Food

Social Anxiety and the Power of Potato Chips

Julia Turshen

When I’ve been at my most anxious, I’ve felt like life is one long grocery list that includes something I need that I can’t find anywhere…

Sometimes I think I was born with a list of things I was worried about (epigenetic inheritance is real!) and sometimes I think I do a very good job of finding new things to worry about all by myself. In addition to therapy, sleep, physical activity (whether it’s walking or exercise or gardening), and talking to my wife and my friends, cooking has also been a majorly calming force in my life. While food has definitely brought up plenty to make me anxious about, making it has been the most consistent tool I have to help me feel grounded.

Food has always helped me walk through doors that feel scary. I didn’t attend many parties in high school, so when I first got to college and my new friends invited me to go to parties, I smiled and said yes while I quietly panicked inside. Be comfortable at a party? Hang out with people from school besides at school? I wasn’t so sure about that.

Being someone who doesn’t like to arrive anywhere empty-handed, even a college house party, I quickly learned that I could assuage my social anxiety if I stopped at the corner deli, bought the biggest bag of potato chips I could find, and brought them with me. They gave me an easy way to walk up to people without feeling totally awkward. “Want a potato chip?” felt a lot easier than saying “hello.” Sure, it was a shtick, but the chips gave me a way in. I eventually became comfortable at parties and other occasions without a bag of chips, but the chips helped pave that comfort.

The other way I’ve always gone about making friends is inviting people over for a meal. In fact, when I moved into my freshman dorm, I brought a pot and a toolbox filled with basic kitchen tools so it would be easy to take them in and out of the communal kitchen. Those tools, a wooden spoon and a peeler and tongs and such, made me feel like I had the things I needed to do something I loved to do in a place that felt so unfamiliar. They made me feel secure. I made spaghetti for my floor mates and roasted chicken in disposable aluminum pans from the grocery store. It was a way to extend myself to my new community.

When I moved into an apartment off campus, I saved up money to buy my first sturdy Dutch oven. I remember a friend telling me that my pot was “so grown up.” It made me feel adult when I wasn’t so sure what that was (still don’t always know, by the way). Cooking not only calmed me, it also helped me feel like I could make the big world I found myself in feel a little bit smaller.

Anxiety, like many complicated things, has so many edges. When I need to exit a stressful setting, or group of people, cooking also lets me do that. In other words, it’s not just a way to connect, it’s also a way to disconnect. You can always leave your dining room table to do some dishes or to “get dessert ready” even if it’s already ready. The kitchen can be a place to take a breath. It’s part of why I love grilling so much. It means I get to be outside while everyone is inside. I’m still part of the party, I’m making the food!, but I get to be a little bit at arm’s length. And sometimes, that’s exactly where I feel most calm.

When I talk to other people about anxiety, I always like to find out when people feel most themselves, most free of worry. For me, it’s when I’m standing in my kitchen by myself cooking because I feel like it, not because I need to. There’s music playing. I can hear my wife doing something in the other room. I can see our dogs lazily napping on the bench by the kitchen window. I am chopping vegetables, doing the thing that so many other people are doing at the same time around the world. I am alone, but I am also in solidarity. I am content and present. I know what I’m making and have everything I need to do so. I don’t care if it turns out perfectly. It’s just dinner. I’m worried about nothing.

Julia Turshen fish cakes recipe

Ricotta and Potato Chip Fish Cakes with Peas
From the new cookbook Simply Julia
An homage to the salmon patties I got to enjoy one morning at Narobia’s Grits & Gravy in Savannah, Georgia (which, sadly, has since closed), these fish cakes rely on canned salmon, one of the most convenient and reliable things to keep in your cupboard. After you brown the fish cakes, you add some frozen peas and half-and-half to the skillet, which makes a bright green bed for the fish cakes. You could also skip the peas and serve the fish cakes on toasted potato buns slicked with mayonnaise and piled with shredded lettuce and sliced pickles.
Serves 4

One 2-ounce bag potato chips (preferably sour cream and onion-flavored)
Two 6-ounce cans wild pink salmon packed in water, well-drained
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning (or 1 teaspoon each kosher salt, sweet paprika, and garlic powder)
1 lemon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
One 10-ounce package frozen peas
½ cup half-and-half
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Let some air out of the potato chip bag and then crush the bag with a rolling pin or wine bottle to make fine crumbs. Transfer the potato chip crumbs to a large bowl and add the salmon, ricotta, and Old Bay. Finely grate the zest from the lemon and add it to the bowl (reserve the zested lemon). Stir the mixture well to combine, really breaking up the salmon as you mix.

Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions and use your hands to form each into a patty. It’s helpful to divide the mixture in half and then in half againand so on to make sure the patties are the same size.

Place the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once it melts and begins to bubble, place the fish cakes in the skillet and cook without disturbing them until their bottoms are nicely browned (what a sentence!), 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spatula to carefully flip each one over and cook until nicely browned on the second side, another 2 to 3 minutes. You might need to cook the fish cakes in 2 batches depending on the size of your pan (you don’t want to crowd the pan, and definitely give yourself space to flip them—think of the spacing like pancakes). Transfer the fish cakes to a plate and cover them with foil to keep them warm.

Turn the heat to high and place the peas, half-and-half, and salt in the same skillet. Cook, stirring, just until the peas are bright green and tender andthe half-and-half has reduced slightly, about 4 minutes. Transfer the saucy peas to a serving platter and place the fish cakes on top. Cut the zested lemon into wedges and serve the wedges with the fish cakes for squeezing over. Serve immediately.

Thank you, Julia! We love your book.

(This essay and recipe was reprinted from the new cookbook Simply Julia with permission. Photos by Melina Hammer.)

  1. Amber Lindsey says...

    This is beautiful, thank you, Julia!

  2. sp says...

    i love this soooo much! i am moving to new york from south carolina (eek!) for grad school in the fall and i just might have to bring my own toolbox with me. :)

  3. Patrice says...

    Thanks so much for this recipe – canned fish is such a sleeper superstar. I loved your Small Victories cookbook and you turned me onto vintage Lee Bailey cookbooks, so thank you for that as well! Keep cooking xoxo

  4. Alyssa says...

    I made this dish tonight, and it was fabulous! I made it with a side of lemony roasted potatoes, but honestly the peas and salmon cakes would have been satisfying on their own. I also went ahead and purchased the cookbook too – thank you for sharing! Great food and someone I can really relate to.

  5. Katie says...

    I was first introduced to Julia on cupofjo with the featured “turkey and ricotta meatballs” recipe (thank you!). This recipe is amazing and led to my purchase (& constant use) of “Small Victories” cookbook.
    I pre-ordered and now am happily finding my calm cooking through “Simply Julia”. It is such a wonderful book – my family loved the “green spaghetti” for dinner tonight (try it!!).
    When I make a recipe from “Simply Julia” – my 2 & 4 year olds chime & giggle at dinner “another hit from Julia!”.

  6. Hali says...

    Woosh reading this was like going to therapy. Unlike Julia, I’m not super great or interested in cooking. But hosting, in particular the act of walking away to do dishes, is how I find my place in my friend circles. The music, drinks, courses, table linens, flowers, favors… that’s where I show friends that I care about them. When the house is full (with 2 or 20 guests) and the conversation is flowing, I can take up my position leaning in the doorway, ready to catch a spill, flip a record, laugh at a joke, fill a drink, reveal unexpected fancy sprinkles to go on the pints of ice cream. And finally, social anxiety subsides as I find myself stepping away in order to keep bringing people together. Sometimes it feels like an elaborate overcompensation for how awkward I truly feel around my friends, but reading this made me feel like I’m not alone in this kind of social strategizing.
    I was nervous about the end of pandemic removing that golden excuse to avoid social situations, but I this made me feel ready to open our doors again. We’ll be moving across the country for just one year, my husband, 2 month old, and me. I’ve mostly written off the chances of me making my own female friends so far from home given the 1-year, new-mom circumstances. This post reminded me though, I can host! If he makes friends, I can host them and their friends! Will be funny with a baby but I can definitely do it.

