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.

You tell me that some ingredients disagree with you, there are certain things you cannot eat, but you can eat everything in the recipe. So I make it for you once, and you love it, and then I make it for you a hundred times.

Years later you say you would like to eat the recipe as your last meal, and that sometimes when we are apart, you type my first name and the title of the recipe into an internet search, which of course doesn’t turn up anything useful.

When I am thinking about what to cook for you, I return to the recipe as a meditative practice, to the beginning of what I know you can eat. Your appetite changes the recipe over time; I ask what else you want, and I change the recipe to make something that is new and also the same.

For the three hundred and sixty-fifth performance of the recipe I add things that make it sweet and sour and spiced and serve it with lamb patties to evoke a meal we ate with our friends by a river several summers before. Now we are in the city and it is not warm, but when we eat that evening, we are drunk by the river again.

Here again here again here again,
the recipe becomes an ensemble performance.

Writing recipes for you is the beginning of my writing. I begin writing so you will have recipes when you need them – when I am not there. In periods when I stop writing recipes, which is also when I have felt most distant from myself, most anxious, you ask me to write again and say that you miss it. So, I begin again. I am able to do very little without being asked, unable to see a reason why. What purpose would it serve? Your appetite, your asking summons a subject again and again, often just as it is – as I am – fading.

When we do not see each other often and live in different places, I cook a dish for you even though you are not there and have not asked, so that I can write down the new recipe and send it to you.

The original wording of the recipe, which I have not read in many years, recedes in my mind although all of my movements and decisions are shaped by it and are in relation to it, even as they are different.

For the four hundred and fifty-first performance I make the recipe then I use it as the basis for a different dish for two women. Both are hot. There is sexual tension in circulation that I cannot yet articulate. I am in a bad relationship with a man who lives far away, and I am unhappy. I sublimate my feelings into cooking. We eat and then squash together on a sofa to watch a trippy American TV series, the room shimmering with desire. I write a recipe for the dish during the first month of writing down recipes on a website I have made.

The five hundred and third performance of the recipe is wretched. I barely want to eat the dish. I am so paralysed by the fear of failure that writing even one word of my PhD makes it difficult to breathe. I struggle for several hours to get off the sofa before I can cook. I am only able to get off the sofa and cook because a friend rings me and tells me to do so. A ball of sadness and anxiety burns in my torso, making it difficult to taste my food.

I have the feeling that the balance between words and things is off, that words have been mapped onto the world, constraining its wild potential into a narrow use of language. The asymmetry of the word-world relationship bothers me like a physical irritation. For example, the word ‘woman’, about which I can’t say more than it doesn’t sit right with me. It feels like a closed semantic circuit limiting the way I walk, move my hands and my face, use my voice. I want to crack it open, refuse it. I have the urgent desire to sever the bond between the word and my body, my life. What else might I become?

While studying literature and philosophy we look closely at language and its effects, what it does. I find that words have been used like maps to impose order from above. Sometimes writers use language to make it seem like certain forms of knowledge are not knowledge at all, or to make it seem like certain forms of life are not really life. The forms of knowledge and of life that are diminished in the texts we study are almost always attributed to women. In my experience of higher education, conversations about what counts as ‘serious thought’ situate the recipe outside of the space of intellectual enquiry.

When it comes to cooking, the academy is at sea.

But I have also been blind to my own knowledge-making practices, to my own research. I have not seen the knowledge that the recipe gives me as part of ‘what I know’.

The six hundred and fiftieth time I make the recipe I make a space in the sauce halfway through cooking and break in two eggs because it is the morning, and in the morning by this point in my mid-twenties, I eat eggs for breakfast. I eat eggs for breakfast because several years ago I lived in Berlin with people who ate eggs for breakfast. Imitating the egg-eating of the people I lived with in Berlin enables me slowly to overcome a childhood fear and dislike of eggs.

I discover that many people have a strong feeling of connection with eggs; eggs are a good, even inexhaustible, topic for conversation.

Someone I meet from a dating website tells me about the American food writer M.F.K. Fisher. I read her book How to Cook a Wolf and admire the thought: ‘Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.’ (M.F.K. Fisher)

Fisher continues:

Until then, you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly [The egg may not be bothered, but nine years and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too glibly.] from the hen. It lies without thought in the straw, and unless there is a thunderstorm or a sharp rise in temperature it stays fresh enough to please the human palate for several days.

