Review by Sam Schmidt
One joy of this unusual book by Rebecca May Johnson is the challenge of deciding what kind of writing it is.
Not entirely philosophy, not quite social or literary criticism, not completely memoir, not fully poetry—even while it is all these things.
She calls it a “hot red epic.” Deep down, in its bones, it is a poem.
The book obsesses over a recipe, a deceptively simple tomato sauce, that the author makes “a thousand times,” with countless variations. A stay against hunger, a gesture toward pleasure. Like Scheherazade with knife skills.
Why is a recipe dismissed compared to other types of writing? As Johnson puts it,
…I realize that when I cook, I am also researching the relationship between the body
and language, between self and other; I am learning how to think against a rationalist
and patriarchal history of knowledge.
This may feel like special pleading, but one slowly realizes that, for Johnson, the recipe stands in for many forms of representation that transform themselves into a performance or a skill and back into a text again. As Johnson puts it, “Language is only a holding pattern for the recipe—not its origin, nor its terminus.” One can imagine scripts, musical notation, even translations and adaptations, falling into this category.
The essential point is that something is risked: one’s own body is put on the line. We are back in the old argument between the supposed ‘master’ text that must be defended by gatekeepers and acolytes, and the uncontrollable profusion of versions and adaptations that have something riding on them.
In a work ostensibly about sauce, Johnson questions the way in which our knowledge is gendered. The way “male” knowledge is exalted, “female” knowledge diminished.
She makes good use of her training as a classics scholar and literary theorist, deftly citing and discussing intellectuals like Judith Butler and Theodore Adorno, poets like Audre Lorde and Rilke, resonant passages from the Odyssey, and the spaghetti-eating scene in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.
She is impatient with the pretension to mastery of academic inquiry. I’m not sure which is the best metaphor here: that academic distance and objectivity become a ruin in this book, through which a more natural, “spattered” writing appears like vegetation—like signs of a much older civilization reasserting itself? That they are the hexagonal cell out of which Johnson emerges as her truer self, a honey-drenched queen bee?
A Kierkegaard quote slid down my Meta feed recently: The most common form of despair is not being who you are. In this book, Johnson is journeying toward who she is, measuring herself against the largest-possible issues, using whatever comes to hand as a weapon or a stirring spoon. The kitchen is a space for theorizing! she cries.
Such dramatic moments where Johnson lets loose—and lets us in—on the excitement of discovery—moments I suspect her dissertation committee would have frowned on—are peppered throughout Small Fires. Similarly, her argument is often cut away, like those diagrams that show you what’s inside the ship or the space capsule—with passages of memoir that reveal the internal kitchen—full of chthonic energies and contrary impulses—dissatisfactions and ambitions—that prepares her savory thinking.
The year I begin cooking the recipe is the year I go to a famous hairdressing school
and let an experimental stylist cut off all my hair…
For the first performance of the recipe in Berlin my hair is white blonde and I have
painted the top half of my face pink, I am drunk and I play Giorgio Moroder, whose
music I have recently started listening to….
In London again I make the recipe and my hair is a short bowl cut, dyed deep burgundy red.
These memoir passages are often poignant.
When I am not in nightclubs or cooking in the apartment, I wander the city alone wearing large headphones.
Cooking is the tool I use to draw close to other people, though closeness makes me
A new love is presented like so:
For the two hundred and fortieth performance, four years after I first made the recipe, I
make it for you . . . So I make it for you once, and you love it, and then I make it for you
a hundred times.
The memoir elements of the book feel so intimate and dreamlike partly because the other characters in her drama remain nameless. Even though the details are unique to Johnson, she is the subject for whom the other is always appearing with a different face. Each beloved is the Beloved. Each you, the You.
In this way, Johnson tomato sauce is an image presented in series. Its reliability—it is always there—lets her take one adventurous risk after another like revelation harmonizing with the familiar.
Johnson’s most compelling point relates to how the labor of cooking—and by extension any labor that is framed as domestic or feminine—can be hidden, erased, naturalized—as labor—by rhetoric. In the case of cooking, Johnson cites the feminist Marxist theorist Silvia Federici who argues that “housework is not seen as work [and so not compensated with a wage] because it is considered a labor of love.” Women are trapped in their oppression by bourgeois ideology. We should notice that sometimes the cook gets tired. Sometimes, cooking is hard. Johnson remarks, “
Much writing about food is lovely and comforting, but not all of it must be, and the
feeling that it should is a symptom of the culture that underestimates the recipe.
She develops this point by describing cooking experiences that are decidedly unlovely, marked by fretting and anxiety.
One of the things I find most challenging is cooking for myself, because it means
witnessing my own needs and desires and serving them.
A brief passage is titled, “Bad News Potatoes:”
After receiving the bad news and crying for a while …. think about food.
You will initially assume you can’t eat because there’s no food in the house
and you’ll sit on the sofa forever and starve. … Then you remember that in the
cupboard are a few potatoes that have grown eyes and are starting to try to
produce more potatoes. They are perfect for your purpose….
This bit feels incredibly freeing in this era of glossy cookbooks: The endless parade of culinary joy we are pummeled with and intimidated by.
In a similar vein, Johnson describes a recent translation of Homer’s Odyssey (2017) by Emily Wilson, where a Greek word that has traditionally been translated as maid is rendered more accurately as slave.
[Wilson] is able to show how earlier translators insert nineteenth- and twentieth-century
moral drama to obscure the fact that the enslaved domestic workers are killed as part of
Odysseus’s reassertion of control over his property when he finally returns home.
