In their familiar guise, cookbooks have a powerful way of normalizing cultural messages. As someone who has worked on cookbooks for well over a decade, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how “healthy” cookbooks normalize cultural messages about disordered eating and fatphobia.
Cookbooks can affirm things without ever needing to be direct. Many don’t overtly say “you should restrict this so you don’t get fat,” but they suggest it by talking about ways to, for example, substitute zucchini for pasta (I don’t know who needs to hear this, but zucchini will never be pasta). These types of passive-aggressive suggestions seep into our daily lives. Remember that cookbooks aren’t just things we read — they’re manuals for what we put into our bodies.
That’s why I intentionally don’t champion weight loss in my new healthy cookbook, “Simply Julia.” The book does not conflate healthy with skinny — the two are so frequently interchanged, it’s easy to forget that they’re not the same thing.
I didn’t understand the difference until I detangled myself from the diet culture I had grown up with.
I don’t remember learning that being fat was bad. It always just seemed a given. I’m pretty sure I drank more Diet Coke than water in my childhood. Once, when I was in middle school, my parents, brother and I had a competition to see who could lose the most weight in the shortest amount of time.
I went from a thin-is-the-goal household into a world that felt the exact same. I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting my freshman year of college. After graduating, I gained a significant amount of weight and, shortly after, I lost it and then some by closely monitoring everything I ate and obsessively exercising. I continued this yo-yo for the decade that followed, which also meant pinging from tenuous pride to unrelenting shame each time I lost and then gained weight. It also meant subjecting my metabolism to irrevocable harm.
For that same period of time, my professional life included work that valued the kinds of things I had learned in my upbringing and in those group meetings. I even wrote an essay for Vogue about how the hardest thing isn’t losing weight, it’s maintaining the loss. By the time the article came out, I had gained back many of the pounds I had bragged about keeping off. I had also created a situation in which Vogue had to fact-check my weight, and when the fact-checker went over details of the piece with me, I lied and said my weight was the same.
This type of work was damaging, for both myself and anyone who read it. And to both myself and them, I say: I am sorry.
What I know now that I didn’t know then is that healthy is a word best defined individually, and there are many barometers for measuring our worth besides just how much space our bodies take up. For me, I define healthy as encompassing not just what I cook and eat, but also how I feel when I cook and eat. And I want, more than anything, to feel free.
When I cook and eat in a healthy way, that freedom allows me to feel aligned with myself. While I am aware of nutrition, I don’t make decisions about what to cook based on calories, fat grams, or sodium levels. Rather, I honor what my body needs and wants. Sometimes that’s a big, crunchy salad with lots of fresh lemon, and sometimes that’s a cone of soft serve.
Rejecting diet culture and welcoming a weight-neutral, nonjudgmental approach to cooking and eating has taught me that kindness, to myself and others, is the type of currency I most want to invest in. I no longer see meals as chances to fail, to test my willpower or restraint, but as opportunities for pleasure and connection. The only time I make any calculations about food is when I am figuring out measurements for recipes. And then, the butter is real, the milk is whole, and I’m trying to be, too.
Cooking healthy food at home is a way to take care of ourselves and one another. Doing so has the potential to feel welcoming and joyful, not intimidating, clinical or out-of-reach. That’s why I want to share recipes that are full of flavor, use widely available and affordable ingredients, and are especially mindful about how many dishes they will leave behind because, let’s be honest, cleaning up is one of the hardest parts of home cooking. A good example is the fish cakes that I’m sharing here, which require no chopping and come together quickly. While nutritionists and dietitians might tell you the crushed potato chips that bind the fish cakes add too much salt and fat, I say they add flavor and fun, and aren’t those qualities important?
Again, I define healthy as my relationship to food, not as a word used to moralize food as “good” or “bad” or “clean” (the only food I consider “dirty” is something freshly dug from the ground).
The kind of cooking I want people to embrace focuses on flavor, not restrictions. I want every person, no matter their size or shape, to be able to see themselves reflected in cookbooks and recipes that confirm the worthiness of all bodies and their capacity to be nourished.
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Ricotta and Potato Chip Fish Cakes With Peas
3 to 4 servings
These fish cakes, from cookbook author Julia Turshen, are her homage to the salmon patties she first encountered at Narobia’s Grits & Gravy in Savannah, Ga. The pantry-friendly recipe relies on canned salmon as well as a handful of other staples such as frozen peas and half-and-half. Instead of the typical eggs and breadcrumbs, Turshen uses ricotta cheese, which produces a lox-and-cream-cheese effect, and crushed potato chips, reminiscent of fish-and-chips (plus they keep the dish gluten-free). If you wish, serve with a big salad or baked sweet potatoes.
Storage: Leftover fishcakes can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat in a 300-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until warmed through.
Make ahead: The fish cakes can be assembled up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated until ready to cook.
One (2-ounce/56-gram) bag potato chips (preferably sour cream and onion flavor)
Two (6-ounce/170-gram) cans wild pink salmon packed in water, well-drained
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning (see NOTE)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
One (10-ounce/283-gram) package frozen peas
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Let some air out of the potato chip bag and then crush the bag with a rolling pin or wine bottle to make fine crumbs. Transfer the chip crumbs to a large bowl and add the salmon, ricotta and Old Bay Seasoning. Finely grate the zest from the lemon and add it to the bowl (reserve the zested lemon). Stir the mixture well to combine, really breaking up the salmon as you mix.
Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions and use your hands to form each into a patty. It’s helpful to divide the mixture in half and then in half again, and so on, to make sure the patties are the same size.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. (If you think you may need to work in two batches so the fish cakes all fit and can be easily flipped, melt half the butter the first time and remaining butter, the next.) Once the butter begins to bubble, place the fish cakes in the skillet and cook without moving them until their bottoms are nicely browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a spatula, carefully flip each cake over and cook until nicely browned on the other side, another 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the fish cakes to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.
Increase the heat to high under the skillet and add the peas, half-and-half and salt. Cook, stirring, just until the peas are bright green and tender and the half-and-half has reduced slightly, about 4 minutes. Transfer the saucy peas to a serving platter and place the fish cakes on top. Cut the zested lemon into wedges and serve the wedges with the fish cakes for squeezing over.
NOTE: To make your own Old Bay substitute, in a small bowl, stir together 1 teaspoon of each kosher salt, sweet paprika and garlic powder.
Recipe from cookbook author Julia Turshen.