How Motherhood Changes the Way Julia Sherman Cooks

"I hope to raise a girl who feels positive about her relationship to food."

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Julia Sherman is an artist, cook, writer, photographer, and creative director — best known for her blog and accompanying cookbook, Salad for President. She's also a new mom to Red, her first child, who was only 15 days old when we visited three generations of Shermans (Red, Julia, and Julia’s mother, Joan) at home in Brooklyn. We discussed how pregnancy, and now new motherhood, has impacted Julia's relationship to cooking, and the nourishing hibiscus tea she’s making in The Dutchess to recover.

My background is as a visual artist, but I have always been a monomaniacal cook. On Salad for President, I document a day spent with the artists I admire, cooking a recipe of their choice; photographing them, their work, and their home; and talking to them about their practice in and out of the studio. I have used the blog as a platform to create salad gardens at institutions like MoMA PS1 and the Getty Museum. I published my first cookbook in 2016, and I will publish my second in the winter of 2020. I’m also the creative director at Chopt, a fast-casual salad restaurant.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on writing my next book, a treatise on the messy and imperfect ways that artists entertain. The book will follow a similar format as my first book, with 80 of my own recipes and a handful of wildly creative examples of artists’ own concepts and habits for entertaining. I want to show people that the best parties are not the most perfectly styled ones. The best hosts don’t take themselves too seriously. You don’t need to have the perfect home or the perfect table settings to throw a memorable party.

Food has always been my version of keeping a sketchbook. My art practice was highly conceptual and research-driven; I often worked more like a producer than a studio artist on projects that took years to complete. Cooking and experimenting in the kitchen became a counterpoint to that long-form way of working — it’s immediate, sensual, tactile, and materially driven. And most of all, a meal is ephemeral.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t cook. I was really into baking as a teenager and cooked a lot with my mother at home. In college I lived in a hippie co-op, and we had to cook for 60 people every night. It was a wonderful lesson in ordering, prepping, and running a kitchen to feed a large crowd day after day. It was also the first time food became the center of my social life.

My parents are lovers of great food and took me with them to the best restaurants as a young kid. I never ate the kids meal; I ate what they ate. My mother and I were always in the kitchen together. We had a fictional TV show called Julia Child and Julia Mommy.

My mother and I were always in the kitchen together.

My relationship to cooking changed while I was pregnant. It was terrifying! I was trying to develop recipes for my next book, cooking up a storm, but my sense of taste had been turned upside down. Smells that I had once loved were deeply repulsive. All I wanted to eat was plain yogurt and granola — I did develop an amazing granola recipe in this time — and scrambled eggs. I couldn’t stand the sight of nightshades — normally some of my favorite vegetables. (I still can’t stand the thought of a shishito pepper.)

Luckily, it was all very fleeting, but it was fascinating to experience the phases my palate went through as the baby developed and needed specific things. For instance, I became obsessed with citrus and ate five to ten pieces a day, which must have had to do with vitamin C and bolstering a weakened immune system (a gestating mother’s immune system is suppressed so as to not attack the baby). Or a deep craving for dairy products when the baby was developing its skeleton. Very cool!

Now Red is here, and I am back to normal. More than ever, I have been wanting to eat really healthily as my body heals and I battle exhaustion and wild hormonal shifts. I ate all the crazy lactation-inducing foods for the first three weeks of motherhood — fenugreek, fennel, brewer’s yeast, oats — to no avail. Luckily, those are all foods I like, or I would have been super pissed!

As a new mother, I am terrified a lot of the time, to be honest. We are almost three weeks into this, and I still don’t really feel like she is mine. The beginning is all about survival, and for me, it still feels like a dream — like someone will come and take this loaner baby back. Yesterday, I saw a flash of my own mouth in the shape of hers, and it hit me that there was no turning back.

As a new mother, I am terrified a lot of the time, to be honest. 

The beginning is also about trying to find your footing and intuition alongside a very steep learning curve and a lot of solicited and unsolicited input from friends, family, and strangers. It’s very easy to doubt yourself when it all feels so new and to drive yourself insane sorting through excess information. Even those of us who feel fiercely independent and confident in our ability to make decisions feel vulnerable and raw at this time.

My advice to new moms is to choose one or two people you trust and look to them for guidance alone. I have been so lucky to have the world’s most supportive and grounding midwife, Jo Zasloff, and a doula and lactation consultant, Megan Davidson. I made it my project to drown out all the other noise and listen to them alone.

After Red came home, I was prohibited from cooking for the first two weeks while I recovered from a C-section. It was really challenging for me to let my husband take over my domain, but in the end, it was actually quite wonderful to be waited on hand and foot. I have never felt so loved in my life, between his dedication and the constant meal deliveries from friends.

Now that I am back on my feet, I am doing a little bit here and there. My first foray back in the kitchen was to make a big pot of Parmesan-rind broth in my Dutchess. I simmered white beans in the flavorful broth and added some tomatoes I canned last September. I have been eating it for breakfast with an egg, and for lunch and dinner in a pinch.

My first foray back in the kitchen was to make a big pot of Parmesan-rind broth in my Dutchess.

Although I recently threw in the towel on breastfeeding (a much longer discussion!), that process makes you very thirsty. Plus, being exhausted makes it hard to take care of yourself, and hydration is key. So I have been making nourishing, warm drinks to simmer on the stove and dip into all day long. Korean red dates, called jujubes, naturally sweeten the tea and have all kinds of health benefits. Same with goji berries. Altogether, this is excellent chilled or warm.

Here’s how you make it: Fill The Dutchess with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and add the jujubes, cinnamon, and goji berries. You can add the hibiscus flowers straight to the pot, or you can place them in a cheesecloth or tea bag to steep. A little hibiscus goes a long way, so you might want to remove the flowers before you finish simmering the rest of the ingredients. I like to let the ingredients simmer for around four hours, mashing the jujubes when they have hydrated, to get the sweetness to seep out. Strain the tea into cups or into a carafe to chill in the fridge. The Dutchess is perfect for this — if you’re gonna do it, make a whole lot to keep on the stove!

Photos by Liz Clayman

I hope to raise a girl who feels positive about her relationship to food. This was a challenge for me when I was a high-school student in New York City; food was so directly tied to body issues and low self-esteem. I want Red to benefit from my journey to get to a really positive space — food should be a pleasure and a way to connect to the natural world, to other cultures as well as our own. Let’s keep shame out of that space.

I hope to raise a girl who feels positive about her relationship to food.

Women are incredible. We need to stop criticizing ourselves and others, and celebrate the successes big and small of being a mom, no matter how you choose to do it.