In ‘Small Fires,’ Rebecca May Johnson Rethinks the Boundaries of a Recipe

Must read

“I can’t make the same thing twice in the same way, even if I really try,” says writer Rebecca May Johnson in an interview with Eater. It’s a sentiment shared by many cooks, but it’s an idea that Johnson magnifies and picks apart in her experimental new book, Small Fires. Released to acclaim in the U.K. last year (its cover includes praise from Nigella Lawson, Ruby Tandoh, and Bee Wilson), Small Fires hits bookstores in the United States today.

Johnson conducts her inquiry into cooking largely through the lens of a single Marcella Hazan recipe for red sauce, and all the ways in which she has experienced, lived, and “performed” the recipe throughout a decade of her life. Nodding to her own doctoral studies of Homer’s The Odyssey, Johnson transforms her relationship to the recipe into “an epic of desire, of dancing, of experiments in embodiment and transformative encounters with other people,” she writes.

Throughout Small Fires, Johnson shows us how dynamic the relationship between a recipe and a cook really is. Each performance of a recipe is a translation, in which a cook figures out “what they want to say when cooking.” Not a strict text as we might sometimes consider them, the recipe “makes space for our refusal of it, which is also the insistence on our own appetite,” Johnson writes. With Small Fires, Johnson’s goal is to “blow up the kitchen and rebuild it to cook again, critically alert, seeking pleasure and revelation.” Eater chatted recently with Johnson about cooking, recipes, and how her groundbreaking work rethinks the boundaries of food writing.

Eater: The recipe at the center of the book is one for red sauce. I’m sure there are a lot of things you’ve cooked repeatedly — why did that specific recipe stand out?

Rebecca May Johnson: It genuinely was a moment of revelation in my life. When I first made this recipe, I was living on my own, I was early on in college. It caused a transformation in perspective and it gave me a sense of competence: an unalienating process; the thrill of being able to transform ingredients. It became the foundational grammar for all cooking that followed it, like when you can suddenly understand a language.

In what ways are recipes more radical than we might generally think?

When it gets to the point of being written down, it’s a form of knowledge that is trying to empower many people to do something. It’s not a text that is jealously guarded; you write it down because you want to spread knowledge. You want to empower many hands to come to a realization of how they can transform matter in their everyday lives and give themselves pleasure and give other people pleasure — I think that’s amazing.

It’s also kind of a collective voice: Many people have contributed, over very long periods of time, to the knowledge contained in a recipe, whether it be explicitly those processes or an understanding of every ingredient in it.

I’ve been one of those people who’s flippantly like, I hate recipes, but your book made me think about that differently. It seems like we’re simultaneously giving recipes too much authority — as you write, recipes allow you to refuse them — but we’re also not giving recipes enough credit, in the sense that intellectualizing them feels uncommon. Why do you think that dichotomy exists?

I’ve also had that feeling that the recipe is impinging on my voice or my sensitivity in the kitchen. It’s kind of the fear of our agency being overruled. But really, it’s a turning away from the underlying knowledge that we’re always engaging with the knowledge and labor of others.

The recipe is such a complex thing. Like, where is the recipe, and what is the recipe? Because the recipe isn’t always text. We now most commonly encounter recipes as texts in books, but it’s an annotation of a gestural process of the body. Even if you’re trying to follow a recipe exactly, and maybe even if you think you have no culinary skills whatsoever, the body finds ways of interjecting anyway, about at what point you stop cooking and whether you like the amount of salt or sugar.

I did a workshop with loads of translators from all over the world, and I asked them to cook the recipe. What they did wasn’t what was in the text. They had done lots of things slightly differently. They said they tried to follow the recipe, and it made them realize how much they change texts when they translate without even consciously being aware of it. It’s hard to follow a recipe exactly. The body and your feelings: There are so many minor interventions that change it.

Tell me about how you envisioned and sold Small Fires, especially because it is so experimental and form-breaking.

Harriet [Moore], my agent, brought me a few different books, and also that summer, I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I’d been in a reading depression during my PhD, and then I read that book. People talk about permission-giving texts; she’s bringing Wittgenstein into her love life. German studies, the field in which I was doing my PhD, is incredibly strict. I was like, Wow, you’re allowed to do this stuff. This long-standing practice I’d been developing and my performance and poetry — the dots began to join together.

