Julia Bainbridge Talks Loneliness, Dating, Fashion & Food
I want to be Julia Bainbridge when I grow up.
Julia would laugh at that statement. She doesn’t consider herself a Full-Grown Grown-Up. In her mind, she’s still figuring it all out, but I’ll say that from the outside, it doesn’t look or feel that way at all.
With a culinary degree and a roster of covetable food journalism jobs under her belt, Julia is a wealth of knowledge. “My interests are wide and shallow instead of narrow and deep,” she told me over a glass of wine at NeueHouse in New York, likening it to a bad thing. But to me, this is just one marker that makes Julia the culturally rich social butterfly that she is.
Now she’s embarking on a new journey as host and creator of The Lonely Hour podcast.
On a chilly February afternoon in Brooklyn, photographer Amelia Tubb followed Julia and me as we explored her morning routine (Ghanaian kimono-like robe included), indulged in a rustic chicken stew, and finished with a cocktail at local Ft. Greene haunt Romans, each of us decked in obscenely imaginative coats (a fashion staple of Julia's). Get ready for a mouth-watering fashion meltdown.
How did you get into food writing?
My dad is a writer, for one. Also, in any kind of writing, even screenplays, inventive turns of phrase have always delighted me.
I got into BU to study journalism, but I switched after my first semester. I like journalism because it’s about taking a pulse and reflecting what's going on, but it seemed to me that I would learn more about being a reporter by reporting, not thinking about reporting. In retrospect, I’m sure there was absolutely value in it, but that was my feeling at the time.
So I started looking at the reading lists for various majors to see what kind of information I’d be absorbing, and I picked cultural anthropology. That’s when I took food anthropology. I loved studying people through a food lens, looking at what certain groups eat and don’t eat, what’s taboo, etc. Then my extracurricular time was all about reporting. I was an editor for the daily, student-run school newspaper, every summer I had an editorial internship, whether at magazines or newspapers, and I spent a semester abroad in Paris, during which time I worked at the Associated Press office there.
Then you set out for a culinary degree?
All my friends were taking the LSAT, applying for jobs, stressing over taking the most reasonable next step, and I decided to go to culinary school. Nobody who writes about food has a culinary degree, right? [Laughs.] I thought I’d be a unicorn because of my technical education, and that I’d mesh it with my journalism background and become M.F.K. Fisher. Little did I know that many people who write about food went to culinary school, and that this world is very competitive, but thank God I was naive enough to give it a go.
I can’t say my grandfather was particularly happy about that decision. Debutantes with good educations don’t go into blue collar jobs. But, I never had intentions of being a chef, and even if I did, the culinary world has changed so much since his time. Also, he knew I was going to do whatever I wanted to do anyway. I’m his spitfire granddaughter, and I know that is, in part, why we were so close.
Was food a big part of your past?
Yes and no. I wasn’t the kid who peered over the bubbling pot in the kitchen or asked myriad questions about why my mother chopped onions the way she did. We dined together every night as a family—my mother, father, three brothers, normally a handful of their friends, the dogs, and I—so I think the community around the table has always been a thing for me. That moment is important to me.
I feel very lucky to have grown up traveling internationally. I may have never been to Disneyland, but I first went to France when I was five. Because of this, I’ve always had an open mind about food; I was comfortable eating different things at a very young age, when my friends were on strict beige diets.
Is there a particular chef or restaurant you’re really into right now?
I know she has so much hype around her right now, but I was wow’ed by Jessica Koslow’s food at Sqirl. Some of it is rich, some of it is light, but all of it is really clean and familiar. It’s comforting in that way, but with a twist that makes it interesting.
That crispy rice thing she does is insane. How is something moist and crunchy at the same time? I don’t know, but she does it, and she does it every day, and it’s so good. Totally worth the hype. If I could pick somebody right now to take cooking lessons from, it would be her.
Last week I went to Lilia in Williamsburg, where Missy Robbins is making beautiful, light Italian food. She brought both swordfish and sunchokes back from the “no” list for me by putting them in one dish that’s just kissed with heat and served in a shallow moat of marsala sauce, and that malfadini with pink peppercorns is last-meal-on-earth good. Also, great wine list. I know less about wine than I should, but I was dining with a friend who’s a wine writer, so I feel safe saying that because she was happy with the selection, so would most people be.
What’s your approach to entertaining at home?
There are rules: No more than six people, so relatively small, and everyone knows me and one other person, but no one else. The idea is that when I’m running around in the kitchen, you have an anchor in your familiarity with someone else in the room, but you’re otherwise forced to meet new people. I love friend matchmaking. By the time we’re on the umpteenth bottle of wine, though, all rules go out the window: other friends might come by, everyone’s sitting on the floor, conversation turns a bit raunchy. I’d have it no other way.
What’s your playlist game like?
