Julie Tanous, Modern Mom: The Food, The Good & The Ugly
When I set out to write about Julie Tanous (Julie Beth to some), I knew I wanted to focus on her transition from publicist to band manager to culinary student, highlighting her cross-country move, her foray into motherhood, and her career as a recipe tester/food blogger (with Modern Family star & fellow foodie Jesse Tyler Ferguson).
But as our photo shoot unfolded, it became clear to me: Julie is more than a woman in life transition; she is the epitome of the modern mom--fiercely dedicated to her work, her marriage, and her daughter, refusing to let anything slip through the cracks. And like so many of us, she doesn't know the rules. She's making them up along the way.
Photographed at her home in the Los Angeles, Julie gives me a lesson in modern motherhood as we make a few entertainment-worthy apps and channel southern suburbia in her backyard. Then we talk recipe testing, the harsh reality of postpartum depression, and how she fell in love with food.
Photos by Danielle Klebanow
How did you go from working in politics in D.C. to being a recipe tester in L.A.?
I moved to D.C. right out of college and worked as a receptionist at a lobbying firm right by the Capitol. I thought I wanted to do PR for politics, and I thought that was my way in. Then I went to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who’s D.C. office is mostly lobbying, bringing policy makers and filmmakers together.
I really liked it, but I didn’t like D.C. However, I discovered this underground creative scene and was going to tons of concerts. That’s how I realized I wanted to be more connected to the arts.
After 3 ½ years, I wanted to move to either New York City or Nashville, and I chose NYC. I got a job as an assistant at Universal Music Group. I was there for about two years, and then I did PR for a friend, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter.
Then I met Wilco’s publicist and was offered a job with her. It was just the two of us. I loved it, but I worked from home, which was really isolating and after a while I moved on to consulting and then went to work for Blake Zydell who repped Celebrate Brooklyn!, Jonathan Toubin, and Justin Vivian Bond.
During that time I got a piece on NY1 about The Farm on Adderley at Celebrate Brooklyn!, because they were preparing the food. As I was pitching the story, I found that I loved talking about the food most of all. You think “festival” and you think “food and music.” I’m not sure I can articulate how food and music are so closely related, but both are creative and artistic, and I liked that.
Well, I think the act of creating is the same in many capacities. You start with a blank slate, create something from inspiration, and then give it to people and you’re gratified by that.
Yes! Exactly. There is community, creation, and passion in both music and food, and people who love food, and who love to eat, are often times passionate people.
So at first I thought I wanted to do food PR. But it was my spiritual advisor, Fred, that asked me “Why do you keep saying you need to work in food PR?” and I think it was because PR was my major, and I had to do that, or else my education would have been for nothing. My parents paid for my education, so I felt this pressure to work in PR for the rest of the my life. But Fred made me realize that it was cooking that I loved.
I was so nervous; it took me an entire year to get the guts to go to culinary school. I was used to being behind the scenes, so I was uncomfortable as the creator. I don’t think culinary school is necessary for everyone who wants to work in the food industry, but it was for me. I needed to feel educated, even though I’ve certainly learned more from being in my own kitchen.
Did you know what you wanted to do with your culinary degree?
No. I went into it with an open mind, but I was 99% sure I didn’t want to be a line cook.
I thought about food writing, and I liked the idea of recipe testing and development, so during my final semester at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) I ended up in the test kitchen at Saveur for three months. I would have stayed longer but that’s when we moved to Los Angeles for Will’s job.
In L.A. I found a private chefing position through The Culinistas, did some recipe testing for Jill Donenfeld's cookbook, Better on Toast, and then I became the L.A. Director for The Culinistas. But I wasn’t in love with private chefing. I just wasn’t passionate about it.
Then, through an invite-only Facebook Group called Food Gals, I saw an opening for a recipe tester in L.A., which is what I’m doing now. I can’t say what the project is yet, but it’s a dessert cookbook for a very well-known company, which I’m very excited about. I’ve been working on that for about a year, and it’s supposed to come out at the end of 2016.
Your most recent project, however, is a culinary love affair and food blog with Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, so we met at an L.A. event hosted by Spring Street Social Society, an organization developed by Patrick Janelle and Amy Virginia Buchanan devoted to bringing "people together in unexpected spaces.”
I was there, flying solo, at the suggestion of my husband who thought I should finally get out of the house: a wicked case of postpartum depression had kept me holed up indoors for more than seven months. This was my first venture out alone and I was, in a word, terrified. I paid too much money for a ticket, I sat in traffic forever, and I took half of a Klonopin because I had so much social anxiety. I thought I was going to vomit.
[Author’s note: When Julie moved to L.A. I suggested she attend, as I’m a member of Spring Street Social Society in New York, thinking it would be a good networking opportunity for her to meet some like-minded people.]
