A Single Dish a Thousand Times: On Rebecca May Johnson's “Small Fires”

June 20, 2023   •   By Siobhan Phillips

Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen

Rebecca May Johnson

WE’RE DROWNING IN recipes, but we don’t always know how to think about them. Sometimes they’re humble how-tos, handy as a laundry tag, but sometimes they’re complex evidence, messy as an artifact. Personal confessions. Creative expressions. Marketing copy. Recipes can be written, spoken, viewed; they can be textual, oral—instinctual? Sometimes we want to obey their directives; other times, we want to rebel against their control. The genre’s very profusion testifies to its use, or at least its popularity, yet creators and consumers hesitate to claim or value it. “I don’t like to be thought of as just a recipe writer,” explained Diana Henry, who writes wonderful recipes, among other wonderful things. The diffidence in her “just” is widespread. It attends periodic controversies in which someone complains about long recipe headnotes while others explain their importance. (Headnotes can be the intellectual property of their creator, for one thing; the recipe “proper” retains no copyright protection under US law.) Or the more recent round of chatter over “no-recipe” recipes. Or the more straightforward ambition, among cookbook writers, to replace recipe-following with skill deployment: chef Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2017) wants to help the reader “maste[r] the elements of good cooking” rather than apprentice themselves to instructions.

Still, the last half of Nosrat’s book contains a number of conventionally formatted step-by-step recipes. Should readers and cooks treat our reliance on them as “a personal failure,” in Laura Shapiro’s words? Maybe not if scrupulous attention to recipes becomes a self-conscious exercise, as Genevieve Ko recommends, so that we use such texts to “embrace another person’s background and culture.” Yet while laudable, this motivation seems again to disavow a recipe’s utilitarian essence. So does the commonly cited impulse to read and treat recipe collections as stories—memoirs, novels even. Plenty of books interweave food directions with a fictional or nonfictional record, certainly. Plenty invite such interweaving. But this can’t be the only way to take recipes seriously. In an essay about the stakes of culinary writing, Delores B. Phillips wonders whether, in the rush to narrativize cookbooks, we assume too easily that a proper appreciation requires narrativization. Do we need cooking stories? When it comes to recipes, it seems, many of us read Playboy for the articles. So, what are we denying, overcoming, or ignoring when we do?

My question, I recognize, is larded with false dichotomies and straw cooks: I know that people can use recipes as directions and other-than-directions, both. Someone can learn basic principles of cooking as a way to appreciate recipes rather than denigrate them. And a cook might understand a recipe thoroughly enough to kick away the ladder of its teaching. Henry and Nosrat and Ko—among the best of current recipe developers and writers, whose contemporary work expands and refines the field—understand these dynamics much more thoroughly than I. Perhaps even more important, as Jaya Saxena and Marian Bull have recently explained, a diagnosis of recipe ambivalence can be too quick to compost a mess of relevant detail about what cooking instruction means in different cultures and contexts. But that’s part of my point. I want more attention to the recipe in its own right, as its own genre.

Genre criticism of the recipe could seem aggrandizing, or just needless. Yet attention to form is a feminist task—maybe the feminist task, as Virginia Jackson suggests in an appreciation of Lauren Berlant. Genre in all its necessity, discomfort, and opportunity clarifies the patterns we repeat and remake and resist in our day-to-day administration of identity. Genre links the given and the possible, the general and the individual. It manages the intersection of textual precision with lived mess, of aesthetic preservation with lived immediacy. When it comes to “recipe” in particular, genre accepts some of our most undeniable bodily demands—food, good food—as it encourages some of our elaborate psychological and cultural configurations. The recipe can hide in plain sight the work and need we’re often uncomfortable acknowledging. And the recipe can build from that work and need a glorious, shameful, enabling-and-constraining inheritance. I want to make sure I take all of the recipe seriously, but first I want to know what the recipe is.

