Mother Sauce

Installation view of Martha Rosler: Irrespective at the Jewish Museum, NY, November 2, 2018–March 3, 2019. Photo by Jason Mandella.

Rebecca May Johnson. Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen. Pushkin Press, 2023.

In the early 1980s, cookbook author Marcella Hazan published the recipe for a simple tomato sauce (no, not that one) made from just olive oil, tomatoes, basil, and five cloves of garlic, finely chopped. According to Hazan’s headnote in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, in which she reprinted the recipe, it is a version of a traditional Roman sauce named for the city’s carrettieri. These long-ago cart drivers brought wine and produce to the city from the surrounding hills; their pasta sauces were cheap and improvised from the “least expensive, most abundant, ingredients available to them.” Hazan’s version of the recipe instructs the cook to combine the oil, garlic, and tomatoes (fresh or tinned) in a pot and simmer them gently, “until the oil floats free from the tomato,” before seasoning with salt and adding a large bunch of fresh basil whose leaves have been torn by hand.

The recipe is a favorite of the British chef Ruth Rogers, according to a Guardian article from 2006 in which she calls it “the nicest dish there is” before offering forth a version of Hazan’s recipe that she has altered without explicitly saying so. Rogers slices the garlic and poaches it gently in the oil, then adds the tomato and cooks it, as Hazan decreed, “until the oil floats free of the tomatoes.”

Such was the recipe when Rebecca May Johnson, a London-based writer and academic, found it. In the ten-plus years since, she has cooked it over a thousand times, a process she calls, in her new book Small Fires, a “hot red epic.” She has cooked it faithfully to Rogers, faithfully to Hazan, and unfaithfully every which way: eyeballing measurements, skipping the basil when she can’t afford it, cracking in eggs, adding capers, adding rosemary, adding sausage, adding coriander, adding a soundtrack of Giorgio Moroder, whose exclusion from the original was not explicit, but whose inclusion still colors the reality of the dish. Hazan’s sauce alights Johnson’s investigation into the recipe as a literary text, as a mode of cultural transmission, as nothing less than a way of understanding the world. “The recipe is the most epic text that does not have reams of scholarship devoted to it,” she writes. “It is epic and yet it is at the scale of a hand, a spoon, a nose.” In Small Fires, Johnson gives the text the epic it deserves, looking at it every which way but prioritizing the living, breathing, hungry eye of the home cook. In turn she frees the cook from her long-held status as either luddite hobbyist or gender slave and turns her into an archivist, a performance artist, a pleasure-seeker, a worker.

In a 2013 afterword to the combined reprint of her memoirs Comfort Me with Apples and Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl reflects back on writing the latter: “When I was writing Tender at the Bone, the food memoir didn’t exist. . . . As I was trying to think about telling my story through food, it occurred to me that the recipes could function the way photographs did in other people’s books.” While MFK Fisher, Julia Child, Elizabeth David, and other 20th-century food writers had dabbled in autobiography, the 21st-century food memoir owes itself to Reichl, whose 1998 bestseller created a template and boom market for others like it. The book traces her evolution as a person through the food she cooked and ate as a child, then as a teenager, then as a young woman, each chapter’s lesson or metaphor punctuated with a recipe. From the first chapter, food is a cipher for emotion and personality; recipes refract a time, a place, a feeling. While some people may look back at a photo album to remember their own emotional history, Reichl conjures up a lifetime of meals.

The success of Reichl’s memoirs coincided with the early days of food blogs, where writers like David Lebovitz, Molly Wizenberg, and Julie Powell (of Julie and Julia fame) began defining a form that now feels exhaustingly familiar: a short personal essay, followed by a recipe. This recalibrated the modern recipe form, in which a recipe is preceded by a headnote, a chunk of text that might supplant instruction with advice (“Buy heavy-feeling yuca roots . . .”), cultural or historical context (“Homemade ginger beer is popular throughout Madagascar . . .”), or personal anecdote (“The apple pie that I remember was made from fresh homemade applesauce . . .”). Naturally, many of these bloggers landed deals for food memoirs that followed Reichl’s formula, in which their recipes became a form of narrative punctuation. While some 20th-century authors, like Edna Lewis and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Richard Olney, had infused cookbooks with memoir, the genre had never been so codified.

