Some of us find inspiration in making a meal, others abhor it. Wherever people's opinions lie, there is space for us to consider how we nourish ourselves. Rebecca May Johnson is a culinary academic who moves between different worlds, reveling in the enterprise of nourishment. As a writer, she invites people to find pleasure in cooking by encouraging people to notice the creamy center of a crème brûlée and the subtle aroma of elderflower. Johnson understands that cooking is immersive, therapeutic, and experimental, but finds a way to consider the feminimization of the labor.
Edna Bonhomme, Silver Press Contributing Editor, spoke with Rebecca May Johnson about her latest book, Small Fires. Johnson has published essays, reviews and nonfiction with Granta, Times Literary Supplement and Daunt Books Publishing, among others, and is an editor at the food publication Vittles. She earned a PhD in Contemporary German Literature from UCL. Small Fires is her first book. Bonhomme and Johnson discussed the motivation for Small Fires, feminist inspirations, and a culinary utopia. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Edna Bonhomme: When I read Small Fires, I enjoyed how the text was a beautiful matrimony of memoir, literature, and philosophy. What inspired you to compose something that, on the one hand, is so intimate but also points to the complicated relationship people might have as feminists with domestic cooking? Why do you think it was essential to have this book published now?
Rebecca May Johnson: I guess part of the work of feminism is to begin to value, witness, and understand the labour traditionally and often performed by women. For me, committing oneself to all sorts of work was integral. As such, I began to see care work as a valuable research sphere, albeit through my philosophical work. Part of my intellectual background stems from my Master's and Ph.D. training in German studies. I was heavily inspired by Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, which provided me with a critical avenue for analysis. Another significant inspiration in my work was the late German poet Barbara Köhler. I wrote my doctoral thesis about her and her version of The Odyssey. In her lyrical experimentation, she rehabilitated the last three thousand years of culture by converting the feminine voice into a monstrous voice. I saw Köhler's work as another take on the dialectic of enlightenment. She accomplished that in her multimedia poetry book, Niemands Frau, which I analysed for my graduate studies. Köhler began the text by pointing out the political significance of weaving, as Penelope did in The Odyssey. Her poetry interprets weaving as a form of embodied thinking that opens up multiple possibilities for reflection, especially concerning new modes of knowledge. Köhler allowed the chorus of voices to speak from a non-patriarchal lens. The doctoral process was neither easy nor straightforward, and I was working on my research; as many people do, I struggled during their graduate studies. I began writing recipes to nurture myself when I wasn't progressing with my doctoral work. I found that some of my best thinking was in the kitchen. And then, that's when my academic and culinary life merged. I began to see the kitchen as a space for creative and intellectual experimentation. The scholarly work significantly influenced me, although writing the thesis somewhat defeated me for a while because it took me six years to complete. Over time, I balanced my cooking labour and my academic project.
Edna Bonhomme: Early in your book, you bring up how gender is embodied in certain forms of labour and resistance. I am considering the feminisation of domestic work and the movement to garner wages for housework. At the same time, I kept thinking about a strand of radical feminism that is anti-domestic and anti-kitchen. How do you reconcile the tension between those who might be expected to engage with certain forms of labour because of their gender and those who can opt out?
Rebecca May Johnson: It felt essential to disentangle much of that and the desire to throw out domestic work. Instead, I see this labour of care as a feminist effort. I would like to see society oriented more around care than the state we live in today. Various people are informing my theory on domestic labour and feminism more broadly. My friend, Edwina Atlee, wrote a book called Strayed Homes, which explores architectural spaces with cultural and emotional currency. The book delves into the benefits of communal areas for domestic work. But she also makes a case that we should develop a politics where care work is not hidden under a bushel. In addition to Edwina, I have looked to feminist writers like Audre Lorde, who discusses her mother's cooking in her novel Zami. Moreover, Lorde's book, Your Silence Will Not Protect You, also provides a template for care and imagination. In my work, I tried to identify the problems and oppressions of domestic work and how we don't have to want to do it all the time. The labour does not have to be essentialising, nor does it have to focus on women. My book pushes back against the guilt that people should be cooking based on gender or that we should not cook to liberate ourselves. I strove to disentangle those different threads at the beginning of the book. The evolution of the book itself is a collection of all the other practices I was engaged in for ten years. There's the cooking, the blogging, the dissertation work, and spending six years thinking about language, femininity and the body. I collaborated with the writer, translator, and poet Jen Calleja. She was a curator at the Austrian Culture Institute in London, and she asked me in 2015 to translate a short story into a recipe. So then I had to think about and theorise what a recipe is and how you have some of the semantics of a story, which led me towards poetics and a theorisation of recipes. So, that kind of invitation over the period preceding the book created many threads of thought that went into my feminist approach.