I want, then, more books like Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen (2023), a welcoming, challenging, original meditation on recipes and their use. Johnson is the right person for the task, a feminist academic and writer with a PhD in literature and essays in various UK publications—including the wonderful Vittles, where she is now an editor. I read Johnson first, though, in the more intimate environs of her Substack newsletter, dinner document. Each unscheduled entry there chronicles her recent eating, in words and photos and sketches, without justification or obvious structure. I find this type of gustatory record utterly captivating, its offhand style belying how difficult it is to get right—“The Grub Street Diet,” though close enough to satisfy a craving sometimes, can curdle into an as-told-to performativity, whereas Johnson’s food diaries have the close-but-distant feel of a page torn from a daybook and dropped into the mail. (The tone finds its paragon in Nigel Slater’s 2010s trilogy Kitchen Diaries—books I will happily reread forever.)

The result is specific, considered. But not personal. And an intimate impersonality pervades Small Fires too, though the book differs from the newsletter—stepping even further back from daily rounds in favor of a more general analysis. Ruminative and empathetic, mixing details of experience with a wide range of reference (Judith Butler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sara Ahmed, Sigmund Freud, among others), it accumulates from mostly short sections of lucid prose an allusive weave of argument. The result bears comparison in style and sometimes philosophy to books by Maggie Nelson, Deborah Levy, Eula Biss, and Claudia Rankine, but is trained on a subject for which we expect the prose of M. F. K. Fisher. To insist on this kind of writing as food writing may be Johnson’s first challenge to the field. Small Fires isn’t memoir or cookbook or even cookbook-memoir; it’s not aiming to relate a life in food or set down its recipes. It wants to know what a recipe, any recipe, might add to a life—Johnson’s, anyone’s.

Two main propositions result: one, that cooking is thinking; two, that a recipe can be epic. The first claim remains provocative on its own, even in 2023, after various philosophical attempts to credit embodied and culinary knowledge: among the most relevant may be Lisa Heldke’s consideration of cooking as a “form of inquiry,” back in 1988, in her essay “Recipes for Theory Making” (which Johnson does not use). Despite such sallies, as Johnson rightly and succinctly explains, most of European and US culture still assumes that “the work of critical thinking takes place outside of the kitchen.” When a cook chafes at the drudgery of food prep as need or obligation, therefore, they are likely to be offered the delight of food prep as bodily pleasure, as cultural preservation, or as self-expression—not the rigor of food prep as intellectual discovery. Johnson wants to change that.

And in casting cooking as thinking, she wants also to alter our understanding of both terms: Johnson’s kitchen resists “a rationalist and patriarchal history of knowledge.” Heldke’s related resistance would overcome the divide of objectivism and relativism in order to ground a feminist ethics; Johnson in Small Fires, meanwhile, would trouble the divide of materialism and idealism in order to expand a feminist semiotics, even a feminist metaphysics. A writer and an eater, putting together meals and words, she is alert to the inherent tension of the “cook book” or “dinner document”—that is, a mismatch between physical substance and its inevitable signification. Thinking through cooking, though, means understanding better “the movement of life into language,” Johnson writes; the recipe, which is a “method for responding to things,” can “restore the body to language when they are adrift from one another.” This generic affordance seems vital for, among other things, Johnson’s sense of identity, as she ties and unties her literal and symbolic apron strings. “[F]or me at least,” she writes, “[g]ender is an embodied style,” and recipes help her live it. Also other styles, other embodiments. The mismatch of our concepts and our experiences—of the dishes we imagine and the dishes we consume—has made for a vital friction in European culture for a long time. Probably since before the authority we call Homer put together the words for wine and sea.

Which brings us to Johnson’s second proposition—about kitchen epics. This point strikes me as more novel but less successful than Johnson’s argument regarding material knowing. In a characteristically bold-modest move, Small Fires wagers the legibility of its overlooked genre through a link with the most prestigious category in the European literary tradition, even if the ambitions and itineraries of epic set it seemingly far from the kitchen industry of recipe. To make this link, Johnson draws on her expertise as a literary scholar as well as a cook (her first book examined Barbara Köhler’s revisions of the Odyssey). “The recipe is the most epic text that does not have reams of scholarship devoted to it,” she argues. Yet I found the recurring comparison slippery—is the recipe epic, or is Johnson’s writing about the recipe epic?—and sometimes unsatisfying. I wanted more specifics about what distinguishes the epic’s form, in Johnson’s account of it—and, therefore, why comparison might particularize the recipe’s form. Mine is a small quibble, though, especially because Johnson’s book is at its most exciting when she does particularize; the book’s longest section, its epic about an epic, recounts Johnson’s deployments over more than a decade of the simple written instructions for a single dish.

