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Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires is a radical analysis of cooking

This lively, conversational book insists that following a recipe can be a creative process.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In 1970 the philosopher DW Winnicott wrote that there are two types of cooks: “the slavish one who complies” to a recipe and “gets nothing from the experience except an increase in the feeling of dependence on authority”, and the “original one” who casts books or pre-supposed methods aside and surprises themselves with what they can come up with alone. Cooking from a recipe, he asserted, is the antithesis of creativity.

Rebecca May Johnson wholeheartedly disagrees. In her first book, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, the British food writer argues that “in his haste to theorise, Winnicott mistakes the recipe text on the printed page for the act of cooking the recipe”. A recipe, she argues, “demands translation into praxis and hangs limp if left languishing in theory only”. If Winnicott had tied his apron strings, picked up a knife and tried out a Mrs Beeton recipe himself, he may like Johnson have learned that a recipe is in fact “the paradox of a constraint that liberates”.

Small Fires is a radical and lively critical analysis of what it really means to cook. Johnson writes in a bold first-person, which is in turn both conversational and poetic (there are even passages in list-like verse). She quotes often – from food writers, poets and philosophers – and writes generously, sharing poignant moments from her cooking life, and laying out sharp critiques as an invitation for readers to disagree. Wonderfully, she is fond of an exclamation mark. “The recipe is a philological nightmare!” “The other side of loveliness is death!” “Consider the sausage!”

Small Fires is released at a time when writing about food feels exciting, largely thanks to a group of UK-based writers enjoying the flexibility that internet publishing allows. Food writing doesn’t simply comprise cookbook recipes and stuffy broadsheet restaurant reviews anymore – these writers insist that it is just as much about politics, culture, language, memory, place, who gets to eat what, and who doesn’t. Leading the charge is the Substack newsletter Vittles, which was co-founded by Jonathan Nunn and as of June is co-edited by Johnson, who for a decade published recipes and essays via her website Dinner Document, now also a Substack newsletter. Meanwhile, with her books Eat Up! and Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh has challenged the formal order of traditional cookbook-writing with recipes that encourage readers to follow their emotions and their appetite when choosing what to eat and how to prepare it.

A lot of this work attempts to make writing about food more accessible. In many ways Johnson’s book resists that – it is quasi-academic, and her formidably elastic mind demands close attention from readers. Yet her marrying of food and criticism is itself freeing in a different way: we are not often told that cooking and eating are serious acts, as Johnson shows us they are. Central to the book is a critique of the historical assumption that work done in the kitchen is not deserving of academic study. “I am taught that the work of critical thinking takes place outside of the kitchen,” she writes. And this is of course highly gendered. “If food and thinking coincide, it is an image of men who have been served dinner, talking face to face over the table.”

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Johnson finds herself colliding with this gendered stereotype of what it is to write about food when, each time she tells someone she is working on a book about cookery, the word she hears back is “lovely”. This description positions her work in a “benign and pleasant linguistic frame”, and in doing so limits it. “Much writing about food is lovely and comforting, but not all of it must be, and the feeling that it should is a symptom of the culture that underestimates the recipe,” she writes. This backhanded compliment also “brings my body” – a woman’s body – “into the discussion of my writing”, Johnson realises. How cooking makes her body feel is important – a whole chapter dedicated to how she ties an apron around herself before starting in the kitchen is invigorating, but it is a sensation the author must claim and label herself.

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Johnson wrote her PhD thesis on a 2007 rewriting of The Odyssey by the German poet Barbara Köhler and uses the analogy of translating or re-working the ancient poem for new audiences to describe how a recipe for a tomato sauce may develop every time it is made. She cooks the same tomato sauce recipe a thousand times over the course of ten years, each time viewing the recipe as an invitation: “The recipe is capacious and roomy and allows those who enter to change it.” The resulting sauce may be different depending on how high the cook turns up the heat when sauteeing the garlic, whether they use fresh or canned tomatoes, whether they tear the basil leaves or keep them whole. Each attempt is a new translation, a reinterpretation of the original text, and may provide insight into the context in which the cook is preparing the recipe – their time constraints, their budget or their sheer frivolousness.

Every act in the kitchen has meaning if you want it to, Johnson tells us, an edict that ought to ignite in every cook – novice or expert – a flare of excitement. “The recipe is an epic without a hero. It is an epic that spreads like sauce.”

Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen
Rebecca May Johnson
Pushkin Press, 191pp, £14.99

[See also: How the housing crisis shaped Britain]

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