What I’m calling the food memoir here could more accurately be called the home cook’s memoir, a female-coded domestic document even at its most literary. The chef memoir—an aggressively male-coded foil for Reichl and her followers—followed a similar commercial trajectory. The watershed arrival of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential ushered in books like The Devil in the Kitchen from Marco Pierre White, a British chef whose fuck-you antics got the same drooling praise from young line cooks that Iggy Pop’s did from up-and-coming punks. These were artists unafraid of honesty and cocaine but they were also importantly laborers, the hidden human machinations of gustatory pleasure. Reading their books meant looking the grunts behind your sole muniere in the face: Bourdain’s great legacy was, in many ways, his exposure of labor conditions. His female counterparts were working too, but in the warm light of a home kitchen where labor deftly hides behind a carapace of joy. This imbalance of perception has also played out in journalism and literary criticism: while this magazine, for instance, has published essays on street food as a bellwether for gentrification, reports on the pandemic’s effect on restaurants, and even reviews of food-like products, it has rarely approached the home kitchen as a site of culture and labor.

The two memoir genres finally met in Gabrielle Hamilton’s great 2012 memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter, which traced her evolution as a chef and home cook, beginning with an idyllic childhood rocked by a parents’ divorce and ending at her beloved Manhattan restaurant, Prune. The book has it all: cocaine, bodega sandwiches, a husband whose Italian mother captures Hamilton’s heart: “Her food is so simple and prepared with such dispatch that it is most unnecessary to speak of recipes, and wrangling one from her is more of a poetic than a didactic encounter.” Critics lauded Hamilton’s “evocative” and “dazzling” writing, earning her a wealth of literary respect that was bolstered by an always-mentioned MFA and by her hardened, slightly butch energy.

The last decade has seen a loosening and expansion of the food memoir, and even its re-meshing with the cookbook. Recipes still regularly appear as garnish in these books, most effectively in Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, an ambitious and sprawling narrative that traces Twitty’s family’s genealogy and food traditions against the food history of the American South as defined by the transatlantic slave trade. Cookbooks like Eric Kim’s Korean-American and Reem Assil’s Arabiyya have taken up the mantle of Edna Lewis and woven the personal essay back into the cookbook, often through a diasporic lens. Even as the form stretches and evolves, it still holds onto a crucial tenet of Reichl’s work—the idea of food as emotional scaffolding—as well as some of its cliches. A new dish offers a personal revelation; the idea of home can be as easily baked into a pie as cast into the compost bin. In a cook’s coming-of-age story, growth is mapped through dishes and recipes, each a rung on the ladder of development.

Johnson has inverted this form by writing a memoir of a recipe, rather than a “memoir with recipes.” If Reichl’s development as a person can be traced from her aunt’s potato salad to her first taste of foie gras, Johnson’s development flourishes under a narrower lens—a single red sauce.

The book emerged while Johnson was working on a PhD dissertation on German poet Barbara Köhler’s rewriting of the Odyssey, a process that led her to understand cooking as a cousin of translation. She uses the idea of reception—how texts are read and reimagined—to argue for a more serious consideration of the recipe form: “My ‘reception’ of the recipe—my intervention into the tradition of recipe reception—is to translate text into food. Each time I cook the recipe I produce a new translation of the text.” Just as translation has long been undervalued by critical and academic establishments, the recipe is “a form of knowledge that is often denied the status of knowledge.”

