re living, up close. And because so many people who join me to cook on Zoom are also queer, I am not merely seeing my own experience reflected back to me; I’m seeing so many ways queerness, and specifically queer families, can look.

With my screen on gallery view, looking at every person who’s joined me, I’m reminded that there’s no single way to be queer.

I teach every Sunday afternoon now. Many people show up and cook with me; some just watch. Either way everyone leaves equipped with the knowledge of not only how to prepare things like corn and potato chowder or Julia’s Caesar (couldn’t resist!), but ideas for repurposing leftovers and handling kitchen challenges when they arise. It’s the most unfiltered I’ve ever been in my work. I drop things all the time and regularly forget to include an ingredient. But in these moments, I don’t panic—I just explain how to handle cooking missteps.

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