A single dish she has made at least a thousand times. And even so, she writes, she has still “not found a limit for what the recipe can teach me about being in the world.” Accumulation builds the argument—from “my first performance of the recipe” to “[t]he second, third, fourth time” to “the thirtieth” and “the seventieth” and “the three hundred and sixty-fifth”—and builds suspense. If I hesitate, as I write this, from naming the dish itself, my scruples only testify to Johnson’s clever handling of tension. That is, of time—the chapter clarifies that the first intrinsic preoccupation of the recipe genre is temporality. A repetitive temporality, since “again and again” scaffolds Johnson’s cooking—the recurrent rhythm demanded by what seems like a nonrecurrent block of words on a cookbook page. That block of words is at once process and goal (sometimes, especially these days, the combination signaled by the pairing of numbered steps and finished-product photo). In both guises, though, it’s a script of return; it’s a command to iterate.

Indeed, iteration is what allows a recipe’s ideal/real symbiosis, its movements from food to words to food to words and so on. The recipe does not want duplication, however; it accommodates—encourages—the difference of every recapitulation from the last and the next, as well as from what might be intended or imagined in its written instructions. “Each time I cook the recipe I produce a new translation of the text,” writes Johnson. Nor is it even clear what a perfect, faithful version would be. When she eventually seeks a true source for “the recipe”—she clipped hers from a periodical, fittingly enough—Johnson discovers another ripple of recurrences backwards across media, languages, and traditions. The recipe, as a genre, resists any arrest to this wandering provenance; “appetite is in the present tense,” as Johnson writes, and “will not defer to the authority of the original.” Anyway, the “original […] has been eaten.” Thus, a recipe remains stubbornly now through its repeated reliance on then and later—it’s on the page, in timeless surety, because it has been on a plate, at some unknown point, and will be again, at some other unknown moment. In these texts, “the past imagines the future,” as Kyla Wazana Tompkins writes in her 2013 essay “Consider the Recipe,” so that a seemingly discrete, seemingly plotless work is in fact “never […] taken as complete unto itself.”

That ever-unfinished realization invites comparison with Penelope’s weaving as much as with Odysseus’ navigation, associations Johnson explores in some suggestive passages. But what about the lover for whom Penelope (perhaps) awaits? Recipes depend on people continuing to cook and eat: reception, then, is the second essential facet of the genre uncovered in Small Fires. (As Johnson notes, “reception” nestles right in the etymology of the word “recipe.”) Iterations of Johnson’s central dish gradually realize a “you” for whom she cooks: “Your appetite changes the recipe over time,” she remembers. “I ask what else you want, and I change the recipe to make something that is new and also the same.” Or it might be more accurate to say that the recipe realizes many yous. A new-but-same vitality depends on fluctuations of taste, need, and circumstance among recipe consumers, as well as modulations of taste, need, and circumstance by consumers—on the small or not-so-small energies of risk or compromise or resistance that accompany our encounter with any food. Even a food we’ve had before.

Or a food we’ve made ourselves. The relationship of a dish and its eater accompanies the different, related relationship of a dish and its cook. Johnson writes perceptively of “an undeniable tension of authorship between the recipe text (and perhaps, if known, its author) and the cook,” though she notes that the “decision of the cook to respond to a recipe”—respond in opposition, even—can be “a kind of tribute.” She chronicles her own alterations of that printed recipe she repeatedly creates, remembering, for example, a “conversation in my head with the author […] where I explain that even though I have not measured the oil, it’s probably almost the same.” (A recent essay by Kate Lebo agrees that even “failures are translations that keep the recipe alive.”) Ultimately, Johnson sees the recipe as “a framework” that “holds” the cook, “survives […] attempts to destroy it,” “makes space for our refusal of it.”

