Iteration 8: Rebecca May Johnson cooks the Internet

Food as kink, recipes as gossip, chicken soup

Some housekeeping this morning: if you’re receiving this by email then you may note with alarm that it’s a Monday, and maybe you’ve become subscribed to some paid part of the newsletter by mistake. Don’t worry, this is not a mistake. I’m trialing out a new system of posting as I’ve long suspected a newsletter on Wednesday only provokes a feeling of ‘oh not another one!’ when Friday’s hits your inbox. So I’m spacing them out a bit: Monday and Friday will be the two free slots. For the hardcore people with a paid subscription, you will notice no difference because the paid newsletter will go out on Wednesday. This week’s will be an interview with the associate editor of Eater London, and the founder of In Digestion, James Hansen.

As the cookbook mini-season winds down, I will also start to bring back Season 2 which has been running since August. I have two more cookbook iterations left, so will run one a week in the run up to Christmas along with one article from Season 2, take a much needed break and pause subscriptions, and then return in the New Year with some new announcements and a news season.

If Fozia Ismail’s newsletter last week on Hawa Hassan’s In Bibi’s Kitchen partially interrogated the idea that the purpose of certain cookbooks is to cook from them, then today’s newsletter by Rebecca May Johnson maybe blows my whole remit apart. For Johnson, both the cookbook (a fixed, authoritative way of passing on a recipe), and the traditional structures of the family (less fixed, but no less authoritative), are being superseded by the informal sprawl of the Internet, and the random connections we make through it.

The truth is that many of us don’t cook from cookbooks at all; an ingredient in our cupboard or fridge might provoke a WhatApp message to friends asking for advice or a recipe; the sight of a sandwich or a plate of pasta, glimpsed for a few seconds on Instagram, may inspire our own experiment; a passing tweet may lead to some DMs. In this sense, the Internet is a electronic version of a curiously archaic world, before the printing press, before books. Even Johnson’s own blog, Dinner Document, is less a didactic recipe blog and more exactly what it says on the tin: a loose document of dinners and gestures, that someone 1000 years ago might have scribbled in margins or spread, in Johnson’s words ‘like gossip’; each recipe, like Homer before some villain decided to write him down, simply a retelling of a retelling of a retelling.


Iteration 8: Rebecca May Johnson cooks the Internet

My experience is that anyone can teach you some thing, or a lot, about cooking. Because the primary measure of culinary knowledge is whether it brings pleasure to the body, and to what degree, it is inherently erotic, and has no authority in a text-only format. As with kinks, everyone has their preferences – a ‘special way’ to prepare toast, eggs or rice (or whatever) that amounts to an irrefutable insight, a piece of information that endures because of how it makes them feel.

Earlier this year I sent a Claudia Roden rice pudding recipe that I love to a few writers and asked them to cook it however they wanted and record the experience. They are not writers of cookery books (though some write about food in their poetry and essays) but I was interested to know how each of them would respond to the text. The recipe I sent them from Roden’s Book of Jewish Food blossomed into many puddings, each differing from the others. I found their written accounts absorbing; hyper-specific details of cooking (smashed eggs, burnt pans, getting stoned) and the irritation and pleasure it provoked unexpectedly opened out into deeper truths, buried memory and self-revelation. 

I realise eating it how ragged we’ve all been feeling. I have seconds.

C sits up with us and wants to feed himself, looking at his reflection in the back of the spoon as he does. Reiz kuggle. (Edwina Attlee) 

The cooks’ narratives retained an element of unmediated experience – or, to borrow Nuar Alsadir’s phrase about poetry, ‘a tracking of the grain, the body, emotions’ – as the recipe text became movement before returning to language, weathered by their living through it. 

The experiment was a formalisation of the way that good recipes pass from person to person like gossip. I passed on this recipe because of the occasions in my life in which its custard texture and plain richness have been participants. Gossip is a deeply affective (and effective) form of knowledge transmission, with every retelling taking on the mood and context of the teller. This is also how we teach each other important things, passing on our gestures and annotations. 

In ‘The Nourishing Arts’, Luce Giard gives an account of the transmission of recipes down a traditional family structure: 

Women bereft of writing who came before me, you who passed on to me the shape of your hands or the color of your eyes… As long as one of us preserves your nourishing knowledge, as long as the recipes of your tender patience are transmitted from hand to hand and from generation to generation, a fragmentary yet tenacious memory of your life itself will live on. 

It is a beautiful, romantic passage of writing that tries to pay tribute to the complexity of culinary knowledge, which at every turn shifts between body and mind, gathering traces of each life it passes through. However, Giard’s linear and conservative imagination of family and the hands that possess or share ‘the nourishing arts’ is a shortcoming. Although some say that the palate, each person’s ‘way of seeing’ what they eat, is anchored in (and constrained by) a particular kind of origin story – the family history that Giard describes – I would say that the palate has a potential openness to un-commodified difference and a disregard for parochialism that I dream of seeing in politics. 

This is where I would like to talk about the internet.

