Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson: Much spattering in the kitchen

Cover image for Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson Almost everything I review on here that’s not fiction is about travel, food or books which tells you something, I guess. Journalist and essayist Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires is about cooking and the kitchen – very appropriate given that I’ve recently undergone the upheaval of having our kitchen completely renovated after thirty years – but it’s very much more than that.

I am writing an epic in which I cook the same recipe a thousand times. I will make big dick claims about the knowledge that is produced through this cooking. I am writing against the tendency for people to diminish cooking as almost the opposite of thought.

Johnson begins by telling us she wants to look at cooking and, in particular, the recipe in a different way, a revolutionary way of thinking about the everyday work in the kitchen if you will. She goes on to talk about the way in which tying her apron strings is both a constraint and a liberation. It’s an act that makes her feel both comfortable and present. Throughout her ten-year cooking life she’s repeated ‘the recipe’ after being introduced to Italian food by a Neapolitan fellow student. She found a version online and has served it to a multitude of friends, lovers and acquaintances, sometimes sticking to the recipe, sometimes making additions, sometimes changing the method depending on who she’s cooking for and what she has available. It’s her epic, the kitchen equivalent of The Odyssey which she frequently references, and the bedrock of her cooking. Johnson ends this unusual book with the latest in at least a thousand times she’s used the recipe. No doubt there will many thousands more.

After ten years or more of experimentation I have not exhausted its possibilities; I have not found a limit for what the recipe can teach me about being in the world

Small Fires wasn’t the straightforward food memoir I was expecting although that’s my fault for not reading the blurb more attentively. It’s idiosyncratic, erudite and full of digressions as Johnson sets about rescuing cooking from a dismissive patriarchy. It’s quite angry at times but also very funny – Freud gets a bashing as does D. W. Winnicott for dismissing recipes as written for the dull. There’s a pleasing nod to Nigella Lawson and her uninhibited enjoyment of food and a delightful prose poem of a comfort recipe for Bad News Potatoes. For Johnson, the kitchen is often a place of joy, a room to dance around to music as sausages fry in the pan. Cookery books are to be spattered with oil and sauce not pristine and untouched as I often thought celebrity cookbooks would be when I sold them as a bookseller. It’s an intriguing, surprising book: a celebration of what is an everyday experience for many of us and a very personal exploration of what that experience means.

Pushkin Press: London 9781911590484 192 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

For anyone who’s as frustrated as I am at not being able to leave or receive coments on WordPress blogs, Karen at Bookertalk has written a very helpful post and has reported the problem. Who knows when it’ll be corrected, but in the meantime comments made through the Reader seem to work. I miss the daily conversations of blogging; fingers crossed we can all get back to it soon, and thanks to Karen for putting so much effort in to getting it sorted out.

29 thoughts on “Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson: Much spattering in the kitchen”

  1. This sounds quite a thought provoking read. I’m a decent enough cook, and only use recipes once. After that first time, if enjoyed, I make the dish in my own way when I repeat it, so this exhaustive look at a single dish sounds fascinating. If this comment gets through, it’s because I logged out of WP, and filled in all my details before pressing ‘post comment’ WP Happiness Engineers now have the issues logged in my name too, and another suggestion apparently is to change your WP password frequently..

    1. I tend to make my own modifications, too, unless it’s baking.

      As you can see, it did get through and thanks for the hint about changing passwords, something I suppose we should be doing as a matter of course, but we’re human!

  2. The language used to write recipes was something that came up when I was reading a historical fic, The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs which was about Eliza Acton and the revolutionary recipe book she wrote, and where (perhaps because she was already a poet) uses more lyrical language write to make them sound appealing besides the more practical changes like a list of ingredients and measurements which apparently cookbooks upto that point never had. So dull is probably no longer an applicable terms, and glad she called out the critics who thought so.

    This does indeed sound very different from the usual cooking memoir, and I kind of like the idea of her exploring how one recipe can present endless forms and possibilities.

    1. Oh that’s great – a kind blogger sent me her spare copy of the Abbs which I’ll move up my pile. It’s certainly an interesting approach to cooking. I particularly liked the tickings-off she gave Freud and Winnicott but my favourite bit was her dancing round the kitchen while the sausages sizzled.

          1. I hope it is resolved soon. Glad there’s a way around it for now. I commented twice on your review of Housebreaking to have them vanish, and then the error messages started.

    1. They do a few non-fiction titles a year – I read J. S. Margot’s Mazel Tov recently which was one of theirs – but this is quite a different sort of memoir, for sure.

  3. This sounds quite different from other food memoirs, which is no bad thing in terms of originality and differentiation. I’m going to have to google Bad News Potatoes, especially given Kaggsy’s comments above!

    1. If I’d read that blurb a little more attentively I might have passed over this one which would have been a shame. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Given my partner’s spent much of his day harvesting potatoes at the allotment plus the current state of the world, perhaps we should make some over the weekend!

  4. I love cookery books – but more for the actual recipes and pictures (and perhaps a tiny amount of cultural or personal explanation to go with it) so am not sure that a food memoir would work for me. Let’s see if this comment will work.

    1. Ah, I should have said – it’s a classic Italian tomato sauce. There’s no mystery about it in the book but she always refer to it as ‘the recipe’ which has been a constant in her adult life. Mine, too!

        1. Ah, unlike Johnson’s mine’s in my head but like hers mine varies according to what’s to hand; might be canned tomatoes or sweet, fresh cherry ones in the summer but always includes basil, garlic and good olive oil.

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