Jesse and I sat next to each other. He introduced his husband, his friend and himself. Then I explained, in a thick Southern accent, that I was a private chef in LA--a very nervous one--who’d renamed this dinner club “Spring Street Social Anxiety.” Jesse laughed out loud, and my anxiety abruptly ceased.
We discovered that we had similar tastes when it came to food and had the same personal cultural icons: Sondheim, LA’s Magic Castle and Neil Patrick Harris, who I learned is a close friend of Jesse’s. By the time I’d finished dessert, an evening that had started out as something I’d been dreading had been the start of a really fantastic friendship.
The SSSS dinner was crucial because I hadn’t had a serendipitous moment like that since I moved from D.C. to New York when I met my husband. It was a great reminder that if you put yourself out there—even when you’re afraid—good things will happen.
I know that you were a reluctant mom; when did you decide to just go for it?
[Laughs] I didn’t. All my life, I never wanted kids. No way. Never. And then we moved to L.A. Maybe it was our lifestyle change—house, cars, more time at home, etc., but Will and I got to a point where we weren’t saying, “We want a baby so bad,” but we wondered if we would regret not having a baby. So we started trying. And this is no offense to women who go to great measures to get pregnant, but we agreed that if we had any trouble getting pregnant that we’d stop there.
I guess some women are ready to have children, but you’re never prepared. For me, I was never ready and I was never prepared.
You’ve been pretty open about your postpartum depression. Was that something you felt immediately? Or did it creep up on you?
Immediately. I’ve always had low-level depression, but postpartum depression, for me, was completely different.
I talked to my doctor before about it. I was seeing a therapist, but still no one told me what it really felt like. I knew that that there was a chance I’d feel postpartum—I knew it was common. I didn’t do much research beforehand because I didn’t want to expect it. I tried not to think about it too much.
There were a few factors that probably contributed to my depression: We were renting a house, so I never really felt at home because I knew we would be moving soon. I didn’t know many people here, which was hard. My mom was in Alabama. And Josephine came two weeks early. Even though you’re never prepared…I don’t know…I guess psychologically I thought I had two more weeks to figure it out.
My labor felt like someone had just thrown me on the fastest jet in the world and I end up in China, and all of a sudden I had to adapt. My water broke at home and everyone told me that wouldn’t happen. No one told me that when your water breaks that it’s a constant leaking. We get to the hospital and I feel nothing. I’m thinking “We’re going to be here for two days.”
We had a playlist ready, massage oil, and all this stuff our birth instructor told us to bring. I get to the hospital and, no joke, two hours later I had a baby in my arms. She came so fast that I couldn’t get an epidural.
What did you feel when they first handed Josephine to you?
I’m fortunate that I didn’t have any tearing, so all the pain just went away as soon as she was out, so there was this sense of “Oomph.” What’s crazy is that this baby has been next to your heart for almost nine months and that’s all they hear, so our doctor told us that it was imperative that after she was born, the first thing she hear is my heartbeat. She’s screaming, of course. And then they put her on my chest and she stopped crying; it was just mind blowing.
Of course I thought she was perfect and we felt so lucky. We checked to make sure everything was there. And then you just can’t believe it. Now I have a baby. I think it was a few hours later that I started to feel the downward spiral. I mean, we got to the hospital at 5:30 p.m. and I had a baby by 9:00 p.m.
The middle of the night was hardest. No matter what’s going on in your life, I think 3 or 4 a.m. are the really hard hours.
Have you ever heard the Ted Talk about 4 a.m.?
No, but I think those are the worst hours to be awake. It’s so depressing. That first night we’re both terrified. We don’t know what we’re doing. Will can solve any problem, but this was just next-level shit.
How long did your depression last?
Sometimes even now, at 18 months, I feel it creeping back, but I would say it lasted for a solid 9 months. It wasn’t until she started eating solid foods that my depression started to subside. For the first time we were sharing in something that I loved. Breastfeeding was so awful for me; my milk wasn’t really coming in, and it was so painful.
You mentioned before that it’s really important to talk about postpartum depression.
Yeah. I attended a Mommy and Me group and I did not want to go. I was thinking “I don’t want to be here, none of these women understand what I’m feeling.” And then when time came for me to speak, I just burst into tears. I told them about my struggle with depression and probably five other women opened up about theirs. Every mom in that group had a struggle, whether it was in her marriage or with her body image or with her children, and it felt really important to talk about these things.
How did you manage the depression?
After the Mommy and Me session ended there are a few of us that remain close. They’ve saved my life. I also managed it with meds. Stopping breastfeeding helped me.
