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Rebecca May Johnson “I want to blow up the kitchen and rebuild it to cook again”

Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen celebrates and challenges the way we think about food and cooking. The writer told us more about the book and its ideas ahead of an in-conversation event at Gut Level with Juno Books.

Rebecca May Johnson

Rebecca May Johnson

Sophie Davidson

Rebecca May Johnson's debut book, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, is a poetic and evocative exploration of the passion and explosive power of food. Through personal memoir and insightful debate, she shares the transformative influences of the recipe as a way of understanding ourselves and how we relate to the world around us.

She explains how every recipe will have a life that goes beyond the page. Each becomes a story igniting small fires which are shaped by culture, history and the person creating the dish.

The book shows us the ways cooking is not limited or contained within clean lines; it's sensory, it's rolling up our sleeves, splattering sauces and feeding our appetites.

The recipe is pure reception. It is always in many places at once: in a book with splattered pages, on a website, in someone’s memory or half memory, on a shopping list, simmering in a pan or in the muscles of someone who has cooked it many times.

Rebecca May Johnson - Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen

To celebrate the paperback release of Small Fires, later this month Rebecca May Johnson will be in conversation with Lyds Leather, a food activist working on community-led food access and provision in Sheffield.

The Juno Books-hosted event will be held at Gut Level, raising money for their new premises which will include a community kitchen. (Please note, the event has now sold out.)

To find out more about the event and the ways that food and cooking can be transformative and revolutionary, we caught up with Sarah from Juno Books and Rebecca May Johnson herself.

Hi Sarah. Tell us more about Juno Books and the Small Fires book event.

Juno Books is an intersectional feminist and queer bookshop based in Sheffield. We are driven by a passion for raising up marginalised voices, showcasing new work and highlighting independent presses and we are nestled right in the middle of Chapel Walk in Sheffield city centre.

We are so excited to be hosting this event alongside the Sheffield-based queer collective Gut Level. We have been fans of Rebecca May Johnson for a long time and it's very special to be able to work with Gut Level to bring together an event which celebrates food and eating in the community.

How did reading Small Fires make you feel?

This is an incredibly beautiful book which looks at food and eating in such a fresh and engaging way. I've definitely found myself thinking about ingredients and how I use recipes. I cook a lot more thoughtfully since reading it, and have now tried out my own version of the tomato sauce which forms an integral part of her work.

The book revisits the same recipe over a ten-period and how it evolves. What's your go-to recipe?

One of my favourite things to make in autumn and winter is vegetable and lentil soup, which on the face of it is pretty dull, but after years of tweaking veg combinations it is rich, creamy and comforting on a dark evening. It's also one of the few things everyone in my family will eat, which is always a huge win.

Small fires book

Hi Rebecca. I found your writing very evocative and I could picture you cooking in the kitchen. Did the writing of the book evolve like the recipe which runs through the heart of the book?

Absolutely. Writing the book was like cooking in that it was shaped both by things I had already thought about, and also, new thoughts and encounters that occurred during the writing of the text. I allowed chance into the writing process. For example, I had not encountered Donald Winnicott’s writing on recipes and sausages until I was a way into the writing.

Also, the writing was experimental and performative in that I found out the answers to a lot of my questions by writing the book. I am solving questions as I go. I write to find things out and to think. In the same way, it is hard to know what a recipe will be like before cooking it. I cook to find out too.

It sounds like you are an enthusiastic cook who enjoys making and sharing food with others. Who has been pivotal on your journey and what key experiences have inspired you?

My mother is a very good cook with incredible judgement about how to achieve balance across a meal. I was very lucky to eat her food growing up. So I was already attuned to how food can be delicious and interesting.

Then, when I went to university in London and spent ten years studying and moving house, I was inspired by the people with whom I lived and the shops and restaurants that surrounded me. Getting to know other people through the food they love and tasting new things in the city were both critical.

How we feel when we cook can very much affect the end result of a recipe. This translation of where our mind and body is at any particular time and how it affects the cooking performance is something you talk about in the book. What surprising results have you found from how your feelings influence the final dish?

Sometimes a dish that is delicious is hard to taste as such when you are not feeling good, and likewise, a thing that is quite plain can feel extraordinary to eat while happy. The body challenges the idea of food (or indeed anything!) being objectively one thing or another, good or bad. The more pertinent question is: how are things lived? This information is more interesting to me.

Cooking is not inherently joyful. The structures in which cooking and eating are couched – economic, social, climactic aspects, etc. These affect how we each experience the world – fatigue, stress, precarity, which affect and shape our very physicality and emotional landscape – including what it feels like to cook and eat a plate of food.

There is a fascinating exploration of how cooking is portrayed in culture, gender roles and embedded in our emotions and relationships in the book. How has writing the book changed how you feel about food and your connections with others? What lessons can we learn on a societal and individual level? Do you think anything needs to change?

I would say several things. It’s impossible to know someone else’s relationship with food without listening to them. Received wisdom is meaningless when it comes to food. One person’s comfort is another’s distress and our relationships with food are embedded in our biographies, which are also structurally situated. Don’t be a dick!

Second, after over a decade of austerity and the loss of many support systems, and the growth in precarious contracts, it is very hard for many people to eat how they would like to. We need radical change in work and welfare to support people in living well. Access to fresh and high-quality food, the time and safe living spaces in which to cook and eat it, are increasingly scarce and this should be foremost in our minds when we think of what we want politicians to be tackling.

We should not be having a sugar tax and policies limiting what people can eat, we should be aiming to provide abundance and access to good food for all, and the time and space in which to cook it. We need to take collective responsibility for each other’s wellbeing as a society.

There are many possibilities to be explored with cooking and recipes never remain static. How will the small fires continue to burn for you?

I have been very busy lately and I want to be more intentional about making time to cook, instead of spending time sitting feeling anxious at the end of the day, looking on my social media.

And yes, everywhere I go and each meal I share with other people teaches me new things about food and cooking. This is such a great joy for me.

Gut Level Access Information

"The front entrance is a double door followed by another set of internal double doors. The space is wheelchair accessible however we do not have an accessible toilet within the space. Leonardo Hotel next door has an accessible toilet which is available for attendees at Gut Level events to use. Leonardo Hotel is located at 119 Eyre St (on the corner opposite the roundabout)."

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