Edna Bonhomme: Speaking of recipes, in one portion of Small Fires, you suggest that recipes are a navigation method, a way for seeing or seeking what is beyond meaning. The recipe makes a space where time does not pass but accumulates as a hot red sea full of feelings, good and evil. One of the things I appreciated about the text is that it's not just the instructions provided but also the space you're in or even how your hairstyle shifts according to how you interpret a recipe. The experience of the food you make shows your dynamism. Do you think recipes emulate one's life philosophy?
Rebecca May Johnson: Whenever I try to think about the origins of what I knew about cooking, I keep returning to this source. One of the reasons it had such an impression and affected things beyond or resonated with something in my life beyond cooking itself was when I performed it. There was a transformation in perspective about objects that aren't me that's immensely empowering and decentering of me. That made me realise the sort of pessimism that had been involved in my cooking before this recipe, where I thought it was on me to keep adding things to a dish to make it taste better. Rather than having that patience and curiosity with those ingredients to understand how they could transform, I concluded that I still needed to learn. Over time, I realised that I could begin to access something deeper by following this recipe. It's a humbling experience when you make a dish that teaches you a new way of seeing an ingredient. I didn't know how it would transform me. And so the enigma and the richness of the things that are beyond me or my understanding, but that I can still have a relationship with them, and they can still bring joy to my life. And that also extends to people—understanding differences through cooking for others and waiting for people to reveal themselves to you. Not thinking that if I cook the thing that I think is best, or if I do whatever without waiting for a person to reveal themselves, it could be a richer encounter. One time, I began cooking that recipe around the same time I first read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. And so, the transformation of ingredients also coincided with how I was theorising about gender. This metamorphosis can open new ways of inhabiting the world or expressing things not articulated in language. Since childhood, I've had an irritation with essentialist ideas of gender that felt very wrong to me. So, it was refreshing to find intellectual spaces to move around. We always have a theoretical understanding of the world we're born into, whether or not we can perceive it as such.
Edna Bonhomme: When you wrote about the relationship between social movements and domestic work, you mentioned collective refusal, which some people would call a strike, especially when it comes to the withholding of one's labour. Of course, a strike is most effective when it is conscious and coordinated. To what extent do you see an active and mainstream movement of domestic workers and people who do care work in the British making demands that can bring more of a collectivist spirit to housework? Do you see vestiges of these movements flourishing and potentially winning in Britain?
Rebecca May Johnson: I don't know of any significant national movements. Nevertheless, at Vittles Magazine, I'm working with a writer doing a story on domestic worker unions for people who live in houses. I'm aware of unionisation around that labour, but it's not mainstream. There have been some successful strikes by, for example, cleaners at the University of London. Still, regarding the non-paid work in the household, I need to learn about something in the actual domestic space making significant gains across the UK. That's not to say that there isn't something brewing. However, I think feminism in Britain is a transphobic hell mess that I can't imagine overcoming the befuddled essentialising lines. While writing Small Fires, I tried not to be restrictive about gender and women's work or the parameters of femininity. Notable artists are delving into this topic. I went to a beautiful exhibition, which I write about in the book curated by Raju Rage, which is mainly about South Asian women and trans people's domestic work and modes of resistance within and outside the community. It included the artist Jasleen Kaur, who published a great book called Be Like Teflon a few years ago. It is an incredible text showing many perspectives on cooking, labour and migration. There were accounts from women who refused to make rotis in the domestic space but also enjoyed cooking it when they felt like it. There is some unionisation among domestic workers, but it has not become mainstream in this political culture.
Edna Bonhomme: You offer a significant analysis of your evolution as a writer and cook. As someone navigating through feminist literature and theory in and outside the kitchen, what is your version or vision of a culinary utopia? Suppose you were to construct one for yourself and the world, especially given how dependent we are on eating and nourishing ourselves; what would you suggest?
Rebecca May Johnson: I believe in forming a stable collective. This means moving away from the private house. In a total utopia, we would not work in the way that we do. Cooking would have a different energy because people would not squeeze it into the end of an exhausting working day. People could also have more access to land if they wanted to grow things they could eat. And that's not to say everyone has to become a farmer. Cultivation would be transformed from one form of agriculture into one more rehabilitative of the environment. The working day, as we understand it, would not exist. And there would be collective kitchens. In my brain, the option to cook a meal for yourself is there, but only some people do it. As it currently stands, cooking is tiring and requires vast work. And so probably there would be a system where people would rotate with the task. In the past, the problem with some aspects of collective government was that they had a paternalistic, homogenising vision of what food or cooking was. I prefer a model where different communities lead cooking and can shape a collective culinary experience for themselves rather than having it be imposed from the top down. Ultimately, a utopia is shared labour.