Jules Sherred didn’t do any cooking for about five years of his life, despite the fact that he loves it. In his late 30s, chronic pain and fatigue made cooking for his friends and for himself a difficult task.
“It was whatever my partner could throw in the microwave for me, what I could get in the frozen food aisle, or what I could order,” Sherred says. “It was depressing.”
But Sherred couldn’t stay away from cooking for long. An electric pressure cooker became a game changer for him in the kitchen. With it, he was able to rediscover his love for cooking – while working with his disability. He is now sharing his approach to accessible cooking in a new book called Crip Up The Kitchen: Tools, Tips and Recipes for the Disabled Cook.
Sherred, who lives in Duncan, B.C., is disabled, trans and autistic. Through his life, these intersecting identities have shaped his relationship with food and cooking. The cookbook aims to lower the barriers to great food for people who are disabled or neurodivergent.
“The kitchen is the most ableist room in the house,” Sherred says. “That’s why I want to ‘crip up the kitchen.’”
For the love of food
In Sherred’s family, food was a way to express love and care for each other, and his Doukhobor grandmother’s Borshch was the ultimate expression of that. That’s because of the hours of painstaking labour that goes into making Borshch; peeling, chopping and cooking ingredients in different ways.
“One of my best memories was my Baba humming to herself, while spending five hours making Borshch,” Sherred says.
Around the age of five or six, Sherred says he was given an Easy Bake Oven, one of the first gifts he remembers really loving. At about the same age, he was diagnosed with his first autoimmune disorder.
Cooking and disability have intersected throughout his life since then, until he eventually had to stop cooking due to his disability. At the age of 13, Sherred says he developed chronic fatigue and sleep apnea, as a result of the autoimmune disorder.
By the age of 15, he was kicked out of his home for being queer. At that time, Sherred says he was cut off from his family, including his grandparents. He eventually went into foster care but before that, was taken in by a Punjabi family.
“Punjabi food is like home food to me,” Sherred says. Just like with his grandmother, Sherred says he learned from this Punjabi family that making food for others is a way to express care.
He notes that in the Sikh community, Gurdwaras frequently mobilize in natural disasters or other situations of community need to provide food and shelter to people. According to Sherred, this type of community mobilization has been a big inspiration for him personally.
‘There was a joy missing from my life’
As Sherred moved into adulthood, he would spend hours in the kitchen cooking for others. He says doing so was an “act of love” and a way for him to say, “You’re my guest, let me take care of you.”
As he grew older, Sherred lost the ability to spend hours on meals for himself and friends due to overlapping and progressive disabilities, including a spinal cord tumor, that resulted in pain, fatigue and limited mobility.
“I have to use an electric wheelchair – not all the time – but I can’t stand or walk for more than five minutes without the pain becoming overwhelming,” Sherred says.
By his early 30s, Sherred could only cook once or twice a week. At the age of 37, Sherred got married.
“That was one of the last times that I cooked for people,” he says. Sherred’s condition had progressed to the point where the chronic pain and fatigue did not allow him to cook for his friends or even himself.
According to Sherred, when someone cooks for you, “they’re telling you, ‘I love you.” That was something he could no longer do at that point in his life.
“There was a joy missing from my life,” Sherred says. “I hated food, I hated eating, meal times were a chore.”
The game changer
Things began to change for Sherred when he discovered the Instant Pot, a popular brand of electric pressure cooker. He says he had a bit of an “a-ha” moment watching a YouTube video of a disabled cookbook author, who had rheumatoid arthritis, using the kitchen appliance.
“It was like a eureka moment – like when people say the sky opens up and angels sing,” Sherred says.
He says having an electric pressure cooker is a game changer for him in the kitchen because it doesn’t require constant monitoring. Once you throw in the ingredients and set the timer, you’re done. In conventional cooking, Sherred says there are “so many points of failure” that can add on to a pain load that may already be at its limit.
For one of his first attempts with the device, he made a butter chicken recipe – inspired by the Punjabi family he spent so much time with as a teen.
“First try, no mistakes,” Sherred says. “It was the perfect flavour.” He says he was amazed at how the food could be so flavourful, while only cooking under pressure for five minutes.
“It was like, ‘Why have I not thought of this before?’”
Sherred says having an electric pressure cooker brought the joy of cooking back into his life – it was life-changing. And he had to share it with others.
“When you’re neurodivergent, if you find that thing that you love, you have to tell everybody that you love it,” says Sherred. “I [was] telling all my friends, ‘give me your recipes that you can no longer cook and let me convert them [for the Instant Pot] for you.’”
