For n+1, Marian Bull highlights Rebecca May Johnson’s book Small Fires and hails the author for considering recipes as translation and cooking as performance. This is a satisfying read that will set any self-trained home cook free in the kitchen.
IN THE EARLY 1980S, cookbook author Marcella Hazan published the recipe for a simple tomato sauce (no, not that one) made from just olive oil, tomatoes, basil, and five cloves of garlic, finely chopped. According to Hazan’s headnote in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, in which she reprinted the recipe, it is a version of a traditional Roman sauce named for the city’s carrettieri. These long-ago cart drivers brought wine and produce to the city from the surrounding hills; their pasta sauces were cheap and improvised from the “least expensive, most abundant, ingredients available to them.” Hazan’s version of the recipe instructs the cook to combine the oil, garlic, and tomatoes (fresh or tinned) in a pot and simmer them gently, “until the oil floats free from the tomato,” before seasoning with salt and adding a large bunch of fresh basil whose leaves have been torn by hand.
Such was the recipe when Rebecca May Johnson, a London-based writer and academic, found it. In the ten-plus years since, she has cooked it over a thousand times, a process she calls, in her new book Small Fires, a “hot red epic.” She has cooked it faithfully to Rogers, faithfully to Hazan, and unfaithfully every which way: eyeballing measurements, skipping the basil when she can’t afford it, cracking in eggs, adding capers, adding rosemary, adding sausage, adding coriander, adding a soundtrack of Giorgio Moroder, whose exclusion from the original was not explicit, but whose inclusion still colors the reality of the dish. Hazan’s sauce alights Johnson’s investigation into the recipe as a literary text, as a mode of cultural transmission, as nothing less than a way of understanding the world.