If I were to draw a diagram of the sources that have informed my cooking in the last six months, it would not look like a linear genealogy or a neat stack of books; it would look like a tangled web of people who I may or may not know. I have most frequently come by new recipes in the last decade through encountering them online, which is to say, through other people’s advocacy of them. In The Five Senses, philosopher Michel Serres says that language suppresses the sense of taste, which is ‘too close… too much its twin’, and that taste is ‘rarely conveyed well’ in language. I agree that language makes a poor account of the senses, especially taste, sometimes ‘allowing it no voice’. Serres goes so far as to call it oppression. But Serres was writing in 1985, since when there has been an exponential increase in the number of people writing about taste, thanks to the internet. Social media has embedded the activity of writing about food into everyday life, and while companies try to intrude, it is the flashes of reality and personal rituals that I love. Accounts of cooking and eating posted online at the precise moment they are unfolding are able to retain ‘the grain, the body, emotions’. They offer a peep into the erotics of culinary knowledge: kinks of the palate writ large. 

And so, this essay is an ode to the culinary knowledge of people online that I have glimpsed at between reports of state violence, memes, images of world-making protest, make-up advice and book releases. I am grateful for their privately honed methods and accidentally discovered pleasures; recipes given by friends and a remark about how to eat chips; a photo of a birthday party and a conversation with strangers about something unrelated. The dishes I see online are usually outside the context of canonical authority – and my response is physical first and rational second, led by desire towards something for which I haven’t yet got the words. 

I recently made fermented green tomatoes after seeing a photo of them on Olia Hercules’s Instagram: pale green, flecked with red chilli. I gathered further information about the process from talking to Thom Eagle through direct messages. After I posted photos of the tomatoes being prepared, a friend messaged me via WhatsApp to discuss the recipe, intending to make some to use up her green tomatoes. 

I plan to make Hainanese chicken rice soon after seeing Nina Mingya Powles discuss recipes for it on Twitter. I cooked a roast chicken a month or so ago having read Anna Tobias’s account of making it in Sophie Davidson’s TinyLetter, Women Cook for Me. A chat on Twitter with artist Tai Shani about buying pans yesterday, while I was standing at the stove skimming chicken stock, prompted me to make chicken soup with noodles today after she wrote this: 

I love to make my Jewish chicken soup (it’s kind of stock) keep 1/3 w fats 4 stock, have 1/3 Jewish home style w noodles and dill and the carrots, 1/3 becomes Tom Kha w glass noodles shredded chicken and oyster mushrooms it’s best use of kitchen time

I ate the soup with toast made from Nigella Lawson’s sandwich loaf recipe, buttered in a style my father likes – generously, then put in the oven to melt in. With the rest of the chicken, I cooked four dishes (and counting), each one a nodal point connecting fragments of other people’s labour, hunger, and pleasure: recipes. Culinary knowledge was always already a network of desires straying beyond heteronormative transmission – which is to say, a reaching towards the other, an admission that intimacy with what is beyond us is what will nourish us. 


Chicken stock

  • 1 raw chicken carcass – buy a chicken, remove the legs (divide into thighs and drumsticks if you want), wings, and breast and freeze in portions, or put in the fridge for another time

  • ¼ celeriac, peeled

  • 2 carrots, peeled

  • 1 onion, halved

  • 2 cloves of garlic

  • 2 bay leaves

  • a few peppercorns, whole

  • a teaspoon of salt

Put the carcass and everything else into a pan and cover with water, 1 inch above the chicken, and bring to a simmer. Skim the top of any scum using a spoon, putting it into a bowl to rinse down the sink with hot water. Leave it to simmer for 1.5 hours on a low heat. Leave to cool overnight with the lid on.

Soup

  • chicken stock and whatever tiny shreds of chicken you can pull off the bird

  • a few carrots, peeled and cut into ½ cm rounds, then halved

  • a tablespoon of finely diced parsley

  • toast and butter

To make the soup: pre-heat the oven on a low heat to warm your bowls. Put a few ladles of stock into a smaller pan through a sieve – enough for you and one other person to have a bowl each. Pick any tiny bits of meat you can find from the carcass and add into the stock. Bring to a simmer and reduce for a few minutes. Peel 3–4 small carrots, slice into ½ cm rounds, and add in. Boil a pan of water and add 2 small nests of thin/medium egg noodles. Bring back to the boil then turn off the heat and leave for 3–4 minutes, draining when cooked (try one first). Make toast and butter it, and put in a warm oven along with your bowls.

When carrots are tender, finely chop a tablespoon of parsley and stir in. Taste for seasoning. Divide the drained noodles into warm bowls, ladle over the stock and garnish with parsley, making sure each person has equal amounts of carrots and chicken. 

I didn’t have dill but did have parsley and the light soup with flecks of chicken and sweet carrots was seasoned with rich salty toast; it was a very good midday rest. 


Rebecca May Johnson is a writer and academic who you can find on Twitter and Instagram. She blogs at Dinner Document and is working on her first non-fiction book about pleasure and resistance in the kitchen. She was paid for this newsletter.