What don’t we talk about when we talk about cooking? When you forward a recipe to a friend, do you mention the spatters of oil, the physicality of wielding a pan, the nagging feeling that you don’t want to cook or the clean satisfaction of tying an apron string?
These ignored conversations inspired the English writer and academic Rebecca May Johnson’s first book, “Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen,” which aims to upend not only the way we cook but the way we think about cooking. The book regards recipes as sites of dynamic, creative engagement across generations — and notes that most bragging about not following a recipe is simply a defensive response to anxiety about originality. “Small Fires,” which is out on Tuesday in the United States, is brave enough to hurt feelings, and delicious enough for no one to care.
Over a video call from her home kitchen in a coastal town in Essex that’s about 80 miles northeast of London, Ms. Johnson made the playful yet provocative argument that we must “blow up the kitchen.” For Ms. Johnson, it’s a “childish but serious” phrase that reflects her genuine interest in dismantling repressive structures as well as finding greater pleasure in cooking. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
“Small Fires” includes many passages in which you don’t want to cook, or you can’t cook, you’re ordering in, you’re exhausted. This feels unusual in a work about cooking, but very usual in the lives of many cooks. Tell me about your decision to write these passages.
There’s a shamefulness attached to nonproductivity. It was a bit of a nervous moment thinking: “Oh, am I going to put this in the text, that I’ve spent three days on the sofa and I’ve done nothing? I’m eating frozen pizza.” But then I realized that this was valid. This was a valuable part of the picture of cooking as well. It wasn’t planned ahead of time, it wasn’t in my book proposal. I let reality into the book because cooking is an alive and embodied thing. As I grew more confident in writing the book, I became more confident in allowing my fatigue into the book rather than just pretending everything’s fine all the time.
There’s a pressure on people writing food books — especially women writing food books, and people of color writing food books — to perform joy, to perform ceaseless energy, and to be pleasing at all times. You’re visually pleasing, your body is visually pleasing, the food is visually pleasing, and the text is visually pleasing. There’s nothing to disturb or distress. That’s also something that holds back thinking about cooking from getting very complex.
You write about this pride among people who avoid recipes. What do you make of this posture, and the anxiety of originality?
It’s very understandable because there is a reverence toward the notion of the original genius in our culture. If you have to acknowledge that your work is also dependent on other people’s work, there’s a vulnerability. Just because your work is indebted to other people’s work doesn’t mean that your contribution is not valuable. And I think that really is the case with recipes. People feel like this recipe is oppressing me, this recipe is taking away my agency. There’s a desire to be original, there’s a dislike of sharing authorship, and there’s a refusal to sort of accept the labor of others. That you’re always in dialogue with other people’s work is something that people find challenging, including in the kitchen.
Why is it so rare for cooking to be recognized as a form of intellectual engagement?
There’s a notion that what’s professional and serious is located outside the home. Silvia Federici, the feminist thinker, talks about how certain forms of labor, such as cooking, become framed as natural and a form of love, so they’re almost done unthinkingly. Then often we internalize those attitudes and fail to see our own thinking taking place.
Cooking itself is thinking. We don’t have to sort of invent it to be complex. It is complex. We’ve been taught to not regard our own actions in that way. And so I tried, in the book, to slow down and perceive the thinking that I was doing in the kitchen.
You seem to both agree with and argue with the conception of cooking as a labor of love. Tell me how you grapple with that concept in your book.
The labor of domestic work — including cooking and cleaning — is characterized as love. The performance of love is also part of that work. There’s a pressure to do it lovingly, even if you’re depressed, even if you’re exhausted, even if you’re angry.
There are always forms of labor that we don’t want to do. But it’s the work disguised as love which is an insidious element.
You write so magnetically about cooking the same tomato sauce recipe countless times. Tell me about what you find in repetition. What makes routine not boring?
It’s always a tussle and a dialogue with a recipe. Even if you’re trying to follow it really closely, there’s still things that happen. The recipe is a text, but we can’t simply reproduce text. My favorite recipes are the ones that give me some kind of transformative insight. For the tomato sauce recipe, as I write in the book, I was living in student accommodation at the time. I was adding more and more things to the sauce, hoping that would make it taste of more. Just like, Oh, some undercooked onions and mushrooms and peppers. And it tastes of absolutely nothing. And when you add more salt and it just tastes like salty nothing. There’s actually a law of diminishing returns. I had to not be a pessimist and keep adding more things because I don’t have faith in the thing. It’s almost something you have to find out by doing it.