In 1970 the philosopher DW Winnicott wrote that there are two types of cooks: “the Slav who follows the recipe” and “gains nothing from the experience except an increased sense of dependence on authority”, and the “original one”. One who puts aside books or preconceived methods and surprises himself with what he can do alone. Cooking from a recipe, he emphasized, is the antithesis of creativity.
Rebecca May Johnson wholeheartedly disagrees. In his first book, Little Fire: An Epic in the Kitchen, a British food writer, argues that “in his haste for theory, Winnicott mistook the text of a recipe on the printed page for the act of cooking the recipe”. A prescription, she argues, “demands translation into practice and is lame if left to theory alone”. If Winnicott had tied his apron strings, picked up a knife and tried Mrs Beaton’s recipe himself, he might have been taught by Johnson that a recipe is in fact “a contradiction to the odds of being free”.
little fire It is a radical and lively critical analysis of what cooking really is. Johnson writes in bold first-person, which is both conversational and poetic (there are also passages in list-like verse). She quotes often—from food writers, poets, and philosophers—and writes liberally, sharing poignant moments from her cooking life, and offering sharp critiques that invite readers to disagree. Surprisingly, he likes exclamation marks. “The recipe is a philological nightmare!” “The other side of love is death!” “Consider the sausage!”
little fire Released at a time when writing about food felt exciting, thanks in large part to a group of UK-based writers enjoying the flexibility that internet publishing allows. Food writing doesn’t just involve cookbook recipes and laden broadsheet restaurant reviews – these writers emphasize politics, culture, language, memory, space, who eats what and who doesn’t. Leading the charge is the Substack newsletter Vittles, which was co-founded by Jonathan Nunn and until now co-edited by Johnson, who for a decade published recipes and essays through his website Dinner Document, now also a Substack newsletter. Meanwhile, his books Eat! and Cook as you likeRuby Tandoh challenges the formal order of traditional cookbook-writing with recipes that encourage readers to follow their instincts and their appetites when choosing what to eat and how to prepare it.
Much of this work attempts to make writing about food more accessible. In many ways Johnson’s book resists this – it’s semi-academic, and his remarkably elastic mind Demands the attention of the readers. Yet his marriage of food and criticism is itself liberating in a different way: we are not often told that cooking and eating are serious acts, as Johnson shows us. Central to the book is a critique of the historical assumption that work done in the kitchen is not worthy of academic study. “I was taught that critical thinking works outside the kitchen,” she writes. And it is definitely the superior gender. “If food and thinking go hand in hand, it is the image of people eating dinner face to face at the table.”
Johnson finds herself writing about food bumping into this gendered stereotype when, every time she’s working on someone’s cookbook, the word she hears is “charming.” This description places his work in a “gentle and pleasant linguistic frame”, And doing so limits it. “Writing a lot about food is lovely and comforting, but it shouldn’t be all of it, and it’s symptomatic of a culture that undervalues recipes,” she writes. This backhanded compliment also brings “my body”—a woman’s body—”into the discussion of my writing,” Johnson realized. How cooking makes her body feel is important – a whole chapter devoted to how she ties an apron around herself before starting in the kitchen is evocative, but it’s a feeling the author must claim and label herself.
Content from our partners
Johnson wrote a 2007 rewrite of his PhD thesis the odyssey By German poet Barbara Kohler and using the simile of translating or reworking an old poem for a new audience to describe how a tomato sauce recipe is made every time. 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 rich and rich and allows those who enter to change it.” Depending on how much the cook turns up the heat while cooking the garlic, whether fresh or canned tomatoes are used, whether the basil leaves are torn or whole, the resulting sauce can vary. Each attempt is a new translation, a reinterpretation of the original text, and can provide 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 has meaning if you want it, Johnson tells us, a commandment that should ignite in every cook—novice or expert—a flame of enthusiasm. “Prescription is an epic without a hero. It’s an epic that spreads like sauce.”
Little Fire: An Epic in the Kitchen
Rebecca May Johnson
Pushkin Press, 191pp, £14.99
[See also: How the housing crisis shaped Britain]