    I’m gonna buy Julia’s cookbooks too because… more therapy please.

    • Jenica says...

      Hali, I enjoyed reading your comment and felt compelled to wish you and your family well in your move and making new connections. Sending warmth and good vibes your way!

  7. clare says...

    I love Julia Turshen! A great Insta follow & cook book author!

  8. Renee says...

    Thank you for such a relatable article! Being in the kitchen has always been very grounding for me, whether it’s cooking a pot of soup for myself at home or lending a hand at a party. I feel much more at ease chatting with other guests while putting together a cheese tray than I do awkwardly standing by the wall holding a drink in my hand.

    In addition to her cookbooks, I highly recommend checking out Julia’s podcast. I especially appreciate her episodes regarding body image, diet culture, anti-fat bias, etc. As an Intuitive Eating Counselor who helps individuals make peace with food and their body, it’s been a joy to recommend it to my clients.

  9. Social anxiety is so real and that list example is perfect! Thank you for the yummy recipes. My dad’s a therapist and I’m a comedian with anxiety. I created a game for people who probably need therapy, (Ahem, everyone!) It’s called Party Freud. Check it out on Kickstarter, we’d love your support and think Cup of Jo readers would absolutely be awesome at it :) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/susieboggess/party-freud-a-game-for-people-who-probably-need-therapy

  10. A says...

    Do these freeze well? I’d love to make a bigger batch and save some for busy nights.

    Also- I love hearing about Julia AND her wife- they seem to have such a lovely, respectful partnership :)

  11. JessicaD says...

    Wow – I read Julia’s post and sobbed with recognition — not for myself, but for my daughter. A fundamental difference between us (“just go in there and say hello! just be yourself! there’s nothing to be afraid of”) — somehow laid out and explained in a way that resonated deeply with me. I have no problem jumping into any social situation and do my very best to be empathetic toward others. I am feeling cut to the bone that I haven’t been able to truly see or understand this with my daughter. Thank you Julia for sharing this side of you — please know that it will have truly strengthened at least one mother/daughter relationship. I am feeling deeply grateful.

  12. Susie says...

    This is me! I felt like someone was writing about my life and anxieties! Thankyou!

  13. Kay says...

    Been LOViNG this cookbook and my family agrees – her podcast is SO good, so fun to listen to while cooking :)

  14. SW says...

    This looks great! But think I’d be done cooking after I opened the chips and the wine.

  15. Jen says...

    Love this! I’m not a cook but Julia’s cozy description makes me want to give it another go!

  16. Edie says...

    I love her! And she’s so responsive on IG!

  17. Inbar says...

    Love the way you articulate your anxiety, so relatable!! Reading your post made me feel seen and understood, I used to use my camera in a similar way to the way you used the bag of chips. Thank you xx

  18. Kelsey says...

    Relate to this sooo much. I love having food responsibilities at a party – not only does it give you the option to take a break, it gives you a task you can focus on and complete (which always feels like a win when you’re in the mires of social anxiety and don’t know what to do or say!). I’m doubly touched because this recipe reminds me of one of the two things my dad can cook :) The rare times he was on dinner duty when I was growing up he would often make salmon patties served with green peas and egg noodles. Excited to try this cool version. <3

  19. Jenni says...

    I zoomed in on the tattoo on Julia’s arm and tears sprang to my eyes. The simplest, most beautiful embodiment of acceptance, in all its forms. <3

  20. K says...

    Does anyone NOT have social anxiety? Like you are just completely comfortable with yourself anywhere anytime? What are your tips?

    Also just seeing the words potato chip makes me want a bag. I’ve been liking ridged chips lately.

    • My wife! It’s a wonder to behold. Not contagious, apparently, though I’ve stuck close by her just in case.

    • T says...

      I don’t have social anxiety but I have existential anxiety. I’m happy to chat in a crowd or even on stage etc but the panic of thinking about suffering and death. Ugh! Crippling.