This academic context gives the book structure: woven alongside personal anecdotes and recipe ruminations are citations of philosophers, writers, poets, and critics, their work reconfigured for the context of cooking: “A recipe that is ‘distanced from any particular context which fulfills it’ (Adorno and Horkheimer) is a joke, is irrational, because it feeds no body.” Repeatedly, Johnson uses the word perform to denote her manipulation of the sauce text: “During my first performance of the recipe, I have a revelation about ingredients or vegetables: they are things. I must learn to watch them closely, ready to accommodate their whims, which are not human.” And later: “Performing the recipe reveals an ‘I’ that cooks in order to speak.” The effect is a para-academic voice, in the tradition that some writers call autotheory. In Johnson’s hands the form feels simultaneously urgent and loose as she nimbly shifts from diaristic recountings of her meals to an almost poetically spare critical voice. Just as she refuses to disrespect kitchen labor, she refuses to adorn academic thought with a self-consciously formal sheen.

Johnson also narrates her own kitchen life as it happens, casting no detail aside for lack of substance. She notes her mood, bodily sensations, the Girl Scout Cookies she eats before making rice pudding, the droopiness of store-bought basil, that Moroder soundtrack, the wreckage of a pot of sauce. “I have written down what I have been doing in the kitchen because it is what I have been doing,” she writes, echoing a passage from a Natalia Ginzburg essay—quoted in an early chapter—where the author explains why she no longer worried about writing like her male counterparts: “I thought I knew a great many things about tomato sauce and even if I didn’t put them in my story it helped my vocation that I knew them.”

In rebuking the academy’s long-implied belief that recipes do not warrant serious study, Johnson makes a case for a recipe as an ultimate site of praxis: a place where language meets the visceral acts of cooking and eating, and where a can of tomatoes has the potential to show us the history of a world. Why shouldn’t this be the setting for a hot red epic?

The first time I cook the recipe—I cannot bring myself to call it a performance—I see how Johnson’s writing has already affected the way I cook. She has attuned me to each detail, to the feeling of my body, to the way I move through my tiny kitchen. I am annoyed that I bought tinned tomatoes with basil in them, but of course that’s part of the experience: recipe as foundational text, life as context, me and my foibles as interpreter. Beyoncé sings have you ever had fun like this? as I bend over my cutting board and cut my garlic crosswise, along, and down to transform it into tiny cubes. I know this hunching is bad for my back; the garlic, which I bought from the farmers market, is dank and sticky. I am anxious for a friend to arrive. There are dishes already piled up in the sink. For me, cooking is more compulsion than passion, but I love it so much that I build my life around it; as such, I’m familiar with the practice’s push-pull of pleasure and obligation. Clumsily scraping the garlic off my fingers with the back of a knife, I wonder whether I’d really call this fun, but I know it’s exactly what I want to be doing.

Much of modern food media is predicated on the idea that in order to want to cook you must either find it a) a joyful experience or b) a necessary act in service of your household. It’s hard to sell a food magazine—let alone a copy of The Joy of Cooking—if you’re regularly admitting how annoying or oppressive cooking can be. Johnson’s unusual formal approach allows her to circle around a question that has long vexed feminists who love (or simply want) to cook: how do I reconcile my drive to cook with my resentment of its role in the oppression of my gender? As guides through this question, she relies on the work of three women: the conceptual artist Martha Rosler, the self-described “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson, and the feminist scholar Silvia Federici, whose “Wages for Housework” argues that treating cooking as an inherently pleasurable act for women allows for its status as unpaid labor: The happy housewife wants more dishes in the sink so she can wash them cheerfully.

Rosler and Lawson function in the book as spokespeople for the seemingly opposed forces of labor and pleasure. The two women are Johnson’s self-described Scylla and Charybdis: Rosler’s 1975 film The Semiotics of the Kitchen explores how women in the kitchen risk losing their personhood and becoming domestic robots; Lawson, on the other hand, paints the kitchen as a site of self-pleasure. Johnson watches a video of Lawson making herself elderflower pudding, first struck by the TV host’s embodiment of the ideal woman: beautiful in a dress, welcoming. But after Lawson decides to serve herself not one but three helpings, first biting into them on camera and then going off to enjoy them on their own, Johnson begins to see the transformative role that pleasure plays in Lawson’s world. Lawson, Johnson writes, “gives the viewer permission to have a body. . . . The three servings [of pudding] give the performance the quality of ritual, of a spell. It is as if Nigella banishes the cursed apparition of a disapproving look.”