I couldn’t explain it to Will. The first day he went go back to work after Josephine was born, I was sobbing because I just didn’t want him to leave. I was paying extra for our doula to come be with me because I felt like I couldn’t be alone with this baby. I made excuses to do things around the house so that I didn’t have to be with Josephine.
I was in the glider feeding her, crying, and Will looks at Josephine and taps my shoulder and says, “Just try to be happy. Look how lucky we are to have this beautiful, healthy baby.” And I lost it. He didn’t mean to upset me, of course, but he’ll never understand the feeling of postpartum depression. He’s a fixer, it’s what he does. But even friends of mine, some that wanted to be mothers since they were like, 10, would call and say, “Aren’t you just so in love?” and I thought, “No.”
I just want to tell women that it’s OK if you’re not immediately in love with your baby. There is this expectation in society that, because you’ve had this baby in your belly for nine months, because you made it, you’re supposed to be happy and grateful. And sure, part of me is. But on the flip side, dealing with your hormones and the weight gain and the adjustments to life, what that does to your mind…it f@cks you up. It’s hard.
Speaking of the flip side, what do you love about being a mom? Especially now that Josephine is older.
The other night I asked her if she would come give me a hug and a kiss, and watching her come to me, watching her learn and understand information is the greatest feeling I have ever felt. Ever. No one will ever love Josephine like I do. And no one will ever love me the same way Josephine loves me. Until she’s 13 and she hates my guts.
Yeah. This may sound morbid, but there's something my mother said after my grandmother died that's always stuck with me: “It’s hard to lose the person who loved you first.” And I just thought that was so beautifully and painfully accurate.
Yeah. I mean Josephine could be a murderer and I would still love her.
I also love the sense of pride that comes with being a mother. I’ve never felt so proud. Even as much as I struggled in the beginning, and for all the times I feel like a bad mom, I also feel like a badass. All throughout my pregnancy I thought that I couldn’t give birth without an epidural. And when you’re in the moment, you don't have a choice. Absolutely none. I thought I couldn’t do it and I did.
I also love being a parent with Will. There isn’t too much we disagree on--little things, but for the most part, we’re learning it together. It creates a really amazing bond.
How has being a mom has changed you as a woman, or a person?
It’s definitely given me more confidence and I think it’s also made me a bit tougher. I’m better at standing my ground. I’m a very indecisive person, and when you’re a mother, there’s just no time for that. I also feel like I take less shit from people.
What’s your key to balancing work and motherhood, your marriage and friendships?
I learned this from my therapist, but you have to make time to do things for yourself because it makes you a better partner and mom. Not things you have to do, but things you want to do, whether that’s exercising, getting your hair done, meditating, reading a book, whatever it is.
Also, my nanny, Laeticia. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s amazing.
What do you miss most about New York?
Ugh. The energy. The people. A friend of mine put it perfectly: When you miss New York, you just want to go into a Starbucks and bump somebody. It sounds crazy because when you’re in New York for too long, that’s what you hate about it, but when you’re in L.A., you miss the grit. There is definitely culture in L.A., but the energy in New York is so good.
Well, L.A. is too spread out to have that kind of energy.
Right. And it’s so laid back. But I love having a house in L.A. I love the weather. I like living close to the beach. I also love that L.A. is a city that people like to visit. I get to see a lot of my New York friends because they are always out here. I love having guests and I’m happy that Josephine gets to meet so many of our friends. Also, my parents love visiting us out here. Even though it's further, they prefer it over New York.
How has your sense of style changed since you moved out west?
I mean, people joke about it, but I find myself spending my entire day in yoga pants. Even if I don’t work out.
And that’s not something you would have done in New York?
NO. I’ve been in L.A. three years now, and I feel like I’m just now finding my style. I love the mid-century modern look and you see a lot of that out here. I didn’t feel like I had “style” in New York.
What’s your style philosophy?
Comfort is key. Especially when you’re a new mom. I like feminine styles with a masculine edge.
What are some of your favorite wardrobe pieces?
My white Self Portrait dress (featured). My Madewell boyfriend jeans. I love that you can wear them with a slip-on flat or a heel. My pink loafers from Banana Republic and my silver Vince slip-ons. I also love a vintage floral print blouse. Bohemian is not my thing, though for the first time I’m loving my bangs. Oh, and my overalls.
Re. beauty: I see you have a ton of Chantecaille.
Yeah, I think I got a sample at Space NK and fell in love with it. I have sensitive skin and I’m also very sensitive to fragrance, and I just love the scent and the feel of their products. After becoming a mom I'm very aware of what I'm putting on my skin, so I love products that are paraben free or natural. If I’m going out, I use the Chantecaille day cream and Hourglass concealer on any red spots. Oh, and blush. Always blush.
For Julie's Spicy Deviled Egg recipe, click here.