I like Fisher’s concern for the hen who lays the eggs. Fisher thinks of the egg-worker.

There is a long period when, channelling my new-found delight in egg-eating, I crack eggs into the pan. The egg version of the recipe develops its own life. I find that I can give ten people breakfast at once by baking large serving dishes, or make a lunch for one friend to eat with bread.

At one point I begin, then abandon, an essay about the TV detective Columbo and eggs, in which I theorise that Columbo is an egg.

In the episode ‘Murder by the Book’, directed by Steven Spielberg, Columbo wears his eggshell-coloured raincoat and makes an omelette in a suspect’s kitchen. He moves manically round the room, muttering a recipe to himself – ‘cheese, and onions and, um, butter, cheese and, err, I need something to, ah, grate the cheese’ – and cracks eggs until the suspect becomes an egg and cracks too and brings the conversation back to the crime, revealing herself. In other episodes, Columbo produces a hard-boiled (ha ha) egg from his raincoat pocket to eat for breakfast, which he says he prefers with salt. Sometimes he carries a salt shaker in the pockets of his coat. The ordinary but uncanny intimacy brokered by the eggs affects the suspects much like the presence of Columbo. There is an inevitability to the cracking of an egg. If you see it, you know it will be cracked; they see him break the egg on the tyre iron, they know they will be cracked too. Columbo remains unknown and uncracked in his eggshell raincoat. He is the egg who will crack you. He uses eggs to gesture to his inner life, telling stories about a wife we never meet while remaining ‘the most private thing in the world’. The suspects are eggs, Columbo is an egg, the eggs are eggs . . .

. . . I am rapidly losing control of the narrative.

Eggs provoke speculation that spirals out of control.

I make the egg version of the recipe all over the place and for so many people and I change the egg recipe, too. I add:

spiced sausage
and garnish with
garlic yogurt
spiced butter
Turkish chilli flakes
fresh herbs
and more I cannot remember.

Finally, the egg dish becomes as overwrought as a late-Victorian house with too many turrets.

The eight hundred and ninetieth time, I make the recipe because I have nothing else in the cupboard and I have run out of money. I am bored of it, and I don’t want to eat it; I resent it.

The recipe has spattered my clothes and the wall and cookbooks and my computer; it has also spattered other books. Sometimes I am cooking because I am turning away from my PhD about a rewriting of the Odyssey by German poet Barbara Köhler. Often, I am not waving but drowning. As part of my study, I read Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. In it, they present Odysseus’ epic journey and the challenges he overcomes as an allegory for the development of the ‘rational’ subject. In Odysseus’ attempts to defeat various feminine, monstrous and natural Others on his journey, Adorno and Horkheimer see a subject who wants to master the ‘uncivilised’ aspects of life. Odysseus reaches the ironic conclusion that the greatest threat to life is the vital quality of embodied life itself, which is too emotional and too unreliable to be predicted and controlled.

                         Life is too much like spattering! Not enough like language!

In the eight hundredth performance of the recipe, I use butter instead of oil. It smells sweet and musky instead of grassy and peppery and I do it because I want to feel rich and erotic and it works. I have a new friend who makes it in this way, and I imitate her gestures. Through imitating her gestures, I find out something new about flavour that reading the recipe text alone does not reveal.

Odysseus is a logocentrist; he favours ‘language or words to the exclusion or detriment of the matters to which they refer’. (Oxford English Dictionary) When he encounters the Sirens, creatures who are half-bird, half-woman, Odysseus wants to hear their song because it contains knowledge of everything that has happened on the Earth. He wants to have the Sirens’ knowledge for himself, but he wants it without hazarding his body. As he approaches the Sirens, Odysseus ties himself to the mast of his ship and blocks his rowers’ ears with wax, hoping to listen and survive. He will not put his skin in the game. He listens to their song from afar and the rowers keep the ship moving past.

In the nine hundred and twenty-first performance, a decade after the first, I leave out the garlic and add anchovies and rosemary or rosmarinus or ‘dew of the sea’, and then at the end I add double cream because I want to be overtaken by silken intensity and fragrance, a kind of transcendence, and that is what I feel. In a moment of ecstasy as its flavour courses through my body, I call the recipe a goddess.

