When she was in her early 20s, Julia Turshen visited her former babysitter, Jennie, to learn to make chicken pelau.
During Turshen’s childhood — ages 3 to 13 — Jennie stayed at the family’s apartment in Manhattan on weekdays and returned to her home in Brooklyn on weekends. On Monday mornings she would arrive carrying bulging containers of chicken, lentils, rice, and other enticing foods from St. Vincent. But that food wasn’t for Turshen.
“Jennie used to make my brother Ben and I typical American-kid stuff like hot dogs and pasta,” she explains. “She would bring that food to heat up throughout the week for herself.”
Turshen — now considered one of the greatest home-cooks of all time (according to Epicurious) — has always had a passion for food, so it wasn’t long before she persuaded Jennie to share.
“I got to know her through her food, by asking about the people who taught her to make the dishes she was sharing with me, and about what she ate as a kid,” she explains. “The meals became a way of expressing a closeness we felt between each other. It taught me the power that food had to bring two unlike people together.”
As a child, Turshen didn’t always notice the difference in race and class between herself and Jennie, although she has since reflected on it. “I did notice as a kid that [my mother and Jennie] were treated very differently when we went to the store together, and that taught me something about racism.”
Not long after she graduated from college, Turshen joined Jennie on a trip home to St. Vincent. “What was very surreal to me was that the people who would stop her to say hi also knew who I was,” she recalls. “They would say, ‘Jennie’s baby is here!’ It felt really good to be with her there and for our relationship to be acknowledged.”
Jennie and Turshen had shared time, trips, and many chicken pelaus over the years, but Turshen hadn’t picked up how to cook the dish from watching — in part, because Jennie often made it at home. That day in Brooklyn, Turshen’s well-honed culinary principles were challenged in the first cooking step: Jennie intentionally burned white sugar in the bottom of the pot until it became a black paste. The apartment filled with smoke. But it was the depth and intensity of that burnt caramel — when combined with the aromatics, the coconut milk, and the other ingredients — that gave the dish that quality that Turshen hadn’t been able to re-create.
Eventually she mastered the recipe, but concedes that she still can’t make it as well as Jennie.
“I don’t know what Jennie does when I’m looking at my notepad,” she chuckles.
Their relationship is still going strong, but when Turshen — who now lives in Ulster County — can’t see Jennie in person, she can put together a dish that captures her warmth.
“Jennie was there from such a young age. She took care of me — she still takes care of me. She is one of the most important people in my life,” says Turshen.
And as for chicken pelau? “It isn’t the food of my culture,” she says, “but it became my comfort food.”
Jennie’s last name is omitted at Turshen’s request.