The Recipe | Rebecca May Johnson | Granta

The Recipe

Rebecca May Johnson

I have never met the person who wrote the recipe, but it is recommended to me on a newspaper website by a cook who has been recommended to me by another cook, whose judgement I trust because I have tasted her food. The route to the recipe is made by tongues.

It is by far the cheapest and easiest recipe in a feature about famous chefs’ favourite recipes, but it is precise in ways I do not expect.

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.

The recipe is a method for responding to things. Things have agency in many directions. Like words, they have histories and contexts, but when I perform the recipe, things become other things in a messier transformation than words in a sentence. They spatter my shirt red. The recipe is a text that can produce spattering because it was spattering before it was language. Language is only a holding pattern for the recipe – not its origin, nor its terminus.

Spattering is not mentioned in the recipe. The text does not anticipate the liveliness of the process it describes, which spatters wildly. The substance in the pan trespasses beyond its linguistic boundary, making marks, or mark-making on my shirt, the wall, the dry surface of whatever book is close by. There is always more. There is more than has been recorded in the text and there will be more again. Things will be hotter and redder. There will be spattering.

In some ways the recipe text gives me no clue about what is to come. This is hard to forgive. But after cooking it a thousand times, the recipe turns out to be Good Enough. It holds me and it survives my many attempts to destroy it. (D.W. Winnicott)

The second, third, fourth time I make the recipe I follow the instructions as precisely as I can, reverent and still wonderstruck by the transformation of matter in which I am a participant.

My body is changed by the recipe –
after tasting it, I see flavour
differently, which means I see things differently, because flavour is a quality of things, or can be. And it’s not seeing, it’s tasting, but it’s a tasting that inaugurates a different relationship to things, a new method of perceiving. It is not only the surface I am looking at; I am learning to see into things, seeking the dimension of Being that is flavour. There are so many possibilities. Each time I encounter the same thing, the same ingredient, I find that it’s different again, again, different again, so the recipe is always a method for seeking.

turn the heat down to very low

On the eighth time of making the recipe I do not add fresh herbs at the end because I have run out of money. The herbs cost more than the rest of the ingredients put together in the small urban supermarket near where I live. It is less fragrant but still intense; it tastes redder.

For my twelfth performance, several months later, I am exhausted from working until 3 a.m. in a pub and I have missed the closing time of the last pizza place that delivers in south London. I decide to free-pour the oil instead of measuring it spoon by spoon. Even while tired I feel the frisson of resistance to the text’s specificity and have a small conversation in my head with the author of the recipe where I explain that even though I have not measured the oil, it’s probably almost the same.

For the twenty-first performance I change the preparation of the garlic and I don’t slice it very thinly as the recipe instructs. Instead, imitating the movements of a man I have recently met, I crush it and keep crushing it and crushing with a knife until it is almost a paste, which turns out to be quite difficult and annoying to do, and the taste is different. My tired wrists know the extent of my deviation from the method. The change in method means I can no longer see when the garlic becomes coloured a pale gold as the recipe text directs, so I turn to my nose for navigational purposes. This different way of preparing garlic is brought on by a kind of blindness called desire, which drives me off my intended course.

Cutting and slicing is not a matter of dividing one thing into smaller fractions of the same thing; after cutting, it is not the same thing. In Harold McGee’s encyclopedia of kitchen science, I read that in the case of garlic and other alliums, when cells are cut, an enzyme trigger is released that interacts with chemical ammunition to produce a pungent sulphurous molecule designed to deter animals from eating them. The taste which attracts us should read as poison. The enzyme reaction in garlic produces a hundredfold higher concentration of molecules than other alliums. Slicing, pounding and crushing do not only change the physical shape of a garlic clove into smaller pieces. Each method alters the very chemistry, the very Being of the clove in a different way. The clove cannot be reassembled or returned to the clove it once was. Form and structure is a matter of Being, too.