Lawson and Rosler’s videos articulate the friction that Johnson, like so many cooks before her, seeks to resolve between the desire to cook and the kitchen’s unappealingly gendered assumptions. One of Johnson’s solutions, which arrives like a gift, is to recast cooking as a form of labor with distinct history and intellectual value. By casting a critical-academic lens on cooking, we can better understand the ways cooking affects and appeals to us; we can also elevate it as a practice worthy not just of respect, but of adoration free from idealization. She begins to think of the cook not as someone forced into a false performance of joy, but someone “who might at some point cook for their own reasons, or for love of their own body—rather than exclusively to serve the appetites of others, or for someone else’s accumulation of capital to the detriment of their own lives.”

With the old assumptions about how we cook—as slaves, as supplicants, as shameful gluttons—out of the way, the cook can come to understand their own labor in newer and deeper ways. “Recognizing cooking as work, and as difficult and as something that cannot always be blithely ‘lovely’ is useful, freeing even,” Johnson writes, in a polemical passage against one of food writing’s most overused terms. “Such recognition allows cooking to come into view; it becomes possible to see what is required of the cook each time she or they or he translates the recipe.” Liberation comes from reframing cooking, not banishing it. Disaffection, critical remove, even annoyance can help us see this occupation more clearly, more honestly. It makes one not just a better cook, but a better thinker. “Holding a critical position and tasting the sauce,” she jokes, “now that’s quantum physics!”

Another answer to Federici’s depiction of kitchen-as-jail comes out more quietly through the story of Johnson’s own development as a cook. As a student in Berlin, she often cloaked herself in bizarro-experimental looks to go to the club and dance for hours. “Every dance floor is an ecstatic exploration of our desires, our bodies,” she remembers. The kitchen, too, allows Johnson an opportunity to get to know her body and brain in new ways. She tightens her apron strings before cooking “to keep thinking with my body.” She slyly puts forth an argument for paying attention to ingredients, appetites, bodies, discomfort, and history all at once.

The second time I make the recipe, the edges of my desire chafe against the text. I use the first recipe that Johnson encountered, the version that guides the book, and the ratio of oil to tomatoes feels off. Rodgers calls for half a tin of tomatoes, and I resent having to use my scale, having to store the surplus in a deli container. I am already envisioning my ideal version of the sauce, one that I quickly realize has been built on the backs of the dozens of tomato sauces I have cooked over the last decade. Johnson might call this the emergence of my voice, my own translation of the recipe drawing itself: “The unpredictable ‘I that cooks,’ who resists the recipe again and again, generates new translations.” I have continued to desecrate the recipe ever since, adding tomato paste, more tomatoes, a tin of anchovies. I have used it to feed people I love but more importantly I have used it to feed myself, wrestling labor-as-love from Federici’s hands and moving toward Lawson’s self-indulgence. This approach to cooking—embodied, improvisational—doesn’t shy away from the displeasures of the tradition or the material conditions of the cook, which makes any love expressed through food (for oneself, for others, for the act of cooking, even when it rankles) feel chosen rather than blindly assumed. And it proves Johnson’s point that following a recipe is not just an iterative act, but a creative one.

Creativity in the kitchen is among Johnson’s central subjects. In one particularly satisfying chapter, she lays out her vendetta against an argument from the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. In his 1970 paper “Living Creatively,” Winnicott makes a point about the value of creativity by comparing the “slavish” recipe follower with the “creative cook” who, guided by instinct, cooks sausages “for the first time ever.” Recipes are for lemmings, he claims; true creativity comes from experimentation and risk of failure, even if it results in unsatisfied dinner guests forced to eat the fruits of our play.

