Warming yolk with milky rice

You cannot own a recipe, you can only be its tenant.

You really feel the walls of a recipe text the first time you cook it. You act out the words and feel the contours of a structure that holds you (Winnicott) as you learn to move this way and that, navigating a new space. Can you actually read a recipe without moving into it, without crossing a threshold? I don’t think so! Perhaps you will make the place your own with the flourish of your wrist, your racing heart, and count the years held up by its walls. But you cannot own a recipe, you can only be a recipe tenant—and no less for that.

I recently found out that Gillian Rose’s first book of philosophy started out as a commission for a cookery book: to write philosophy, begin by cooking and writing down a recipe. The book, which turned out to be The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno contains no trace of its origin story, save a sly hint in the final sentence: ‘His ‘morality’ is a praxis of thought, not a recipe for social and political action.’ The irony of this statement is that a recipe text demands translation into praxis and hangs limp in theory. The way a person enacts a recipe is a praxis of their thoughts about much beyond the recipe. Along with socio-political observations (shortcuts because precarious labour has tired you out; substitutions because ingredients are more expensive today than yesterday; cooking here to feel like being there), there are the thoughts held in the body that may not have been articulated in languagea particular inhabitation.

I felt a kinship with Gillian Rose when I found out about the cookery-turned-philosophy book because I began writing recipes when I was supposed to be writing about Adorno. I began documenting recipes I had cooked in part because of what Adorno taught me: do not turn away from the siren-voice of the body in search of stone-cold reason. In her book of memoir and philosophy Love’s Work, Rose says she learned cookery from Alice B. Toklas when she moved to New York in her 20s along with continental philosophy, homosexuality, popular music, Häagen-Daaz ice cream, the German language, Adorno… Alice B. Toklas, the partner of Gertrude Stein, is an appropriate recipe writer to be mixed up in such a list. One of the stylistic aspects of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook that I like very much is the way the recipes emerge out of and also interrupt life, compelling actiongrammatically and on the page:

Señora B. said the longer it cooked the better the flavour would be. Señora B. would start it early in the morning and would entrust it to me when she went to mass. It was a compliment I could have dispensed with. As she was so little she stood on a footstool before her charcoal fire. In her simple but voluminous dark cashmere clothes she looked like a Zurbarán angel.

Here is my version of the…

DULCE (2)

Put 2 cups sugar and…

The recipe texts are written and presented on the page in a format which can be practicably cooked, enabling the movement of the recipe from printed text into (your) life. Toklas’ mode of writing recipes is democratic to the reader and future cook (and so, to the future), and to the people who gave the recipes, servant, café, cook, friend (to the past, the people) to whom she often devotes considerable commentary. Gertrude Stein wrote recipe-poems in Tender Buttons whose titles could have come from Toklas’s recipe book:

SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE

Please pale hot, please cover rose, please acre in the red stranger, please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces.

SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE

It was please it was please carriage cup in an ice-cream, in an ice-cream it was too bended bended with scissors and all this time. A whole is inside a part, a part does go away, a hole is red leaf. No choice was where there was and a second and a second.[1]

Sameness and a loss of distinctiveness might be expected to follow the repetition of SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE, but two instances of the same recipe produce different urges and desires and transformations of matter. Repetition and dissemination enrich rather than impoverish the recipe, giving many hands powers of transformation. The recipe text can exemplify the revolutionary potency of language that is on the brink of translation into life.

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor writes ‘White folks act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surrounding it—something that only Julia and Kim can get to. There is no mystique. Food is food. Everybody eats!’[2] Recipes cannot be copyrighted in the UK and US because it is impossible to trace original ownership: I find a latent radicality in this fact. Tenancy for all is legally permitted, with no landlord. ~Imagine! This is not to suggest that people have not attempted to turn recipes into commodities in order to extract capital from them in appropriative, neo-colonial modes, they have, they do. But total commodification remains elusive—‘Everybody eats!’—and people will whisper and DM and text and pass notes and self-publish and email and translate and abbreviate recipes for each other like billy-o.

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Notes on cooking Claudia Roden’s Reiz Kugel from the Book of Jewish Food, in reverse order:

July ’20 Yesterday I made rice pudding in the afternoon-early evening. I was quite tired as I often am recently, and so I was ultra-methodical: I measured the ingredients and put them into separate bowls like on TVegg yolks, egg whites, rice, sugarand retrieved the milk from the fridge. I tasted some of the milk to see if it was off…

because on a previous occasion (unrecorded in my notes) I poured the milk into the pan to heat with the rice and it was off, curdled, and I had to throw it all away.

Although or because I was tired I wanted to do something new. I feel leaden and option two on the list of suggested variations to the basic recipe was a baked soufflé: an ideal aeration! I thought of how egg whites usually accumulate in overfull bowls in the fridge before being thrown away and decided that soufflé was it. I chose something to listen to while I cook, writers Jennifer Hodgson, Deborah Levy and Juliet Jacques talking about the writer Ann Quin.[3] Their voices anticipated the effect of the electric whisk on the egg whites and made me much fluffier and hopeful. I got going and almost repeated my mistake from the other day of leaving the rice in the water for too long after blanching, this time because I got distracted by cooking rhubarb with cardamom and lemon. It sat in its salted water for one or two minutes extra to its prescribed 5-minutes, but no disaster. Then the milk erupted and almost boiled over but didn’t. After that it was plain sailing. I mixed a little cooled milky rice in with the yolks to slowly bring their temperature up and poured it all into a baking dish. I folded stiffly beaten whites into the sweet rice-yolk-milk mixture with a metal spoon. After 18 minutes in the oven the top was bronzed and puffed up. We ate it at room temperature several hours later with rhubarb and double cream. S observed that as a soufflé, it needed a little more sugar on top.

June ’20 On Saturday when I made Claudia Roden’s Reiz Kugel I added extra milk and didn’t cook for quite as long, so it stayed silky when cool. I ate it with the gooseberry jam that Peter [from the allotment] gave me.

May ’20 When I made rice pudding the other day I left the rice sitting in the water too long.

With hot rice pudding it often seems milkier, wetter than it eventually ends up being when it cools.

June ’19… creamy sweet rose-scented pudding and brightest orange apricot. When I cooked rice pudding as part of a summer solstice ritual I summoned a vitality drawn from the sun to exalt the bodies and minds of my friends.

February ’19 A method I had not triedthickening the cooling sweet milky rice with egg yolks, stirring until it becomes custard-like. Oh boy!

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In the spirit of utopian tenancy, I have invited five writers to cook the recipe ‘Reiz Kugel’, published in Claudia Roden’s 1996 Book of Jewish Food, and to note down (in whatever form they chose) their response to cooking it, their inhabitations of the recipe. I have found it very interesting to see what changed and what was similar in each person’s tenancy of the recipe text. These accounts will be published in part ii.

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Recipe page

[1] See Susannah Worth’s brilliant book Digesting Recipes: The Art of Culinary Notation (London: Zero Books, 2015) for more on this, and other instances of recipes in art.

[2] Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015)—but first published in 1970.

[3] https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/deborah-levy-juliet-jacques-and-jennifer-hodgson-ann-quin/id734373360?i=1000485182463

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Rebecca May Johnson is a writer whose debut creative nonfiction book SMALL FIRES, Pleasure & Resistance in the Kitchen will be published in 2022 by the ONE imprint of Pushkin Press. The monograph based on her PhD, ‘Unweaving the Odyssey: Barbara Köhler’s Niemands Frau’ was published in 2019.


TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.

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