Cream drunk from the bowl

In 2000, Nigella Lawson published How to Be a Domestic Goddess. Rebecca May Johnson, a British food writer who has been publishing short essays, diary entries and recipes for the past decade, had misgivings. For a teenager discovering feminism, Lawson’s luxe femme television persona seemed to “bind the act of cooking to a nostalgic image of the ‘Woman in the Kitchen'”. Over time Johnson changes her mind. She realizes that she was uncomfortable watching Lawson because of her “internalized misogyny” (when she learns “what this means”), and she comes to see the potential in Lawson’s “overt claim to pleasure”. Twenty years later, watching Nigella serve herself a generous portion of elderflower pudding, douse it in cream and retreat to eat it alone, she is reminded of Susan Sontag’s address to women graduates: “BE BOLD BE BOLD BE BOLD!”.

Johnson’s first book, Small Fires: An epic in the kitchen, answers that battle cry. “I want to blow up the kitchen and rebuild it to cook again, critically alert, seeking pleasure and revelation.” She pays tender, close attention to the preparation of food, granting the cook’s experience even more important than the experience of the person eating it – and in this she is revolutionary. The food may be for other people, but the process of preparing it belongs to her. Johnson now finds something admirable in Lawson’s insistence on personal pronouns (“my quick pasta, my upmarket mushy peas”), which once seemed to her “boastful, greedy, even immodest”. It is “[a] public refusal to allow her labor in the kitchen to be exploited and plundered like some kind of natural resource.” Johnson “claims her own labor”, in turn, and likewise flaunts a pride in appetite: she encourages readers to “drink cream from the bowl.” Small Fires re-evaluates the work that goes on in the kitchen and insists on cooking as a mode of critical inquiry, as a way of thinking as well as a pleasure.

The book is shot through with funny, bittersweet memoir and spliced ​​with critical analysis. Over a period of ten years in London and Berlin, Johnson tells us, she cooked tomato sauce 1,000 times, each time recording the experience – a “hot red epic”. She was given the recipe by a Neapolitan student who also taught her the “phrase-gesture vaffanculo!” (fuck you!). The recipe was Marcella Hazan’s. The only ingredients are extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, tinned peeled plum tomatoes, salt, pepper and basil, but Johnson adapts the recipe according to her mood, her budget and who she is with. She analyzes the differences between Hazan’s recipe and Ruth Rogers’s (though she hasn’t eaten at Rogers’s River Cafe restaurant “because of the expense of its menu”), going on to examine other versions and the way in which the recipe changes. These recipes are not abstractions, but living texts altered by the shifting considerations of “material circumstances”. Any attempt to stick to the recipe necessarily becomes “a document of refusals and diversions”.

Johnson disagrees with DW Winnicott, who believed that those who follow recipes do so “slavishly” and “without creativity”. She calls instead for the “radical opening of the recipe text” – the constant transformation of a recipe by new circumstances, eaters and writers. To counter Winnicott’s statement that “the recipe is a form of oppression”, she cooks sausages according to a recipe by Mrs Beeton, recording her feelings in an irreverent prose poem that made this vegetarian salivate. She proves Winnicott wrong with her body, or at least proves that his metaphor doesn’t hold. The constraint of the recipe is liberating:

Mrs Beeton’s recipe holds me and enables me to play. The sudden compulsion to tighten my apron strings so that I can feel my body more keenly. I submit to the recipe and am riveted to myself. Presence returns through an encounter.

Whenever Johnson tells somebody that she’s writing about cookery, they say “lovely”. She balks at the word. To her mind it makes her work sound “benign”, “pleasant” – an effortless feminine expression of love. (She quotes Silvia Federici, brilliantly: “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged labor.”) Where Nigella gave us voluptuous perfection, Johnson lets us see her struggling to get off the sofa, being tired, or depressed; she confesses to not knowing what to eat when she is on her own. (The amount of dancing by herself in the kitchen might otherwise risk seeming smug.) The mood of each performance of a recipe is colored by the music she is listening to: Miles Davis, John Coltrane. The voice is chatty, fierce, melancholic and lyrical in turn. Her prose is at its liveliest when she turns towards memoir. In a Berlin club, with Peaches singing “Fuck the Pain Away”, Johnson dances until her make-up runs down her face; she exits at 4 am, eats a kebab, then goes back to dance again. Defined and surrounded by emotional weather, her vignettes give us the lurching transformations that come with being young – a time accelerated visually by “experimental haircuts”.

This is an omnivorous book. Johnson moves from the feminist writer Harriet Lerner (“Get out of the kitchen!”) to Martha Rosler’s parody of Julia Child, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), to Marxist theory, to MFK Fisher, to Freud, via Penelope in the Odyssey. (Johnson’s PhD was on the German poet Barbara Köhler’s rewriting of the Odyssey, Niemands Frau.) It is a self-conscious exercise in making “big dick claims about the knowledge that is produced through this cooking” – a risky venture, but mostly it pays off. She makes some surprising and often delightful connections, in rhetorical stretches that only occasionally seem to lose their elastic. Wordplay (“tracing the sauce text”; “consider the sausage”) may amuse some more than others. There is, for example, the passage that compares Anne Carson’s discussion of Sappho’s use of “bittersweet” (to “characterize the ‘eros’ of relationships between people”) to “the strand of spaghetti that connects them [and] also marks the distance between” the dogs in Lady and the Tramp (1955).

More convincing is Johnson’s reading of Audre Lorde’s “biomythography” Zami: A new spelling of my name (1982). As Lorde recalls, during her childhood Black families were not permitted to eat in the dining car on the train; white people wouldn’t serve them in restaurants. But Lorde’s mother resists the dehumanizing effects of white supremacy by packing a picnic complete with washcloths “dampened with rosewater and glycerine for wiping sticky mouths”, preserving even the tender fuzz of peaches by wrapping them individually. Pleasure and care matter. Those who are told by society to disregard their “own body and its needs” can claim power by insisting on the body’s importance.

When Rebecca May Johnson cooks she is “also researching the relationship between the body and language, between self and other”; cooking, for her, entails “learning how to think against a rationalist and patriarchal history of knowledge”. There is a kind of knowledge that can only be produced in the kitchen, she argues. This is a book that wakes up the reader’s senses and delivers critical arguments “spattered” in oil, like the pages of a much-used recipe book, making them palatable.

Amber Medland is the author of wild pets, 2021

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