Julia Turshen's 'Equity at the Table' Is the Food Website We Need
Cookbook author Julia Turshen’s latest project has less to do with writing recipes and more to do with setting the table—a much larger and more inclusive table.
Pull up a chair at Equity at the Table (EATT), an online database aimed at giving creators and professionals who are female, gender non-conforming, queer, and people of color a place to be seen. The self-funded site went live this morning with about 100 profiles, and a few dozen more have been added in the hours since. With ongoing calls to deepen the bench and open the platforms for women and minorities in the food industry, it's high time something like this existed; leave it to Turshen to spearhead such an important and needed endeavor.
Turshen says that promoting diverse hiring and voices is certainly a goal of EATT, but the primary aim is to provide some level of parity.
“A major issue is that diversity is assumed to be the same thing as inclusivity and equality is often confused for equity,” she told Food & Wine via email. “The difference between these things is not just asking who is invited to the table, but who gets to do the inviting and how welcoming is that table? EATT is a resource we can all use to shift the food industry in a more equitable direction. It puts women and non-binary individuals, primarily [people of color] and the queer community, at the forefront and also makes resources available for everyone who is a member. It's a tool that can be useful for not only everyone on EATT, but also everyone visiting EATT.”
The site has sections for a wide array of food industry and adjacent job titles, from bakers and butcher to photographers and processors. The "professionals" section is currently open to anyone identifying as a queer woman or gender nonconforming and/or a person of color, which the "resources" section is also open the straight-identifying women of any race. Profiles are also sortable by location, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
Turshen credits her experience writing a cookbook that combined activism with cooking with inspiring EATT. “Putting together Feed the Resistance helped me better understand how I could use my own platform as a cookbook author to move the industry I call home in a forward-moving direction." In the process of writing the book, she grew her own community and spent a lot of time listening to others' stories. "I don't know the solutions to all of the issues that our industry faces, but I absolutely saw room for a resource that could bring us closer to some of those solutions.”
“While I identify as a gay, Jewish woman," she continues, "whenever I walk into a room, I'm first and foremost a white, cis-gendered person. With that in mind, I feel like I've had a relatively easy time getting my foot in the door (and staying on the other side of that door). Understanding my own privilege has helped me better understand how I can use it as a call to action to make sure I can extend and amplify the same access, respect, and recognition I have received.”
For freelance writer Meredith Heil, one of the early adopters of the platform, being received as a professional in the food industry has been challenging at times.
“I feel bias most when I’m in a fine dining space,” Heil explained via email. “It’s one thing to do email or phone interviews, but once a person like me, a masculine-presenting female-bodied person with tattoos and short hair, enters into an actual fancy restaurant, it can be a little awkward […] having the folks working there not know exactly what to make of you or treating you with some sort of disdain until they realize who you are can be daunting at best. It kind of strips you of your confidence, makes you feel like you have to prove that yourself when you really shouldn’t have to.”
Encountering such an attitude from restaurant staff is just one of the many shared experiences that Heil thinks EATT can help users share and bring to light. She's excited at the prospect of the network becoming a source of support, but professionally-speaking and personally. “Freelancing can be a little isolating sometimes," she points out, "so even being able to access a network of like-minded folks is really valuable in and of itself.
"It’s just nice to see some real faces out there," she continues, "to remember how big and diverse our industry really is behind the screen, the page, the bar or the kitchen door.”
Heil has sought to include more voices in the drinks industry from the early stages of her career, starting a blog and events organization called Beerded Ladies with a friend in order to highlight women with a passion for beer. Writing primarily about drinks (including for this website), a space dominated by white and cis mal voices, Heil bears witness to the need for more diverse voices as a regular part of her day. "There’s so much more to our industry than just those white dudes and shedding light on that, if anything, can only encourage more non-straight white dudes to come onboard.”
When considering the food and beverage industry as a whole—from fine and casual dining to bars to festivals, magazines, podcasts, panels suppliers, and more—devising a way to bring all of these facets together was no small task for Turshen and her seven-member advisory board. And then there’s the financial factor. Websites aren’t free, so Turshen footed the bill to get the site up and running. “I thought one of the best ways I could spend my own time and money, both valuable forms of currency, was to quite literally invest in my community and my industry. I heard Lynne Twist say to Oprah on her podcast that ‘what you appreciate appreciates" and that has really stayed with me.’” However, to keep the project up and running, Turshen also set up a Patreon page for those interested in lending their own financial support.
After being live for less than a day, EATT is already seeing results for some of its members. “I've already heard from one lawyer who has been contacted and many editors and writers who are now following new people and are eager to put the site to use. It's awesome!” Turshen said.
Heil is one of those writers already seeing budding connections. “I’m actually in France right now and was out all day, so I had no idea that it had gone live until my inbox started blowing up a few hours ago. It was pretty nice to come back to that.”
According to Turshen, that’s exactly the kind of impact she’s looking for. “I hope people will bookmark the site and keep coming back to it whenever they have the chance to feature or hire someone. The key to all tools is that they're used often— think of your favorite kitchen knife and how much your cooking improves when you get comfortable using it, keep it sharp, and make sure it's always handy when you need it,” she said.
“I hope [EATT] makes our tables longer and full of food, conversations, perspectives, and more that better reflect the dynamic world we live in.”