The knowledge of all things is embedded in the effects of the Sirens’ song on the listener’s body. Sailors are physically drawn to the Sirens when they sing, and therein lies the danger. But when Odysseus ties his body to the mast of the boat and sails by without moving closer, he breaks the connection between their song and the body of the listener. The Sirens’ words lose their bond to the physical world when Odysseus seizes their knowledge and disregards the presence it commands. To avoid the danger of his own desire Odysseus holds the world at arm’s length and language ‘begins to pass over into designation . . .’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, trans. Jephcott) Knowing becomes looking and pointing from a distance.

I realise that in the kitchen I am grappling with the same questions as in my academic study. When I cook the recipe, I experience the difference between the knowledge promised by language, and the unboundedness of embodiment, which is both richer and more dangerous that the text can convey. And sometimes, like Odysseus, I distance myself from other people, from desire, from intimacy. How much should I hazard? Sometimes I want more control than is possible, so I hide rather than risk the vulnerability of proximity.

Can I know a recipe without cooking it?

The more I think about it, the more I think Odysseus is tricking himself. The Sirens’ song is information that is known through an ecstatic collision of words and bodies. It is an invitation to a way of knowing that includes the emergent liveliness of things. Even though he extracts the Sirens’ language, Odysseus cannot receive the knowledge contained in their song because he does not partake of it with his body. By refusing to accept the song as a physical event, Odysseus can only access an abstract version of what it imparts. It is as if Odysseus reads the recipe text but never cooks it. For the Sirens, knowledge is not separable from the song, from singing. I cannot know the recipe text until I cook it.

Cooking by the recipe a thousand times and more gives me this insight into language and its relation to living things.

A recipe that is ‘distanced from any particular content which fulfils it’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, trans. Jephcott) is a joke, is irrational, because it feeds no body.

A recipe that feeds nobody has no future.

Before the recipe was a text it was written by the body: it was cooked. The recipe bears the traces of its corporeal origins by remaining in the service of the body. Without a body (and bodies, things, ingredients) a recipe text makes no sense.

The ethics of the recipe text arise from its proximity to life, to hungry bodies.

The recipe is always gathering life into itself, gathering words and things and people together, again and again. Rolled-up sleeves. How will life continue? Like this, like this, here and there and then and now.

Thinking about the many realities that have unfolded through the scant language of the recipe, I can see words as capacious again, as shifting over time through being cooked again, again, again, differently.

The recipe shows me time as material change. The recipe establishes a correspondence between material change and language, between time and language.

The recipe means that time is no longer divisible like empty abstract space. (Bergson via Deleuze)

The recipe intends life: language surviving through the body, which eats with a different appetite each day.

There is the body and bodies who have produced the recipe and the bodies that it serves, a recipe is a text that is for, for the pleasure of You, you, them.

The recipe only returns at the request of the body.

The recipe serves at the pleasure of the body.

The recipe text will always be specific, or be made specific, and is in dialogue with specific appetites. The recipe is rewritten by the people to whom it attends.

Descriptions of people cooking always move me so much, I think this is why.

In the philosophy and theory I study, the movement of life into language appears again and again as a kind of hollowing out, a loss. A loss of the kind that Odysseus both suffers and inflicts. I do not find a way beyond this impasse until I begin to think through the recipe, until I devote myself to thinking with it. The recipe offers something else; not a nothing at the end of writing, but life returned to language a thousand times over.

The recipe is my epic (and yours too). The recipe is the ship and the hot red sea. In the recipe epic life is measured in spoons of sauce. Again and again the recipe brings me ‘that You(Boyer) who is also every you in particular. You are the beginning of my writing, of my epic.


The thousandth performance of the recipe takes place after speaking to you on the phone.

You tell me you feel anxious and panicky. We have been living through a global pandemic for six months and I have not seen you in person for almost a year. By chance you will be close by at the weekend to see your mother, who is not well. I measure out the oil spoon by spoon as I have not done for several years and follow the written instructions as precisely as I am able. My hands are shaky, and I hold onto the recipe text to navigate. I make double quantities, because I feel like that is what is needed, and pour it into a glass jar that I have sterilised. I carry the tomato sauce with me as I travel to meet you. When I hand it to you your partner says, Oh, is that some kind of special sauce? I say, I just know that you like it. Later on, you tell me that I have given you love in the form of tomato sauce.

I cook the sauce hundreds of times with the thought that I might be making you; then I realise that you have made me.


Photograph © David Brandon Geeting, Clean Apple from Amusement Park

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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