In 1970, the philosopher DW Winnicott wrote that there are two types of cooks: “that slave who conforms” to a recipe and “gets nothing from the experience but an increased sense of dependence on authority” and the “original”. who puts aside books or preconceived methods and is surprised at what he can achieve on his own. 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 theorize, Winnicott mistakes the text of the recipe on the printed page for the act of cooking the recipe.” A prescription, she argues, “requires translation into practice and remains weak if left weak only in theory.” If Winnicott had tied up his apron strings, picked up a knife, and tried a recipe of Mrs. Beeton’s for himself, he might have liked Johnson to have learned that a recipe is actually “the paradox of a limitation that frees”.
Small Fires is a radical and lively critique of what it really means to cook. Johnson writes in bold first person, which is by turns both conversational and poetic (there are even passages in list-like verse). She quotes frequently—from food writers, poets, and philosophers—and writes lavishly, sharing poignant moments from her cooking life and offering sharp critiques as an invitation to readers to disagree. Surprisingly, she is loved for an exclamation point. “The recipe is a philological nightmare!” “The other side of beauty is death!” “Mind the sausage!”
Small Fires is published at a time when writing about food feels exciting, largely thanks to a group of UK-based writers who enjoy the flexibility that online publishing allows. Food writing no longer simply involves cookbook recipes and broadsheet restaurant reviews—these writers insist it’s as much about politics, culture, language, memory, place, who can eat what and who can’t. At the top of the charge is the Substack newsletter Vittles, which was co-founded by Jonathan Nunn and since June has been co-edited by Johnson, who for a decade published recipes and essays through her website Dinner Document, now also a Substack newsletter. Meanwhile with her books Eat! AND Cook as you areRuby Tandoh has challenged the formal order of traditional cookbook writing with recipes that encourage readers to follow their emotions and appetites when choosing what to eat and how to prepare it.
Much of this work tries to make food writing more accessible. In many ways, Johnson’s book resists this – it’s almost academic and her mind remarkably malleable requires close attention from readers. However, her marriage of food and criticism is itself liberating in another way: we are not often told that cooking and eating are serious acts, as Johnson shows us. At the heart of the book is a critique of the historical assumption that work done in the kitchen does not merit academic study. “I’m taught that the work of critical thinking happens outside the kitchen,” she writes. And this is certainly very gendered. “If food and thinking coincide, it is an image of men who have been served dinner, talking face to face across the table.”
Johnson finds herself bumping into this gendered stereotype of what it is to write about food when, whenever she tells someone she’s working on a cookbook, the word she hears is “beautiful.” This description positions her work in a “good and pleasant linguistic framework”. and in doing so limits it. “Much food writing is pleasant and comforting, but not all should be, and the feeling that it should be a symptom of a culture that devalues the recipe,” she writes. This offhand compliment “brings my body”—a woman’s body—”into the discussion of my writing,” Johnson realizes. It’s important how cooking makes her body feel—a whole chapter devoted to how she ties an apron around herself before starting in the kitchen is invigorating, but it’s a feeling the author has to claim and label herself.
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Johnson wrote her doctoral thesis in a 2007 rewrite Odyssey by German poet Barbara Köhler and uses the analogy of translating or reworking the ancient poem for new audiences to describe how a recipe for a tomato sauce can evolve each time it is made. She cooks the same tomato sauce recipe a thousand times over ten years, each time seeing the recipe as an invitation: “The recipe is broad and broad and allows those who come in to change it.” The resulting sauce can be different depending on how high the heat the cook sautees 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 can offer insight into the context in which the cook is preparing the recipe—their time constraints, their budget, or their sheer frivolity.
Every action in the kitchen makes sense if you want it to, Johnson tells us, a dictum that should ignite a flame of excitement in any cook – novice or expert. “The recipe is an epic without a hero. It’s an epic that spreads like a sauce.”
Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen
Rebecca May Johnson
Pushkin Press, 191pp, £14.99
[See also: How the housing crisis shaped Britain]