I don’t make really party playlists; I just turn to Miles Davis. I do make old-school mixes for friends on CDs. Remember those?
Several months ago you left your full-time job at the now (recently) defunct Yahoo! Food to pursue The Lonely Hour podcast, among other things. Is there a sequence of events that led you here?
The podcast was divined to me. It was all very clear: what it should be called, what the format should be, everything. I hadn’t had that kind of clarity often enough before. It was time to shift gears and open up my brain space to receive more fully fleshed project ideas like that.
Part of leaving Yahoo was also being unhappy with the climate there. And I had been toying with the idea of writing instead of editing for a while. Yes, churning out articles is part of an editor’s job, but I want to WRITE. So I went to some mentors in the industry long before I made the decision and asked, “Would this f@ck my career?” And they all said Godspeed and Go. Additionally, a couple of chefs had approached me about writing books with them, and I really wanted to do something meatier.
Can I write 3000 words? Can I create a compelling story with an arc? I don’t really know. Some people say that these things don’t hold much weight anymore, but being nominated for a [James] Beard award gave me a little confidence. After that, it was time. It’s scary because I’ve been contributing to a 401K and I’ve been going, going, going for a while, but I believe I’ve got some stuff in me and I’m going to try.
What about loneliness felt intriguing or alluring enough to make it your central theme?
I’m a single woman living in New York looking for partnership and it’s very hard to find that, and I get lonely. I think about my friends who live in other places. For example: My friend Lindsay in Baltimore. At the end of her workday, she comes to a house with the lights on because her two sons and husband are there. I come home to a dark apartment by myself. And yes, I’m painting a very sad picture here, but that’s how I see it in my darkest moments, when I’m craving partnership, because I do feel ready for it.
I am not unique in this. Of course, there are books such as Date-Onomics that deal with this topic. And I not only read about this being an epidemic in New York and elsewhere, but I’ve experienced it. I constantly go to parties and end up talking to other women who were like me: relatively attractive and successful and they present well, women whose doors should be beaten down by suitors. “Catches” as they say. And these women, like me, are all ready and willing to give, and willing to be in a partnership, and we’re looking around like, “Where are they?”
I agree. I feel very frustrated for my friends in this situation.
Right. So, whether or not I’ve figured out what is wrong with this equation, what I know is that I feel lonely about it sometimes. And I worry about the future and my timeline and all that. I think it’s the right time to be talking about this. Because while it’s a pervasive feeling, not a lot has been written about it. Yes, there are songs and poems that refer to loneliness. But what is loneliness?
With the rise of social media, two parents working, and all the things that have changed in the last few decades, a lot of people are saying that loneliness is the next public health issue. There are reports on the rates of depression rising, reports linking loneliness to health problems, but there’s not a lot of discussion trying to truly understand what that feeling is. That’s my goal with this.
Do you feel like talking about loneliness will make you feel less lonely?
That’s my hope for listeners. While I do get lonely in terms of the partnership thing, I have a lot of alone time, and some people would not be comfortable with it, but I very much crave it.
Do you have any people in mind for future guests where you think, “Yeah, that guy seems really lonely.”
No, it’s less about that. I try to be less obvious. My goal is to show that everyone feels this, so people don’t need to be the exemplar of loneliness to come on to the show. You just need to be someone who has been living and has felt loneliness in life.
And you know what? Some of the people who have come on aren’t even lonely. You might assume because of their story that they might be lonely, but they aren’t. My friend Alyssa came on the show; she decided to have a baby on her own. You might think that gets lonely, but she doesn’t feel that way--at all. So I don’t want to avoid loneliness, which is defined as the sad feeling, as much as I want to explore all aspects of aloneness.
So what’s your dating approach of choice? Are you a dating app girl?
Yeah, I am, just because I don’t know how the hell people meet each other anymore. I’m flirty. I like to play. I was in line at the grocery story the other day and this guy and I started talking, and we really hit it off. But did he say, “You know what? You’re interesting and cute and...do you wanna go for a coffee?” No, that never happens in person.
Well I wonder if that ever happens at all anymore.
Well, right. But I’m pretty sure it used to happen. That people could communicate looking at one another, engage, and state their intentions.
I agree. I think people used to have a sense of urgency in real time that they don’t have anymore.
I have many grand theories about this, but yes, technology has completely changed the game. And cultural revolutions have changed the way we think about longevity and commitment. Thank God it’s more socially acceptable to leave marriages if they’re unsatisfying, but I do think we have a tendency to give up more quickly in this era of myriad options, easy access, and waning social pressure to commit.
Do you have a type?
