My family moved eight times growing up, always within “the city,” so there were many addresses in Manhattan that I called home. At first we lived in the West Village—where my parents faced the challenge of explaining to toddlers why one leather-clad man was walking his friend on a leash. We soon moved to the Upper East Side.
My parents were early adopters of the whole foods movement, which I didn’t particularly mind, though the dank wheatgrassy smell of the health food store on Prince Street is one of my earliest memories. I suspect it was precisely this particular smell that drove me into a furtive relationship with Joe, the hot dog vendor on our corner, who was always pushing those Kosher franks and salty over-sized pretzels. My daily pit stop at his food cart was short lived: when my parents first heard Joe and I greet one another by first name, they put the kibosh on my secret addictions (my dad told me that the pretzels came from a rat-infested factory, which I can now appreciate as a fabulously manipulative and effective tactic).
As much as my mom wanted food to be healthy and homemade, she also found a way to make it incredibly entertaining. Together we developed a fictitious cooking TV show called Julia Child and Julia Mommy (I was just painfully literal; I had no clue who Julia Child was). There was no camera, no plot, and no script, just wild gesticulation and bravado in the pursuit of dinner. As per the following recipe, hit episodes of the “show” included pasta making, where we draped fettuccine on coat hangers and placed them all over the house to dry.
My mom is an artist, and like me, and to this day, the kitchen is just an extension of our respective studios. It is here that we most easily play, discover new materials, take risks, and happily, it continues to be the place where we are able to work side by side.
When and where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in New York City. I lived on the Upper West Side until I was eleven years old, and then moved to the Upper East Side.
What was your favorite food growing up?
I grew up in the sixties. The food was awful! Kiddie menus just added insult to injury. What wasn’t neon orange and glutinous was electric green and slimy.
What’s your earliest childhood memory involving food?
My father would go every Sunday morning to the local fruit stand, to get fresh fruits, nuts, and dried figs. I was fascinated by the dried figs that were on a string tied in a loop. The way my father would help me pull them off the string, one by one, was so kind and patient. It was part of what made them taste so good.
What’s the story behind this dish? When did you start making it, and why did it stick?
It’s something I made up, mostly as a way to entertain and nourish my children at the same time. Cooking was a great snowy-day activity and offered so many ways of learning, along with a great payoff at the end. It made messy hands and sticky counters okay, and you could get in some organizational skills, and even some math if you were sneaky about it. I’ve always liked pesto, and this sauce is kind of like a rebalancing of pesto, where the nuts are given most of the emphasis and the herb flavors support that.
Can you describe a typical family meal when you were growing up? What was your favorite thing that was cooked in your house? Who did the cooking?
My mother was a famously bad cook, and I think I learned to cook as a kind of self-defense. Her only really good dish was borscht that she learned from her mother. She called it Russian Borscht and it involved no beets—just cabbage, tomato, brisket, marrow bones, sour salt, and raisins.
How did you learn to cook or bake?
I read cookbooks and then experimented based on what I read. I find them very entertaining to this day, and read them like novels—but I really like to improvise.
Do you like cooking? What do you like about it?
Everything! I like the messiness, the texture, the scents, the colors. As an artist, I engage with my work with a kind of expectation that I don’t bring to cooking, so I find it liberating to cook at the end of the day. Cooking is a community experience. You create something that you share with people you like. The experience of ingesting the food you’ve made not only becomes part of their memory of you—it becomes part of their bodies.
Julia Sherman is the vegetable-obsessed artist, photographer, writer, and editor behind Salad for President, an evolving project that draws a meaningful connection between food, art, and everyday obsessions. She is currently working on the Salad For President cookbook, to be published by Abrams Books. Joan Sherman is an artist living and working in New York, whose work, inspired by natural forms, includes sculpture, functional art encaustic painting, and drawing. As the mother of two children, Joan found time spent in the kitchen as well as time spent in the studio offered her family the gratification of creative production and brought a healthy balance to their urban experience.