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.