“Winnicott finds cooking from a recipe to be an ideal tool for theorizing because it is cooking from a recipe in theory,” Johnson writes. “However, a recipe demands translation into practice and hangs limp if left languishing in theory only.” Johnson, in contrast, insists on physicality. She goes on to locate the cookbook Winnicott implicates in his argument, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and prepares sausages from its pages. She buys hers from a butcher she doesn’t much like, scoring them with a small black IKEA knife before frying them in her cast iron pan for twelve minutes while Chaka Khan plays on the radio. They take longer than the twelve minutes that Mrs. Beeton prescribed over a hundred and fifty years ago, but finally turn brown; Johnson and an unnamed companion eat them with two types of mustard, ketchup, and brown sauce.

It is a great joy to watch Johnson get a little petty. After a hundred pages of careful analysis of the relationship between cook and recipe, she spends thirty more rebuking Winnicott’s high-minded disrespect of the form, going so far as to suggest that his choice of sausage as example suggests a Freudian “fear of creative castration.” For Winnicott, pure creation, free from influence, is the ultimate act of expression. Under Johnson’s scrutiny, his argument starts to resemble the macho janglings of an episode of Chef’s Table, in which a fine-dining chef appears as a singular genius rather than a boss whose creative output is sustained by dozens of unpaid stagiares carving beetles from fruit leather.

Johnson’s most persuasive rebuke of Winnicott comes shrouded in an aggressively female form: the diary. She transcribes a journal entry that she writes after finishing the “exquisitely juicy” sausages, and because her handwriting is so large and her notebook so small, its short lines turn it into a poem that covers pages: a garrulous schoolyard taunt lobbed at her adversary’s stodgy ignorance. The entry ends with a nod to the narrative element that all recipes carry but many hide, which Winnicott willfully ignores and which I join Johnson in cherishing: context!

Over lunch I say / that I like that / Mrs Beeton gives an / average cost / and a season for / sausages, and a / note about hot weather / and a historical footnote / about Saxon Swineherds!!

Barring the in-person guidance of a mother, friend, or domestic worker, cookbooks like Mrs. Beeton’s have long been the clearest path toward competent home cooking. Their primary purpose is instruction, which Winnicott sees as mutually exclusive from inspiration, rejecting any positive relationship between education and expression. But I wouldn’t have been able to freestyle last week’s chicken noodle soup if I hadn’t read a dozen chicken noodle soup recipes over the last decade. These texts taught me that I might want to use one batch of chopped carrots to make the stock, and another to simmer once I’ve strained the stock, to avoid mush. They taught me to take my chicken out of the stock once it was just cooked, then shred and reserve the meat and return the bones to the pot. They taught me I like to cook my noodles separately, for a clearer broth and less mushy leftovers. Mush, you’ll see, can be a problem, but it’s a problem I avoided by reading recipes, and it’s a problem I wouldn’t have foreseen if I had one day decided to make chicken noodle soup “for the first time ever.” From these texts I created something that was my own, and that pleased me. Winnicott argues that following a recipe increases “the feeling of dependence on authority”; I’d counter that it expands my own feeling of authority over my kitchen and my tastes.

Johnson calls the recipe “an epic without a hero,” but it is hard not to read Small Fires as her own hero’s quest. The life of a cook is an epic of accumulation. Our hero compares the repetition of cooking to dawn’s continual rising in the Odyssey, and admits that the recipe is her Argo as well as “the sea in which all of my living has accumulated.” It is also the sea atop which she has battled Federici’s criticisms, Winnicott’s small-mindedness, and history’s oppression.

Even when she finds no tidy answers in her quest, Johnson forges along; after all, she is hungry. And her desire to cook is partially a desire to learn from the cooks who came before her: “The choice is not between burning down the kitchen or revisiting it in a nostalgic dream-state,” she writes; “that is a false binary. It is bad faith to burn your grandmother’s archive because she wasn’t as free as you.”

The journey of the cook and the recipe is the rare epic that does not end. Despite the efforts of the convenience economy, we will continue to feed ourselves until either the food is gone or we are. Until then, the recipe and its wake will continue to sustain us and teach us, to lead us through our days and desires in the kitchen. Like the hero at the end of a journey, the recipe returns to us changed—cooked!—but then bravely repeats its course, setting back out into the kitchen, its evolution marked by the rosy fingers of dawn and the greasy fingers of the cook.

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