During the thirtieth performance I enthusiastically tell a new housemate (the first I have had) what the recipe has taught me about the thermodynamics of oil. On a low heat oil rises slowly until it floats free, gleaming and tinted red. The oil cooks the garlic gently and circulates its sweetness. Stirring too vigorously can emulsify the oil with other liquids in the pan and prevent it from moving in this special way.

In the fortieth performance I am cooking for someone who likes capers and chilli and so I add capers and chilli flakes. Even though I know that capers are not integral to the recipe and that they are not written in the recipe and that this addition in some ways violates the principles of the recipe, when we eat, we can taste capers and heat and that is what they wanted. Capers are a challenge for my childish palate because it is not long since I left home, and my mother does not like capers and does not put them in her cooking.

The year I begin cooking the recipe is the year I go to a famous hairdressing school and let an experimental stylist cut off all my hair. They do not charge a fee, and I am in need of a new direction, an escape route from my body, which has begun to feel altogether too constricting. Directional is what they call their haircuts – just what I need! The experimental hairdresser is an intense east Londoner in her forties and deeply focused on her art. My hair becomes the medium with which she works to produce a new cut, a new dish. She tends to my hair in the way that the recipe encourages me to tend to ingredients, responding to their qualities, their potential for transformation. She likes that the hairs on my head are fine but abundant so she can create volume and achieve great height without the weight of the hair causing collapse. She describes this to audiences who are watching her and writing down the recipe, planning to bring these techniques to their home salons, like a cookery demonstration.

All that is required of me when she cuts my hair is to sit still for hours and hours, sometimes up to eight hours. My phone gets no signal in the basement salon, and I let my mind wander. The hairdresser does not require me to speak, or to say ‘I’; she just needs me to sit, silent and unmoving. It is very freeing to be this way. I become a body without words, present only as a medium, willingly manipulated. I let her cut my hair again and again, sometimes on a stage while someone talks and points at my head, sometimes in a teaching salon. But even when on stage, I am not required to be a subject. It takes hours of concentration for her to produce brave new shapes with my hair using scissors, combs, heat and air. She collaborates with colourists who participate in constructing the haircuts. They spend hours painting my hair and folding it up in foil and when they unwrap it, vibrant abstract images have appeared on my head. Each colour changes how the light will filter through the manifold textures she has produced. She makes smooth curves or pointillist stubble or rough clashing waves that reach great crescendos; long single strands and thick blocks refract light at different frequencies. I am struck when the hairdresser refers to my hair as ‘virgin’ onstage during a demonstration. She means undyed, but the erotic dimension of our strange relationship does not escape me. She appears in several dreams.

After the first cut with the experimental hairdresser, I find I can breathe more easily, and more easily still each time after that. I did not grow up at a time when popular culture accepted that people should have autonomy over their appearance. What Not to Wear is the mantra we were encouraged to repeat to ourselves, learnt from the wildly popular BBC television series that launched in 2001, when I was fifteen. Body parts including legs and arms and stomachs, body hair, displays of ‘masculine muscles’, unfeminine haircuts, and above all fat are prodded and condemned by presenters on the violently normative and fat-phobic TV show. When I let the stylist experiment with my hair, I begin to feel released from something constraining and oppressive. Like the recipe, the haircuts change the relationship between words and things for me. The experimental hairdresser gives me the knowledge that I can remake my body, again and again. It becomes a space for play, exploration and deviation.

Each time I cook the recipe differently, my hair is different too –

There is the time I make the recipe after my long brown hair has been cut into an asymmetric shape with a shaved side, a bob on the other side, and a thin ‘veil’ of hair at the back.

Two weeks later they have dyed my hair dark auburn and black and purple at the front.

Several months after that I cook with deep pink hair with a pale pink fringe and black marks drawn onto my face.

Then it becomes bright red and a spherical bob with a slight asymmetry, after Vidal Sassoon.