It doesn’t matter so much if, as Johnson suggests, Wilson translates the word more accurately because she is a woman—I’m sure this contributes—or if the better translation is informed by a wider tendency in recent years to strip away fusty literary language—to get at the irreducible strangeness of cultures, like that of the ancient Greeks, so distant from our own.
As strong as Johnson’s arguments are in this vein, sometimes she goes a little far for me, as when she complains, “The word I encounter most often when I tell people I am writing about cookery is lovely. It makes me want to tear my hair out.” I guess you had to be there, but lovely could be the vaguely approving noise anyone makes (as an American I might say great or wonderful) to a writer’s announcement of a book project, regardless of topic, and Johnson’s excursion through T.S. Eliot and the Vicar of Wakefield to situate the word as part of the “virgin/whore fiction” doesn’t persuade me. The reader can judge for him- or herself:
‘Lovely’ defines and excludes the non-lovely and works to legitimize violence
against those who differ from the idea of an obedient, quiet, thin, clean,
happy, grateful, rich, white woman.
At times the recipe, almost a vanishing wisp of offhand directions, feels too meager for Johnson’s critical apparatus, and when she comes back round to it I utter an impatient sigh. Thinking back to the story of Scheherazade, my inner tyrant starts sharpening his axe. I remember though how, on visiting museums, I used to avidly read the descriptions of the paintings, with hardly a glance at the paintings themselves, because I was out of my depth considering the pre-articulate colors and shapes. As a text, the recipe may be similarly obdurate, with veins of gold that Johnson exploits.
I would also say that Johnson makes trouble for herself, good trouble, when it comes to discussing nineteenth and twentieth-century patriarchs of the social sciences whose work is rife with unexamined misogyny. While Freud deserves everything he gets when he ponderously observes,
It seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and
inventions in the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which
they may have invented – that of plaiting and weaving…
Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) seems more deserving of sympathy when he provokes Johnson’s ire, upholding cooking without a recipe as an example of creative play. Johnson observes, “Winnicott does not appear to write from the details of his own experience of cooking.”
She efficiently eviscerates him—it’s a mercy killing— at the beginning of a chapter called, Consider the Sausage!, but goes on for many pages driving back and forth over his corpse. In a book where Johnson fashions herself as a character—one who can’t help but occupy a position—the chapter may be read as a comedy of entirely justifiable feminine rage.
Another strand of Johnson’s book, one that is endlessly suggestive, is a meditation around the famous story of the Sirens in the Odyssey. As Johnson describes it,
When he encounters the sirens, creatures who are half-bird, half woman, Odysseus
wants to hear their song because it contains knowledge of everything that has
happened on the earth. He wants to have the Sirens’ knowledge for himself, but he
wants it without hazarding his body. As he approaches the Sirens, Odysseus ties
himself to the mast of his ship and blocks his rowers’ ears with wax, hoping to listen
and survive. He will not put his skin in the game.
One can immediately see how Johnson is subverting the story for her own purposes. Does Odysseus really want to hear the sirens to “gain knowledge” of the world? Isn’t he, at least, hazarding more than the crewmen who simply stop their ears? Because Johnson is, after all, a classics scholar, I’m sure she knows best, and I’m prepared to be schooled, but in the Fitzgerald translation (the one that happens to be on my shelf; I really want the Wilson one now), the sirens are depicted as “crying / beauty to bewitch men coasting by.” If they pretend to offer superior knowledge, it may be only a lure, part of a deadly seduction. Odysseus wants to experience the seduction without succumbing to it. The body of the man who heeds their call is not just “hazarded” but consigned to certain death.
…there are bones
of dead men rotting in a pile beside them
and flayed skins shrivel around the spot.
Possibly, in Johnson’s reading, the life that seeks to preserve itself against the sirens is a patriarchal false life that, like Giacometi’s attenuated figures, seeks to live on beyond inevitable death, the spending of oneself in desire, that the text depicts.
The monstrousness of the hybrid, the bird-woman, is a projection of the male gaze that turns the so-desired female form into a threat against its self-imagined agency. (The neighboring story in the Odyssey, where the seductive sorceress Circe turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs, feels closely related).
Nevertheless, my imagination is caught by the interpretation that Johnson critiques: that, in the interruption of desire (represented by the ropes that weave Odysseus against the mast), an esthetic space opens that is filled and formed by the Sirens’ song. As if the whole history of representation, in all its forms, in its inherent frustration and transfixion, is condensed in that one image.
Johnson remarks, “the more I think about it, the more I think Odysseus is tricking himself.” In Johnson’s theoretical narrative the scene functions like her moment of original sin. It’s hard to imagine exactly what is lost when, as she describes it, “Odysseus holds the world at arm’s length and language ‘begins to pass over into designation”—just as it’s hard to imagine paradise in the story of Genesis—because we live in that loss.
It’s hard to imagine what would be gained by the alternative, a world without aesthetic or conceptual distance, because we live within the fateful choice that Homer’s text dramatizes. Revolution would be the moment when we are able to see outside—or before—that choice. Again? For the first time?
It is the highest praise I can think of to say that, in Small Fires, Johnson knocks at the door of this mystery. Thump, thump, thump.
Sam Schmidt’s books include Suburban Myths (Beothuk Books 2012) and Dark Bird(forthcoming, Galileo Press). For more than a decade he edited and published WordHouse, a newsletter for Maryland writers, and hosted the reading series WordHouse at the Minas Gallery. His work has been published in such journals as Passager, Free State Review, and Gargoyle. He is a three-time recipient of the Maryland State Individual Artist Grant and has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from the Johns Hopkins University. His wife Virginia Crawford, also a poet, is the author of questions for water (Apprentice House Press 2021). Schmidt lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.