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The Home Cook Who Wants to ‘Blow Up the Kitchen’

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The Home Cook Who Wants to ‘Blow Up the Kitchen’

What don’t we talk about when we talk about cooking? When you forward a recipe to a friend, do you mention the spatters of oil, the physicality of wielding a pan, the nagging feeling that you don’t want to cook or the clean satisfaction of tying an apron string?

These ignored conversations inspired the English writer and academic Rebecca May Johnson’s first book, “Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen,” which aims to upend not only the way we cook but the way we think about cooking. The book regards recipes as sites of dynamic, creative engagement across generations — and notes that most bragging about not following a recipe is simply a defensive response to anxiety about originality. “Small Fires,which is out on Tuesday in the United States, is brave enough to hurt feelings, and delicious enough for no one to care.

Over a video call from her home kitchen in a coastal town in Essex that’s about 80 miles northeast of London, Ms. Johnson made the playful yet provocative argument that we must “blow up the kitchen.” For Ms. Johnson, it’s a “childish but serious” phrase that reflects her genuine interest in dismantling repressive structures as well as finding greater pleasure in cooking. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

“Small Fires” includes many passages in which you don’t want to cook, or you can’t cook, you’re ordering in, you’re exhausted. This feels unusual in a work about cooking, but very usual in the lives of many cooks. Tell me about your decision to write these passages.

There’s a shamefulness attached to nonproductivity. It was a bit of a nervous moment thinking: “Oh, am I going to put this in the text, that I’ve spent three days on the sofa and I’ve done nothing? I’m eating frozen pizza.” But then I realized that this was valid. This was a valuable part of the picture of cooking as well. It wasn’t planned ahead of time, it wasn’t in my book proposal. I let reality into the book because cooking is an alive and embodied thing. As I grew more confident in writing the book, I became more confident in allowing my fatigue into the book rather than just pretending everything’s fine all the time.

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There’s a pressure on people writing food books — especially women writing food books, and people of color writing food books — to perform joy, to perform ceaseless energy, and to be pleasing at all times. You’re visually pleasing, your body is visually pleasing, the food is visually pleasing, and the text is visually pleasing. There’s nothing to disturb or distress. That’s also something that holds back thinking about cooking from getting very complex.

You write about this pride among people who avoid recipes. What do you make of this posture, and the anxiety of originality?

It’s very understandable because there is a reverence toward the notion of the original genius in our culture. If you have to acknowledge that your work is also dependent on other people’s work, there’s a vulnerability. Just because your work is indebted to other people’s work doesn’t mean that your contribution is not valuable. And I think that really is the case with recipes. People feel like this recipe is oppressing me, this recipe is taking away my agency. There’s a desire to be original, there’s a dislike of sharing authorship, and there’s a refusal to sort of accept the labor of others. That you’re always in dialogue with other people’s work is something that people find challenging, including in the kitchen.

Why is it so rare for cooking to be recognized as a form of intellectual engagement?

There’s a notion that what’s professional and serious is located outside the home. Silvia Federici, the feminist thinker, talks about how certain forms of labor, such as cooking, become framed as natural and a form of love, so they’re almost done unthinkingly. Then often we internalize those attitudes and fail to see our own thinking taking place.

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Cooking itself is thinking. We don’t have to sort of invent it to be complex. It is complex. We’ve been taught to not regard our own actions in that way. And so I tried, in the book, to slow down and perceive the thinking that I was doing in the kitchen.

You seem to both agree with and argue with the conception of cooking as a labor of love. Tell me how you grapple with that concept in your book.

The labor of domestic work — including cooking and cleaning — is characterized as love. The performance of love is also part of that work. There’s a pressure to do it lovingly, even if you’re depressed, even if you’re exhausted, even if you’re angry.

There are always forms of labor that we don’t want to do. But it’s the work disguised as love which is an insidious element.

You write so magnetically about cooking the same tomato sauce recipe countless times. Tell me about what you find in repetition. What makes routine not boring?