Sherred says using the Instant Pot became a science experiment for him. It was the catalyst for his journey to making the kitchen accessible again.
Drawing on ancestral knowledge
The pressure cooker gave Sherred a way to cook without having to stand over a stove for extended periods of time. He then had to tackle his next hurdle – prep.
As with the pressure cooker, Sherred began experimenting with different ways to make the pre-cooking prep more accessible so that he could spend more time in the kitchen with less pain.
He experimented with different counter heights and chairs, different kitchen tools, and prepping at the kitchen table instead of the counter. Like so much of his cooking journey, it came back to his Doukhobor grandparents.
“All of a sudden I got a memory of my Baba. She would sit at the kitchen table and she would spend an hour and a half to prep the vegetables at the kitchen table,” Sherred says. “Why haven’t I been doing this all the time? The answer is with our ancestors.”
In more ways than one, his grandmother’s Borshch was his guiding light back to cooking. It was one of the first recipes that he tried to make with his new kitchen setup.
“When that day happened, I cried,” Sherred says. “I was like ‘oh my god, I haven’t had this since I was 12 years old.”
He adds, “It had been a long time since I’d been cut off from that part of my culture.”
‘Crip up the kitchen’
In his cookbook, Sherred shares his experiences and his long journey to make the kitchen a more accessible place for himself.
The book’s provocative title is about “taking back power,” Sherred says, and is a way for persons with disabilities to demand their space in the kitchen, both literally and figuratively. It’s also a nod to other movements demanding visibility for persons with disabilities, like “Crip The Vote,” and “Cripping The Arts.”
He adds that a part of this movement is to disrupt the mainstream viewpoint that disabilities are things that people need to “overcome.”
“They’re part of us. These are our limitations,” Sherred says. “What can we do safely within those boundaries?”
The entire book is written with this strategy in mind – that disability is a part of someone’s life, rather than something to overcome. The book consists of many of the tools and strategies that Sherred developed for himself in the kitchen. This includes specific techniques like pressure jarring, as well as tips like how to meal plan when you have a disability.
Making cookbooks accessible
Writing a cookbook for people with disabilities not only meant incorporating the relevant recipes and techniques – but also rethinking how cookbooks themselves are written. Sherred says the formula for writing cookbooks hasn’t changed since the 1950s and 1960s, but his publisher allowed him to “rewrite how cookbooks are written” to focus on accessibility, deviating from the publisher’s existing style guide.
The book includes a full equipment list before every recipe to make it more accessible. Sherred also used something called Spoon Theory when writing the book.
Spoon Theory is a method that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses use to conceptualize the limited amount of energy they may have to accomplish day-to-day tasks.
According to Sherred, most non-disabled people have “[many] cups of energy in a day” that they can spend on tasks. Whereas many people with disabilities have only a few precious spoons of energy to spend – and it can vary day-by-day.
“We have to be very choosy about how we spend our time,” Sherred says.
Sherred’s meal-planning strategies, and his recipes, revolve around properly managing the number of spoons one is working with. That means including things like meal prep and big batch cooking when you have more spoons of energy, so that you’re prepared when you have fewer. Recipes in the book are listed in order from least effort to “all your spoons.”
Intersecting identities with food
In the book, the Borshch recipe is one of the last ones listed, in the ‘All Your ‘Spoons’ section.
“The Doukhobor Borshch recipe is really the cornerstone of the cookbook,” Sherred says, emphasizing that the book takes an intersectional approach to disability. He wants to highlight that disabled peoples have multiple intersecting identities – that’s why the book goes into detail about the culture and history related to foods.
Sherred believes that food, particularly food from one’s own culture, really feeds the soul, and that disabled people from all backgrounds should have access to their own foods.
For Sherred, that food is Borshch. It’s a time-consuming, labour-intensive and complex dish to make, but it was important to him to figure out how to make it accessible.
“[I wanted to] wrap myself in this warm blanket that played a foundational role in who I am. Not only to make it accessible to people with disabilities, especially Doukhobor people, but also to help preserve such an important cultural dish,” Sherred says.
Sherred says that it brought him incredible joy to have those foods again that he’d been cut off from because of disability. The cookbook seeks not only to share recipes, but to serve as a guidebook for anyone who wants to find a more accessible way to prepare a meaningful dish.
“I’m hoping to give that back,” Sherred says. “Give people those tools so they can celebrate themselves fully.”