Here Johnson draws on the psychoanalytic writing of D. W. Winnicott, which seems thrillingly pertinent. But her book also criticizes the same: one of the strongest passages in Small Fires takes apart Winnicott’s dismissal of a recipe for sausages (yes, it really is sausages) by Mrs. Beeton (yes, really Beeton). In Winnicott’s formulation, to follow orders in food prep is to succumb to creative limitation. That limitation, his choice of example shows, is inseparable from a feminine disciplining of phallic power. Yet Winnicott, in his attempt to overcome the recipe and its writer, Johnson says, “does not see that they hold him anyway, have already accommodated him and held him.” The theorist of (maternal) holding environments cannot allow for creativity within their inescapable embrace, cannot admit that “[t]here has always been a sausage recipe with which he would inevitably collaborate, and which he would inevitably repeat.” Johnson can. She gives us a play-by-play of her own Beeton-directed sausage cooking, written as an almost prose poem, as well as an analysis of Winnicott’s refusal to engage; she includes a diagram of her thoughts about both. This chapter therefore uses the page more variably than others as it makes the book’s most complex, cumulative argument. Small Fires capitalizes on the freedoms and limits of its own chosen form to show the freedoms and limits of the recipe’s.

Johnson’s deft psychoanalytic formalism, her psychoanalytically inflected formal play—deployed against psychoanalytic chauvinism and rigidity—is especially full of implications for where the ruminations of Small Fires might lead. I had the impulse, for example, to set this bit of Johnson’s text next to the chapter of Doris Witt’s 1999 book Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity called “Biscuits Are Being Beaten,” where Witt discusses Craig Claiborne’s account of the Black cook he remembers from his Mississippi childhood. Witt analyzes how a “cross-racial, homoerotic” desire allows some white male cooks and eaters to “stave off challenges to their authority by casting themselves, and allowing themselves to be cast, as disempowered.” Better understanding the recipe genre returns us to culinary history and literature with a keener sense of the structures and energies on which it draws. Repetition and reception, as the recipe’s formal essence, can clarify its imbrication in the activity and relationality of an often feminized and/or class-bound and/or racialized labor—that is, in a routine of service. Recipes can thus reinforce oppression—in the United States especially, where recipes preserved and concealed the expertise and experience of enslaved people, often women, and where recipes aimed to reassign and replace the labor of exploited workers, often women. Yet recipes can also celebrate creativity. Toni Tipton-Martin, Rafia Zafar, and Courtney Thorsson, among other scholars, clarify how Black writers and cooks used recipes for personal and cultural empowerment. Clearer and more acute attention to the recipe can further define the reparations and recognitions demanded by the history of cuisine and the continued practice of cooking.

My own hope is for more philosophical, psychoanalytic, and feminist analyses of the recipe form in relation to the work of cooking. A recent, welcome rise in attention to care and reproductive labor, to hospitality and service, as well as to fresh horrors of exploitation in the food industry—all of this might complement more varied thinking about our attitudes toward food preparation (a hobby? a burden? a privilege? a career? an art?) as they index our irresolvable ambivalences about the worth, time, purpose, art, ownership, and love of the stuff we make. Alicia Kennedy provides an example (and sets out a program for more) in an essay that insists on a capacious definition of labor in food writing; she sees this as a way out of the “trap” that is recipe development, in a culture that relies on but denigrates the recipe’s worth. True, we might never be able to value rightly what keeps us alive. But like all durable genres, recipes are repositories for the irresolvable. As Johnson shows, recipes can focus our attention productively on some unending conditions—the need to be fed, the duty to feed others, the hope that our translation from ideal to real, or from art to hunger, could be permanent and perfect rather than temporary and approximate. Since the forms of our negotiation with such premises guide our good-enough flourishing, Johnson’s book is both invitation and example. “In the cuisine,” writes Hortense J. Spillers, “contradiction comes home and is not unhappy.” As Small Fires accepts contradiction, and makes it interesting, it shows us an honest and artful rejection of inevitable unhappiness.


Siobhan Phillips is the author of Benefit (Bellevue Literary Press, 2022). She teaches at Dickinson College.