  21. Mouse says...

    Julia, your description of cooking in the last paragraph really resonates. For me it’s NPR, spouse in armchair reading, glass of wine while preparing, cats running in and out. I think part of the reason it calms anxious people like us is that cooking is the same kind of flow that making art is. You’re focussed and relaxed at the same time, in the groove……
    Gotta go make dinner now! :)

  22. Sylvia says...

    Wow. I love this so much! As someone with social anxiety and who loves cooking, I think you just articulated something that I’ve always felt but never realized <3

  23. Karyn says...

    “when I moved into my freshman dorm, I brought a pot and a toolbox filled with basic kitchen tools so it would be easy to take them in and out of the communal kitchen” gahh, love this and Julia Turshen’s work so much! Thanks so much for the essay!

  24. Lucy says...

    Julia! I have your Small Victories cookbook, and the food in there has been easy and delicious. Makes us not miss going out to eat so much. The easy lasagna is now a Christmas tradition, we make your sour cream pancakes on weekends when we want to treat ourselves, and my 8 month old son loves your curried lentils with coconut milk and roasted red pepper and pear soup. <3

    • Sarah says...

      The curried lentils with coconut milk is one of perhaps two or three dinners that my 2 and 5 year olds regularly request and actually eat!

    • Amy says...

      I just googled Julia’s recipe for curried lentils with coconut milk to try ASAP – I bought a giant bag of red lentils at Costco when I was going through a phase a while back, but I’m at the point where I need a new recipe to finish it off because I’m tired of the first couple standbys! Thanks for the rec :)

    • Lucy says...

      Amy, I love that you are excited about the lentils! We like to add old veggies from our fridge/pantry in addition to the lentils, which was one of Julia’s spin offs in her book. Cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers. But the original recipe is also so good.

  25. Terry Lambert says...

    Just purchased the book, it looks wonderful!

    • Mimi says...

      Thank you for this. It felt familiar on so many levels, and right now that kind of familiarity feels like a connection. However small, any kind of connection feels good these days. It’s a reminder that we’re all human, traversing in the same (or at least similar) boat. And that makes this time of Covid feel a little less scary/overwhelming/ lonely.
      And that question, where do you feel most yourself? Even though cooking is a great love and emotional release for me, I find I feel most myself out in nature. I needed that reminder, THAT is what is missing for me. My tired and frazzled mind and nerves desperately need it! I almost forgot.

  26. Shelley says...

    I related to this so much! When my husband joined his fraternity freshman year I was so nervous to meet everyone and be social I brought cookies or cupcakes every time. Still have the best memories of being at that house all the time!

  27. Justine says...

    I just posted an IG update this morning about how I’m turning back to cooking as a COVID anxiety coping mechanism. I’m not an outstanding cook, but there is something very soothing and grounding in focusing on the little actions required to prepare a dish. I’m particular fond of baking, but with out a steady stream of people available to eat my baking (so I don’t spend all day, every day eating cake and cookies), I’m working to expand my breakfast, lunch and dinner go-tos.

    • Kate says...

      Same! I never liked cooking but I’ve really taken to it during lockdown life. It’s a mindful activity and that’s what I enjoy about both cooking and baking – nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, it feels productive and focused, very in the moment, just creating.

    • Emie says...

      I’d love to read your IG post if you wouldn’t mind sharing your account info. Thanks.

  28. Rose says...

    JULIA TURSHEN! Major fan over here. I made my spouse your applesauce cake when we were first dating and it totally convinced her I was an amazing cook (really I was just following a great recipe).

    Thanks CoJ for including more LGBTQIA voices on the blog! Your queer readers so appreciate it. <3

  29. Ruth says...

    Julia’s whole book (and her others, for that matter) is AWESOME. You really feel like you’re hanging out with her in the kitchen, talking about life and making simple but delicious food. I highly recommend her recipes, especially to those with children, as the flavors are bold and interesting, but not complicated, and able to please everyone, even little picky eaters (at least in my house!).

