Rebecca May Johnson Explores Food, Feminism, and Self-Expression in 'Small Fires' | Civil Eats

Rebecca May Johnson Explores Food, Feminism, and Self-Expression in ‘Small Fires’

Food writing doesn’t have to be limited to recipes and being “pleasing all the time,” says an editor of London-based newsletter Vittles. Instead, it can liberate diverse voices and be a vehicle for artistic experimentation. 

Author Rebecca May Johnson and the cover of her new book, Small Fires.

Rebecca May Johnson’s new book, Small Fires: An Epic In The Kitchen, feels as radical as M.F.K. Fisher’s genre-defining work.

Before Fisher, American food writing was largely confined to home economists penning ad copy and columns for magazines. In the late 1930s, Fisher made food a literary project, setting a precedent for treating cooking and eating as significant subjects. The once revolutionary field grew constrained by publishing and media conventions that favor entertainment—as food writer Molly O’Neill wrote 20 years ago and Alicia Kennedy noted in her newsletter last week, arguing that the field has steered clear of encouraging sustainable eating choices. Johnson and Kennedy are part of a wave of authors stretching boundaries that emerged.

Small Fires reads like a bridge between the brain and the heart, putting caring for self and others on par with intellectual activities; every page is a critique of the hierarchies that divide these realms. Examining food, she carries us close to her thoughts, which are inherently feminist, covering philosophy, theory, poetry, psychology, and performance.

For instance, in a chapter titled “Unlovely Translations” she critiques the diminishing word lovely, a term that’s offered when she tells people she’s writing about cookery:

“When people ask about my work, an assumption hangs in the air that I am writing a lovely book of lovely recipes that will be beautifully photographed. That I will use joyful, sensual language about food and eating it in idyllic, softly lit settings. That I will be the performer of a perfectly feminine display—a Romantic-era ‘lovely maid’, perhaps, also erring towards the maternal. . . . Cookery writing is defined through women’s bodies, which are defined by a massive, crushing apparatus of myth and prejudice and norms.”

“Why am I not trying to think in the kitchen? Why am I treating it as a space separate to the library, when I’m doing so much of my thinking in the kitchen?”

We follow her as she learns to cook and experiments with styles of self-expression, in and out of the kitchen. We are drawn into her study of Niemands Frau, German poet Barbara Köhler’s response to The Odyssey; immersion in the classic text leads Johnson to wonder why literature commands such attention, yet everyday acts like cooking are unworthy of intellectual inquiry.

Johnson lives in the east of England and is an editor at Vittles, a London-based newsletter started by Jonathan Nunn during the pandemic. She, Nunn, and Sharanya Deepak, who is based in India, aspire to open up what they see as the narrow roads of food writing and cultivate new voices.

Civil Eats spoke to Johnson about the politics of her book, her hillside garden, and how food writing can liberate the voices of people from all walks of life.

Writers are told to write the book that you want to read. What was the formative itch here that you needed to scratch?

I didn’t have a model of what I wanted to write. Writing the proposal took three and a half years. I did want it to be a book that gave literary pleasure. The style and form of the writing was really important to me, influenced by people I cite in the book.

I wrote a book shaped by my experiences as a reader of literature, a researcher into literature at university, and a home cook, so the book reflects everything I’d been doing in the decade prior. It’s shaped by the different practices in which I’ve been engaged, including some experimental performances.

Can you name a book that informed Small Fires?

In 2016, I was just coming out of my Ph.D. and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next and really kind of despairing. I read Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts, and that was very exciting because I personally hadn’t read loads of nonfiction that brought philosophy into the everyday in such a playful way. She’s got [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and Roland Barthes within the first few pages and talks about her love life and the questions that preoccupy her about language and gender.

“People might need to invent a new way of writing to express what they want to say about food, and we should welcome that.”

I went to seek out more work like that and found Audre Lorde’s book Zami, which is amazing, and M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, which is quite daring and writes about queer desire, eating oysters, and all sorts of things that are quite sensual. The poetry that I did my Ph.D. on, Kohler’s Niemands Frau, is a huge influence on the book stylistically. The title in German means nobody’s wife or nobody’s woman. I spent six years living with her work, and this is so much a book shaped by that work. Although it is not poetry, there’s places in the book where I play with poetic style and repetition.

Small Fires feels risky, new, and necessary. It’s exciting to see that the public and media are responding so well.

I honestly had no idea how the book was going to be received. I did a women’s studies masters [degree program], but my interests have always been in gender and feminism, so I’ve been thinking with other people for a long time. But in planning this book, I said, “Why am I not trying to think in the kitchen? Why am I treating it as a space separate to the library, when I’m doing so much of my thinking in the kitchen?”

Can you talk about the responsibilities of food writing to everyone in the food chain and to our interior worlds?

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Writing about domestic space does not always have to be an actively uncritical service, like providing usable recipes and being pleasing all the time. Why not consider yourself a philosopher or an artist and prioritize the aesthetic and literary?

Literature has a world-building purpose; it creates a sense of what’s possible. There can be no limits on our ambitions about what food writing can be about because food relates to basically everything in life, from geopolitics to climate change, farming, labor rights, and all sorts of pleasure and imagination.

“I’m always thinking about labor when I write about food in public spaces. I’m trying to think about what hierarchies exist.”

