Coffee With: Julia Sherman of Salad for President

Sep 13, 2017

Julia Sherman is an artist not confined by medium. She has raised silkworms and spooled cocoons into thread and lived among Benedictine nuns in denim habits who wrote musicals and produced transcendent cheeses.

She currently deals in leafy greens and long afternoons in the kitchen with artists and creative visionaries in her blog-turned-cookbook, Salad For President, which brings the food world and the art realm together in an exceptional and novel way.

“A perfect salad is all about balance and restraint,” she says. “The beauty of salad is that it doesn’t get better the more complicated it becomes. Instead, the simplest salads are the most precise expression of an idea, a vegetable, a pairing of two flavors. It’s a lot like art actually.”

The through line of it all is daily practice, creative expression and finding nourishment in the process. In her book she writes: “An artist reinvents the things you already know. They reframe the details of life, and prod us to pay closer attention.”

A satisfying tome that goes far beyond the garden variety cookbook, Salad for President opens into insightful interviews and fresh recipes with geniuses like architects Luis Barragán and Harry Gesner, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, and slow food soothsayer Alice Waters.

She writes, “Instead of reinforcing the New York bastion of high culture, I wanted to explore art making as a common denominator that brought unlikely people together, not set them apart.”

Julia Sherman will be in Portland this week cooking like an artist with kindred vegetable whisperers at our Healthyish Feast Event called “Vegetables: A Love Story.” We sat down to talk on the radical idea of making salad as creative expression.

Hi! First off, where are you right now and what was the last thing you ate?

I just got back to my desk in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. I just ate a big fat tomato with fancy olive oil and homemade za’atar.

We have to ask: how do you take your coffee? Do you have a morning ritual?

I take my coffee in large quantities! I wake up and get the Chemex going before my eyes are fully open. I make a absurdly involved savory breakfast (usually some kind of soup with an egg in it), and read the paper. Then I pour my second cup of coffee (with a little organic goat milk) in a mason jar and take the dog to the park. The mason jar is a terrible means of transport, but I can’t seem to keep track of a travel mug…

Where did you grow up? What did you do before Salad was president?

I grew up in New York City. Before Salad was president, I was an artist and photographer. I have worked as a photographer on horror movie sets and tv shows like CSI and Dexter – don’t ask how I got pigeonholed in the horror genre, but it was fun for a short time. I shot make-up, I was a research assistant to a curator, I worked in a bakery and in galleries, and kept an active art practice and studio.

Tell us about the origins of Salad For President.

The period after I finished the MFA program at Columbia University was a turning point for me. That program is highly competitive and full of young artists climbing their way up the ladder in the New York art world. I have so much respect for my peers and my professors who have been able to make that system work for them, but I quickly realized it wasn’t it for me. I still considered myself an artist, but I had to find my place–it just wasn’t going to be selling objects in a gallery.

My real talent is in the way I connect with strangers and that it was time for me to take a closer look at the things I was doing everyday without even thinking about it. As an artist, pouring yourself into your work and your hobbies is just part of the job. So, it’s no wonder that the garden or the kitchen presented themselves as opportunities for me. I have always obsessively thought about food, cooking and gardening, so the time had come to see where those preoccupations might take me. I started a blog where I would document my own salads, and learn how to take photos of food and develop recipes. Other artists wanted to contribute their recipes right from the start, so the format just presented itself.

After working in such a cutthroat art world, it was really refreshing to be able to position myself to work with chefs and artists, celebrating their practices and supporting my own at the same time.

What was the idea or goal behind your blog when you started it?

The idea has always been that it be a place where food people stumble upon art, and art people stumble upon food. I like that it can be a straight-up recipe resource, or, a chance to get an intimate snapshot of an artist you love. The project went on to include events and real world projects, like my museum gardens and parties, which is a really nice development that keeps me feeling very challenged. Salad is a platform for all the various media I am drawn to.

Were you initially thinking about politics when you started your blog?

Not directly. Although, I do think there is something political in suggesting that we all take the time to be thoughtful and considerate about even the smallest of everyday gestures, from making a salad to the way you treat the person sitting next to you on the train. It’s about asking questions and being mindful, which of course, can be considered political.

What would be on the Salad for President reading list?

I don’t read about food all that much, to be honest. Except for Cook’s Illustrated, which is the best food magazine ever made. I’m more of a New Yorker / Harper’s reader, and I love fiction. I am reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04 right now and devouring it.

What is your kind of meal?

A small amount of protein, a huge pile of veggies, and lots and lots of herbs and intense flavors. I like food to be approachable and real, family style and totally unpretentious.

Have any of these interviews in particular been impactful or inspiring?

Oh my god, yes, of course! I wouldn’t do it if they weren’t. I would say just being in the presence of [multimedia artist and musician] Laurie Anderson changed me forever. I was so nervous to meet her, but of course, she couldn’t have been more welcoming and down to earth. Her openness is palpable from the first moment you meet. That’s what allows her to continually reinvent herself.

If you could make a salad with any artist living or dead, who would it be?

Agnѐs Varda, Maurizio Cattelan, Salvador Dalí, Ettore Sottsass, Joan Didion, the list goes on...

Do you have any advice for young artists, writers or chefs?

Yes! Try to remember that change and upheaval are a necessary part of any creative life. We tend to panic in the unclear moments between successes, but those down times are useful and productive too. It’s ok to be uncomfortable!

And lastly, what’s up next for you?

Right now I am working on developing some ideas for a TV show. I would like to see a young woman with good taste adventuring in the world. That somehow continues to be a dude’s role in the media, but not for long...

Thank you Julia Sherman!