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It’s always a tussle and a dialogue with a recipe. Even if you’re trying to follow it really closely, there’s still things that happen. The recipe is a text, but we can’t simply reproduce text. My favorite recipes are the ones that give me some kind of transformative insight. For the tomato sauce recipe, as I write in the book, I was living in student accommodation at the time. I was adding more and more things to the sauce, hoping that would make it taste of more. Just like, Oh, some undercooked onions and mushrooms and peppers. And it tastes of absolutely nothing. And when you add more salt and it just tastes like salty nothing. There’s actually a law of diminishing returns. I had to not be a pessimist and keep adding more things because I don’t have faith in the thing. It’s almost something you have to find out by doing it.

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Interview: Patrick Stewart

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“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”

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Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?

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Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?

Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.

The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.

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Modern Masculinity Is Broken. She Knows How to Fix It.

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Modern Masculinity Is Broken. She Knows How to Fix It.

With the arrival of her part memoir, part manifesto “How to Be a Woman” in 2011, Caitlin Moran established herself as one of her generation’s funniest and most fearless feminist voices. Moran, who is 48 and who first made her mark in the early 1990s as a wunderkind music journalist for British publications, has published four ribald and emotionally honest books of nonfiction and two novels since then and has continued to work as a columnist at The Times of London. Now, with her new book, “What About Men?” Moran turns her eye to what she sees as the limited and limiting discussions around modern masculinity. It’s a book she felt duty-bound to write. “All the women that I know on similar platforms,” Moran says, speaking about fellow writers, “we’re out there mentoring young girls and signing petitions and looking after the younglings. The men of my generation with the same platforms have not done that. They are not having a conversation about young men. So given that none of them have written a book that addresses this, muggins here is going to do it.”

There’s a lot of generalizing in your book when it comes to men: They’re obsessed with band T-shirts and emotionally inarticulate and constantly talking about their balls. Is it possible that relying so heavily on those kinds of jokey stereotypes and clichés risks undercutting the deeper points you’re trying to make about the need to open up possibilities for how we think and talk about masculinity? I’m a mainstream writer. If I’m going to start talking about a difficult idea, I want to approach it in the most successful way possible. You need to start with a generalization that is going to get people to go either, “Yes, I recognize myself in that,” or, “No, I don’t agree.” Maybe a lot of people are going, “Men are emotionally literate, they can talk to each other,” but I sat down to watch “The Bear,” which has been lauded everywhere, and it’s about men who can’t talk about their emotions. I see that as a far more clichéd depiction than anything that I’ve done in this book.

Part of the framing of your book is that there’s not enough discussion about young men’s struggling to adapt to changing ideas about masculinity. I feel as if that’s a big topic of conversation these days. So what is the fresh thinking that you’re bringing to it? Feminism has a stated objective, which is the political, social, sexual and economic equality of women. With men, there isn’t an objective or an aim. Because there isn’t, what I have observed is that the stuff that is getting the most currency is on the conservative side. Men going: “Our lives have gotten materially worse since women started asking for equality. We need to reset the clock. We need to have power over women again.” We are talking about the problems of women and girls at a much higher level than we are about boys and men. We need to identify the problems and work out what we want the future to look like for men in a way that women have already done for themselves.

Beanie Feldstein in the 2019 film “How to Build a Girl,” adapted from Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel.

IFC Films, via Everett Collection

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You used to write a lot of celebrity profiles. Can you tell me a good anecdote about a famous person that you’ve never told before? The New York Times would never publish it. Absolutely filthy.

Try me. [Moran tells an epically filthy story about a British one-hit wonder from the 1990s.] You’re not printing that, are you?

Moran onstage in London during a 2014 book tour.

WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy

How do you think the public discussion of feminism has changed since “How to Be a Woman”? I think the younger generation of feminists are even more open-minded and openhearted and sincere in what they do. But the downside is that a lot of the humor and the lightheartedness and the ability to ask a question about an idea has gone. The thing that I observe in younger women and activists is that they’re scared of going online and using the wrong word or asking the wrong question. As a result, we’re not having the free flow of ideas and questions that makes a movement optimal. We appear to have reinvented religion to a certain extent: the idea that there is a sentient thing watching you and that if you do something wrong, it will punish you. God is very much there in social media. I feel that having been born in an era before social media, I grew up godless, and it made me a lot freer than my daughters’ generation.

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What’s an idea that people are afraid to talk about more openly? Trans issues. In the U.K., you are seen to be on one of two sides. It’s the idea that you could be a centrist and talk about it in a relaxed, humorous, humane way that didn’t involve two groups of adults tearing each other to pieces on the internet.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.

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