The people I have recently moved in with love comic books and cosplay and make-up and Zelda and making their own porn and horror films and foxes and Halloween parties and watching all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from start to finish and I love them and take out a standing order at a comic-book shop too. They like the hairstyles I come home with, whatever they are, and love whatever clothes I wear and whatever make-up I try and will come and queue with me for whatever obnoxious club night with a ‘no look no entry’ policy that I am obsessed with. They let me cook excitable meals for them even though sometimes I fill the house with smoke or spray it with mushroom soup when the blender explodes; I teach them the recipe.

The trick is to slow-cook

For the seventieth performance my anxiety causes me to turn the heat up too high. I hurry things. I have retreated into myself and fail to keep faith with the ingredients. I interfere and force my will on the ingredients and forget that it is a collaboration. The excess heat I apply has the effect of a weapon; it is wounding. The flavour at the end lacks sweetness and depth and I have to repair the dish, inventing ways to accommodate my impatience. The damage I visit upon the ingredients must be repaired with new ingredients: I add sugar and a half teaspoon of vinegar.

When I think about performing the recipe I think about the movements of subatomic particles or the orbits of moons and planets, there is a physics to it. The recipe introduces me to principles of touch, knife work, heat and time. The temporality of white becoming gold in oil. I must be careful about how I move my hands, the interventions they make can be significant, they are always in relation. In the study of electrons nothing is ignored because everything can have an effect, even looking. The proverb ‘a watched pot never boils’ was taken up by physicists trying to find ways to describe the behaviour of quantum particles. ‘Watched pot behaviour’ is another term for the Zeno effect in quantum physics, whereby frequent measurement inhibits the process being observed from actually taking place. Sometimes my anxiety or impatience causes me to take the pan off the heat too soon.

Cooking often hovers at the fringes of serious thought. I see it used as metaphor in philosophical texts, invoked in introductory paragraphs, deployed to convey the complexity of processes that are not cooking. But I find I need to draw on all available resources to articulate the complexity of the recipe. After ten years or more of experimentation I have not exhausted its possibilities; I have not found a limit for what the recipe can teach me about being in the world.

The recipe is a method of navigation, a method for seeing or seeking what is beyond me.

The recipe makes a space in my life where time does not pass but accumulates as a hot red sea full of feeling, good and bad.

The month before I move to Berlin to study and work, I perform the recipe and my hair is even shorter and red with a blue-and-blonde fringe; blue quickly fades to grey.

For the first performance of the recipe in Berlin my hair is white blonde and I have painted the top half of my face pink, I am drunk, and I play Giorgio Moroder, whose music I have recently started listening to. I put my favourite apron over my clothes; it is checked green and orange and is made from pliable cotton and I pull it tight. In this apron I orchestrate many large meals. I become a conductor of chopping and frying and drinking and dancing.

For the third performance of the recipe in Berlin my hair is still white blonde. I am wearing blue lipstick with dark blue glitter over the top, affixed with lip gloss, and dramatic black eyebrows painted much higher than my own on my forehead, black eyeliner, a drawn-on beauty spot, and a blue leotard. The more artificial I look the better it feels, being not essentially anything. At 3 a.m. I go to the club Berghain with my friends and we queue in the snow and then dance to pounding techno until 11 a.m., which counts as an early bedtime for many attendees.

When I am not in nightclubs or cooking in the apartment, I wander the city alone wearing large headphones. The headphones make a space for me that is insulated from social interactions. Most nights when I am not out I wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. in a panicked alcohol sweat and call the very patient person I am seeing long-distance in the UK. Apart from my Norwegian flatmate with whom I spend most of my time, a philosophy graduate I recognise in a nightclub from a London library, the owner of the fashion store I work in and a customer whom I befriend, the only people I speak to are those with few enough boundaries to make it past my headphones.