I was reminded a few months ago by a colleague about the speculative function of writing.  [In Small Fires,] I’m thinking about the recipe as a speculative text about something that has not yet happened, and he and I were talking about Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit, which she self-published in the ‘60s and is full of texts that resemble recipes called “event scores.” Some scores give instructions for things that you can imagine, and others are actual recipes. That was an important reminder of the power of writing to suggest worlds, politics, or that which has not yet happened.

There’s space for literary pleasure and artistic experimentation in food writing, as there is in any other kind of literature, and through that we might liberate all sorts of voices. People might find a form that’s right for them that doesn’t already exist, especially through the normative pressures of publishing and how they privilege certain types of voices. People might need to invent a new way of writing to express what they want to say about food, and we should welcome that.

How does performance art figure into your life and book?

The chapter about tomato sauce began as a sort of lecture performance at a conference held at the Royal College of Art. My references for that were artists like Carolee Schneemann and her thinking about constraint and freedom. The recipe is a form of constraint, freedom, and voice. I began writing this list and realized I could keep writing it forever and ever, all the times I’d made this tomato sauce.

Other projects are in the background of the book. Jen Calleja, a brilliant translator and writer, invited me to do a translation of a short story into a recipe. The story has nothing to do with food, and she commissioned people to do these radical translations—into a tattoo, ceramics, and all these different media. I made an installation where I made the dish that I had designed from the short story and gave it to an audience and got them to make their own translations back into language from food.

The chapter about cooking sausages is an annotation of a kind of performance in which I style myself as D. W. Winnicott’s “patient” to test his theory that recipes restrict creativity. Cooking is knowledge that comes through the body and is of the body, and so having transcriptions of physical research felt important for keeping the body in the frame of the book. I wrote the second half of the book entirely by hand in another room in the house because I got tangled up and had forgotten the body.

“We want to make space for emerging voices. Often, people are writing about food for the first time, [outside] the ‘in’ crowd of food writers.”

What are the politics of the book?

There are different politics in my book, and one that comes fairly early is the labor politics of cooking and domestic space, and that it is work even if unpaid. My structural understanding of cooking as performance and social reproduction along Marxist lines is present in the book, and I’m always kind of witnessing it at work. Having a critical understanding of what’s going on in any space and avoiding the idealization of cooking and domestic space is important for me in the book.

I’m always thinking about labor when I write about food in public spaces. I’m trying to think about what hierarchies exist. Positioning capitalism in the domestic space is often not given adequate intellectual attention in the mainstream, in institutions such as universities, and certainly not in the U.K. There are more food studies [programs] in the U.S. But making the case for it having attention, critical thinking, and imagination lavished on it is a political intention of the book, an underlying goal.

But I’m not attempting to speak for everyone. I didn’t want to be making claims to speak from everyone’s position. We will need everyone to write their book about the environment, labor conditions, whatever they want to write. I hope as a writer I’m holding open the door.

Is that what’s happening at Vittles?

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We want to make space for many points of view, experiences, and voices, especially those who are excluded from mainstream media outlets, in the U.K. in particular. We’re always asking, “Is this the best person to tell this story?” and looking to see if there’s a hierarchy within a piece, beyond the position of the writer.

We want to make space for emerging voices. Often, people are writing about food for the first time, [outside] the “in” crowd of food writers. We’re always thinking: what are the political structures, what are the economic structures in the focus of a piece? In the editing process, we try to work with writers to bring out their voice rather than impose our voice on them as a publication. We don’t want to erase the breadth of different voices, and we think about that very carefully in our editorial meetings.

At the moment, we’re doing a cooking from life column, inviting people who are not food writers to write about their domestic lives from a range of backgrounds and locations. There’re other parts to Vittles—a restaurant section and the hater column, kind of cultural critique that’s slightly provocative.

Would you like to tell readers about your garden?

My allotment is on the side of a hill, and it’s very windy, overlooking the river, so it gets the blast of wind off the water. Every year I see what will grow. I just had a massive artichoke glut. I grew these artichokes from seed, and they absolutely love the climate and gave about 30 artichokes per plant. I took some to a party recently and gave them out to anyone who could take them.

One of the loveliest things the last few years I’ve been growing is cicoria, a bitter Italian green. The slugs and snails are not interested in it, and neither are the butterflies. I love to eat it, and then it goes to seed or to flower in the most beautiful way. It turns out these huge spires with these pale electric blue flowers; it’s absolutely stunning and it’s perennial. I’ll cut it down to the ground when it’s finished flowering, put a bit of mulch around it, and it’ll come back next year.

What books are you excited about this fall?

There are two books I would recommend. First: Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe—a masterpiece of nonfiction about Black life and white supremacy that is formally experimental. The book works with memoir and historical sources to tell a personal and expansive story that is moving, deeply troubling, and sharpens the critical faculties. Second: Look at the Lights, My Love by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer, which is a nonfiction book about Ernaux’s visits to the supermarket over a few months, which gets under the skin of contemporary capitalism and French society through close readings of everyday life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This story has been updated to correct where Johnson lives and the name of her translator friend.

Amy Halloran lives with her family in upstate New York. She teaches food justice, writing, and cooking classes, and runs a community meals program. She works with the Artisan Grain Collaborative and Northeast Grainshed Alliance. Read more >

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