No. I grew up in this WASPy community but with very open-minded parents, and those open-minded parents created a VERY open-minded woman. In a way, my romantic experience has been rich because I’ve had lots of different kinds of partners—the whitebread Yale lawyer and the beautiful black trainer and the tattooed Mexican chef—but at the same time, I’m 33 now, I want partnership and don’t have it. I definitely thought I’d be settled by now; I want to have been settled by now. I sometimes wonder if I had a narrower view of what kind of man was correct for me, would I have found him already?
Well, what are some things about a partner that you value? Sense of humor? Loyalty? Kindness?
I do not like an ego.
Well, there you go. First elimination.
Ha, yeah. I still think a lot of what I’m drawn to in men is from my libido, and I think maybe that’s not a good thing. So…I’m working on that. I happen to be someone who’s very sexual and is driven by that impulse. I’m working on making more brain choices.
I support the “brain” choices, but I also wasn’t always like that. I was so boy crazy my whole life, I would find something to love about almost any man. I got tired of making the wrong decisions, so I went to therapy. I realized that if I wanted to be happy, and be with one person for the rest of my life (which I did want), I needed to fix this.
Well you seem to have found a very special one.
I did. But it was not love at first sight. It took about six months of coaxing.
Where is the guy who's gonna coax me?! I’m trying to be patient, but shit!
Well, enough about men. Who are some of your female inspirations?
My fairy godmother Christine Muhlke, who is very smart and has been able to keep a toe in things outside of food, even though she’s very much involved in food. She’s just f@cking cool. But genuinely so.
Any dream guests to have on The Lonely Hour?
There’s an episode on sobriety and I really wanted my mom to come on.
She’s been in rehab for alcoholism?
Many times. But she doesn’t want to come on the show. She considered writing something up, but I wanted to have her here and to hear her voice. She wasn’t sure if my family members would be comfortable with it, though, and I don’t think she wants to dwell.
How long has she suffered with alcoholism?
Since I can remember, really. The first time I saw her drunk, I was…five? It continued, worsened, then got better, then got really bad, and it went back and forth like that for years. It’s been a long slog.
Thankfully, she is in strong recovery today. What they say is true, you know: The addict will only get well if she truly wants to, and no one can predict when she’ll determine when she wants to—if ever. I’m lucky my mother did, because when she’s sober, she’s a delightful human being.
How has that affected you and your relationship with her?
Oh, this answer could be a book. It’s not been a typical mother-daughter relationship, but I guess, what is? For most of my teenage years, I felt like the caretaker. I was angry for a long time, about so many things. And I still am; it comes out in ways that shock me sometimes. Isn’t that strange, how your own pain can hide so deep that you think it’s gone, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, it will rise up and lash at you?
Has that had any influence on your wanting to talk about loneliness?
Maybe, maybe not. It’s certainly made me an independent person who is comfortable with being on her own. Some might say even too comfortable. But I don’t really know what I would say to that, or where to make the connections between my family experience and my interest in the topic of loneliness. Ask me in ten years.
When it comes to fashion and décor, your taste is incredible, but very unique. Please explain.
Oh thanks! There are many me’s, and I love fashion for that reason—to be a chameleon. I feel the same way about homes. I love modern stuff, but I also love really classic stuff. I would love to have a Yucatan-inspired, super-colorful, wild-patterned something, and then a Greek-inspired thing, where everything is white with flowing white curtains. I love all that. I need 10 different houses.
How would you describe your style?
All over the place. But it’s generally pretty bold and confident. I am not afraid of color or pattern, and I like throwing it all together. I’d say I’m known for being a coat person. I love a collar, something crisp. I love menswear. There is this great quote that Iris Apfel recalls in a documentary about her—she said that someone once said to her, “You’re not pretty, you’ll never be pretty, but what you have is style.”
Any favorite pieces in your wardrobe right now?
A wild, patterned Opening Ceremony coat.
I read in an interview that you find style inspiration from the streets of New York, but there are a lot of moods and aesthetics here. What really does it for you?
In the same way that I like all kinds of different things, I like the fact that in the same place, on the same island, there will be women in their Chanel suits and pearls with their face lifts, and then there are also girls with bars through their noses. New York women really let their fashion freak flags fly, God love them.
Tell me a little about your skin care and beauty routine.
I spend money on In Fiore skin care. I love a face oil. I’m all about moisturizers. I don’t even care if I look oily as long as my skin is plump with liquid. I go to CAP Beauty in the West Village to get everything. Well, except for my blue Avène Cleansing Gel, which I get at Duane Reade.
Is the red lip your signature?
Nah. Isn’t it Gwen Stefani’s? Or yours? I do love a red lip, but it’s not a signature. Currently I’m wearing one from Rihanna’s collaboration with Mac; it has a frost to it, which makes me think of that whole early 90s R&B thing. But I love all lipstick. When I was stressed at work, whereas some people would get a Snickers bar, I would go get a lipstick. I even have some from the Iman line. They were not made for me, and they may not look great on me, but they’re f@cking cool and I love them.