The philosophy graduate from Scotland picks the meat from a chicken I have cooked and talks about an ex-girlfriend and Throbbing Gristle and who he wants to fuck now – he’s sure they’ll be out this week. When we have drunk everything in the flat we leave to be in the perfect and blessed light of Berlin nightclubs where I dance until the make-up runs down my face. A tall and beautiful man called Vladimir is on the door of the club that becomes like home for a short, sweet while. Peaches sings ‘Fuck the Pain Away’ from a podium with her pubic hair spewing gloriously from her sequinned leotard, free blue packs of Gauloises cigarettes are handed out to everyone. A French man with a moustache called Charlie Le Mindu is shaving heads for fifteen euros in the basement. We exit at 4 a.m. to eat a kebab, and then go back in to dance again, or perhaps onwards to Berghain. Every dance floor is an ecstatic exploration of our desires, our bodies.

The two hundredth time I make the recipe is a kind of madness. Cooking becomes a social support I lean on too heavily. A German teenager in my literature class at the university manages to strike up a conversation, declaring her admiration for my tight red jeans. Unprepared and taken aback, I give a freakish and exaggerated performance of social courtesy and promise to cook a meal for all her friends for her birthday at my apartment without asking my flatmates. She is local and lives with her parents and treats the occasion as a chance to go wild. I feel hysterical as I serve food to dozens of people I have never met who flood the apartment, play music I don’t like and intrude on my flatmates’ private space. I find out that I do not like the girl whose birthday party I am hosting, that I do not know her at all; we do not really speak again after that night. Even worse, I make a fatal substitution in the recipe, not anticipating how differently the ingredient would behave. The thought of all these strangers eating the manic, bad dish haunts me painfully.

When the temperature is so low that the cold burns my face I buy a bag of oranges from Lidl. I take one out. It is an orange against drinking and against the lost feeling I can’t shake. I buy the webbed bag of fruit as a tonic, as a way of following advice that I have not received for years. It is a way of following my mother’s advice even if it has never been given, a dream of good advice, which I plan to absorb with each segment. I peel the orange hopefully, like it will be a doctor, an oracle, a cure, but when I gaze full of hope into the wet orange flesh it moves. The orange flesh moves, wriggles and is alive and I am not hallucinating. The orange is full of maggot larvae. The oranges are the birthplace of decay whose life was throbbing evidence against mine and I scream and throw it against the wall in the kitchen and it splats and sprays orange juice and larvae all over, running into each other in drips down the wall. I have never been more shocked. I eat no more oranges that winter.

In London again I make the recipe and my hair is a short bowl cut, dyed deep burgundy red.

Then I dye it black and shave an undercut, too. When I cook, as when I walk around the city, I wear a long, black blazer over buttoned-up shirts with black platform boots. My lipstick is bright orange or blue or black or purple, any colour but red.

However, while I love clothes and make-up, I am beginning to use them like a carapace, a hard shell to protect myself from other people, from the vulnerability of intimacy. I set too much store by appearances and control mine too tightly.

Cooking is the tool I use to draw close to other people, though closeness makes me anxious. Cooking is how I manage closeness. Sometimes it can go wrong, like the stranger’s birthday party in Berlin. Cooking for someone is not always an appropriate response to meeting them.

But sometimes, it’s OK.

For the two hundred and fortieth performance, four years after I first made the recipe, I make it for you:

at least there is that You, which is every beloved, which constitutes itself across difference and species and the whole of life. You is eros and caritas all mixed up in a word. It is also the stranger who any of us might be, and in that the only law is probably love, and that the violation of life anywhere is the violation of life everywhere, and in that no one is free until everyone is, You is what everything in the world is staked on, including yourself. (Anne Boyer)

You teach me about cooking for every other Other; you teach me about ‘that You’.

You are almost a stranger – we haven’t known each other long – but I stake myself on cooking for you.

Rebecca May Johnson

Rebecca May Johnson's first book is Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen. She earned a PhD in Contemporary German Literature from UCL for her study of Barbara Köhler's reworking of the Odyssey, Niemands Frau.

Photograph © Sophie Davidson

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