  30. Corey Bullock says...

    This! I completely, 100 per cent relate to this. Thank you for this post!

  31. Katie says...

    Celebration Chicken and a Nice Lasagna are two of my absolute favorite recipes of all time. Love to hear what other favorites people have. Can’t wait for the new cookbook! Thank you for the beautiful goodness you put into the world.

  32. Amanda says...

    I really connected with this story. I love cooking for people and it gives me a way to keep my hands busy and my mind busy when I’m anxious. And a way to connect by getting people to help!

  33. Meg says...

    Ooh! Small Victories is one of my favorite and most used cookbooks. I’m thrilled to see she has a new one out. This was lovely all the way around. Thank you, Julia!

  34. JN says...

    I just made these cakes last night! They held together better than any other salmon patty recipe that I’ve tried.

  35. Jill says...

    Sometimes I wonder if I have been living under a rock. I had not heard of Small Victories and barely heard of Julia herself! Now I have ordered both Small Victories and Simply Julia.
    I simply cannot wait.
    Thank you Joanna and Julia.
    Have a beautiful day. ❤️

    • patrice says...

      I’m so excited for you! You must make the lasagna recipe from Small Victories — and if making your own pasta isn’t your jam, just get some fancy dried lasagna sheets or fresh pasta sheets if you’re lucky to live by an italian market (I, unfortunately, am not). The vegetable pot pie from Simply Julia is also out of this world!! Enjoy!!!

  36. APC says...

    My cookbook club has selected Simply Julia for our April book. I can’t wait to dig in & cook! Thank you for your vulnerability, Julia.

    • beth says...

      omg- I LOVE that you belong to a cookbook club!!!

  37. Sara says...

    Yes! Cooking for me is such a stress reliever. When so much of what we do doesn’t have a fixed beginning, middle and end, cooking helps because it has a fixed outcome (and the process can be so meditative). I love Julia Turshen’s writing – I read this article this morning which also resonated so much, and was inspired by Julia: https://www.bonappetit.com/story/redefining-healthy-eating

  38. celeste says...

    What a great recipe for Good Friday. I just Googled boneless canned salmon because I’m skeevy about the little circle bones and I’ll look for Clover Leaf brand at the store.

  39. Fiona says...

    In love with the beautiful essay and the delicious looking recipe. “I am alone but in solidarity” sits with me in such a lovely, recognizable way. I will take all the Julia I can get :)

  40. Mb says...

    Omg—speaking of party anxiety. Part of the reason I drink at parties is because I am never more aware of my hands than at a party. The only thing I can think about if I am not holding a glass as I walk around attempting to make small talk is “WHAT DO I NORMALLY DO WITH MY HANDS?!?” They feel like weird appendages that somehow disclose my awkwardness. A bag of chips would serve same function than the glass usually does.

    • A says...

      Same! But moving away from drinking, so I love the food idea!

  41. Marthe says...

    I can really relate to this! Especially about being a part of a party, but at an arm’s length ❤️

  42. HK says...

    I have loved Julia for so many years, I like to read her cookbooks before bed! I told my husband the new book is out when I read this and he bought it for me to take to the hospital. I am about to be induced with our first baby on Saturday and I needed something to read.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      ooh, exciting, HK! congratulations and will be thinking of you! xoxo

  43. Sara says...

    Gah! I love Julia Turshen, and this article makes me love her even more.

    Making these for dinner tonight!

  44. HL says...

    Love this feature! My husband and I cook out of her “Small Victories” cookbook weekly so I’m THRILLED to know that she has another book! Her recipes are so approachable, delicious and flexible. I will be buying “Simply Julia” ASAP XO

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      I agree, her recipes are the best!

  45. Lisa says...

    Whenever I get sad news from a friend, an illness, a death, a loss, a divorce, etc, and i don’t know what to do with myself, I make soup. For them, for me. I find the peeling and chopping and cleaning soothing and therapeutic. I am a huge fan of your books! Loving this new one. I’ve given Small Victories to so many of my friends. Love your personal stories that accompany each recipe. Thank you!