Ben Oliver


Small Fires

An epic in the kitchen
05 October 2023

I won’t write my usual pithy summary of this book at the top of the page, because it’s hard to truly capture the colourful and invigorating explosion of thoughts, recipes and memoirs that Small Fires delivers.

I don’t talk about it much here but I cook a lot, and do all the cooking in our house. This was an eye-opening dialogue on the role of food and cooking in our lives that has helped re-ignite my passion for it as well as better understand my own feelings on the matter.

The book’s opening salvo to rope you in is a persuasive and observant defense of Nigella Lawson’s on-screen style. Where some see a window for mimmickry and are critical of her over-indulgence, Johnson sees a woman doing what she wants and when she wants to. It’s not something to be feared or condmened but celebrated.

Johnson gives a brilliant defense of cooking to a recipe, sometimes seen as old fashioned and constraining. She cries nonsense to the idea that if you can just freeball some ingredients together you are more open and creative, and only then are you a ‘real’ cook. A recipe changes and morphs into something new every time you make it, and the end product is a little bit of you and your mood, wants needs and desires on the page and on the plate.

The ultimate two-fingers to the recipe-free approach is a brilliant chapter on following Mrs. Beeton’s recipe for frying sausages. Eccentric perhaps, but captivating and infectious.

Johnson writes for Vittles which I blow hot and cold on. I love its re-imagining of food writing and horizon-broadening pieces, I’m not so keen on its too-cool-for-school, often London-centric, often quite judgemental tone. And yet none of that is here. Johnson writes personably and convivially and asks the reader to listen, not to follow.

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