A writer who aims to ‘blow up the kitchen’

(Photos: NYTimes)
What do we not talk about when we talk about cooking? When you forward a recipe to a friend, do you mention the spatters of oil, the physicality of wielding a pan, the nagging feeling that you do not want to cook, or the clean satisfaction of tying an apron string?اضافة اعلان

These ignored conversations inspired English writer and academic Rebecca May Johnson’s first book, “Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen,” which aims to upend not only the way we cook but the way we think about cooking. The book regards recipes as sites of dynamic, creative engagement across generations — and notes that most bragging about not following a recipe are simply a defensive response to anxiety about originality. “Small Fires”, is brave enough to hurt feelings and delicious enough for no one to care.

Over a video call from her home kitchen in a coastal town in Essex, Johnson made the playful yet provocative argument that we must “blow up the kitchen”. For Johnson, it is a “childish but serious” phrase that reflects her genuine interest in dismantling repressive structures as well as finding greater pleasure in cooking.

These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

“Small Fires” includes many passages in which you do not want to cook, or you can’t cook, you’re ordering in, you’re exhausted. This feels unusual in a work about cooking, but very usual in the lives of many cooks. Tell me about your decision to write these passages.

There is a shamefulness attached to nonproductivity. It was a bit of a nervous moment thinking: “Oh, am I going to put this in the text, that I have spent three days on the sofa and I’ve done nothing? I’m eating frozen pizza.” But then I realized that this was valid. This was a valuable part of the picture of cooking as well. It wasn’t planned ahead of time, it wasn’t in my book proposal. I let reality into the book because cooking is an alive and embodied thing. As I grew more confident in writing the book, I became more confident in allowing my fatigue into the book rather than just pretending everything’s fine all the time.

There’s a pressure on people writing food books — especially women writing food books, and people of color writing food books — to perform joy, to perform ceaseless energy, and to be pleasing at all times. You’re visually pleasing, your body is visually pleasing, the food is visually pleasing, and the text is visually pleasing. There’s nothing to disturb or distress. That’s also something that holds back thinking about cooking from getting very complex.

You write about this pride among people who avoid recipes. What do you make of this posture, and the anxiety of originality?It is very understandable because there is a reverence toward the notion of the original genius in our culture. If you have to acknowledge that your work is also dependent on other people’s work, there’s a vulnerability.

Just because your work is indebted to other people’s work doesn’t mean that your contribution is not valuable. And I think that really is the case with recipes. People feel like this recipe is oppressing me, this recipe is taking away my agency. There’s a desire to be original, there’s a dislike of sharing authorship, and there’s a refusal to sort of accept the labor of others. That you’re always in dialogue with other people’s work is something that people find challenging, including in the kitchen.

Why is it so rare for cooking to be recognized as a form of intellectual engagement?There is a notion that what’s professional and serious is located outside the home. Silvia Federici, the feminist thinker, talks about how certain forms of labor, such as cooking, become framed as natural and a form of love, so they’re almost done unthinkingly. Then often we internalize those attitudes and fail to see our own thinking taking place.

Cooking itself is thinking. We do not have to sort of invent it to be complex. It is complex. We’ve been taught to not regard our own actions in that way. And so I tried, in the book, to slow down and perceive the thinking that I was doing in the kitchen.

You seem to both agree with and argue with the conception of cooking as a labor of love. Tell me how you grapple with that concept in your book.

The labor of domestic work — including cooking and cleaning — is characterized as love. The performance of love is also part of that work. There is a pressure to do it lovingly, even if you’re depressed, even if you’re exhausted, even if you are angry.

There are always forms of labor that we do not want to do. But it is the work disguised as love which is an insidious element.

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