It was hard to sell to publishers because they’re like, “What is it?” We sent the book out to loads of publishers, and they were being very cautious. But also, there were a lot of them saying, “I don’t know how to explain it to booksellers.” Publishers have a spreadsheet of different areas of the market and what hopeful sales might be, and if they can’t find your book on that spreadsheet, it’s very hard for them to buy it.

Did you have to make big changes, or was it a matter of holding out for the right publisher?

I didn’t make any changes. My editor at Pushkin loved the weirdest bits the most. I was expecting to be told off; I sent them a much weirder book than I said I was going to write.

We know that food writing can encompass so many ideas, but I think there is still a sense of limitation in the form, from what we know and from what already exists. How did you get past those limitations to write this weird food book?

There’s a psychoanalyst, poet, and nonfiction writer, Nuar Alsadir. She published a book called Animal Joy, and she wrote an essay about going to clown school. There’s a useful bit about a clown: The clown that’s overly fixated on the audience can’t clown. She talks about it in the context of writing: People who have this fantasy of being published in the New Yorker write what they think an editor at the New Yorker would like to read. This strange thing exists between them and this imagined audience, when really, you need to tap into your own freaky clown self to write something that’s truthful and authentic.

My writing practice didn’t come from a food writing professional career, so I didn’t have that hampering professionalism. It came out of me writing playful papers during my thesis, doing funny installations, and my poetry clubs. I’d had a career of journalism about fashion, which I found utterly deadening, ultimately, and very repetitious. You write for different publications in the tone they want, the style they want; there isn’t space for you being a freak.

In a book, that moment of shame of being a freak on the page — when you’re experiencing something and you’re annotating it — is very distant from the moment of publication, so I think that’s also helpful. Every time I was scared, I was like, You have to be a freaky clown.

I did get quite entangled in theory in the first half of the book, and I wrote the second half of the book by hand. I was like, I want to write a book that is about a kind of knowledge that comes through the body — why am I just sitting up here in this room looking at theory and not in the kitchen, not being in the body? Then I went and cooked the sausages and did that chapter about [psychoanalyst D.W.] Winnicott.

The thing I really like about Winnicott is his writing on play. When I was entangled in theory, I thought, I need to remember how to play. It’s how you often make the best discoveries with knowledge: turning something inside out, like playing with the recipe. I decided to accept the moment: writing like a mark-making practice, also like cooking, where I have to accept what happened as it happened.

You’re an editor at Vittles, the publication Jonathan Nunn started during the pandemic. How does that work fit into this and the type of food writing you’d like to see more of? I loved a recent mixed-media piece by Aaron Vallance about his family’s songs at Shabbat lunch, for example.

Stuff doesn’t get published with the conservative expectations of what food writing is and isn’t. It’s really cool to work somewhere where there’s latitude to push beyond those expectations and to bring my own interests as a reader to commissioning and to pay people a dignified amount of money to do that work.

Jonathan is so open to Vittles evolving, incorporating new voices, incorporating new editorial practices, incorporating new media. He isn’t one of these founders who is like, “This is my thing and it has to be like this.” Someone has a notion or an idea; we can explore it.

It’s proven that not only can you just do that stuff, but people are willing to pay for it. The subscription model is nice in that sense. Publishers always underestimate readers: “Oh, readers aren’t gonna want to read experimental nonfiction about cooking.” Readers are going to read a 3,000-word piece about, you know, Aaron’s family traditions and their songs.

How does your approach to editing relate to how you thought about your book?

We work with the writers a lot. Maybe in the second or the third edit, they’ll suddenly find, This is the focus. Sometimes we’re working with people who are writing for the first time or haven’t done professional writing; we want the writer to really find the best piece that they can within the piece. It’s also allowing people’s different styles to exist.

It’s not a deeply normative editing process. We’re not trying to iron out the voice, the difference; we’re trying to make the difference sing in its best form. When I freelanced, I learned to self-censor: This isn’t appropriate because this is too weird. With the book, I tried to totally write against that. I’d spent years just taking all this out, so I tried to allow it to stay in.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

More articles

Latest article