Photo credit: Justine Stoddart
Since I have started answering interview questions about my novel Supper Club
, I have been asked the question a few times: “Why did you decide to include recipes in the novel, and what do they represent?” And while I do have a number of sections dedicated to the methodical process of cooking or baking a particular food — kimchi, sourdough, spaghetti puttanesca, caramelized onions — I don’t necessarily think of them as recipes, but more the embodied experience of following a recipe, or thoughts on a recipe.
The first passage I wrote in this mode was a section that quite meticulously details the various methods for caramelizing onions — the Momofuku method and the Julia Child method, among others. When I wrote a first draft of the novel, I wasn’t quite sure what I found so interesting about painstakingly and systematically recounting the different methods for caramelizing onions, but I knew there was something about writing that section which felt quite calming, a small moment of clear-eyed clarity in a process in which I was often thinking and writing about the physical experience of anxiety, usually feeling quite anxious myself. I wasn’t sure whether I would definitely keep that section; however, as the novel expanded, I felt these interstitial almost-recipes felt increasingly urgent, and I found myself writing more and more of them.
These sections now feel very important to the novel. Thinking about my own experiences of cooking, and of following a recipe, something I found very appealing about it is that it is an action that forces me to be within my own body: to move around a kitchen, to feel hot and cold, to touch and taste and smell. I also feel I inhabit my body in quite an unselfconscious way when I am cooking: I am going through the motions of following a task. When I first met my editor, she told me she thought these sections had a slightly ASMR-like quality to them, which is something I really related to: I wanted them to feel meticulous, methodical, physical, and even a little boring.
[C]ooking...is often an invisible form of women’s work and yet offers the potential to be creative, regenerative, soothing, and self-nourishing.
Literary recipes have a somewhat cult following: there are blog posts and books devoted to recreating, for example, Aunt An-mei’s wonton soup
from The Joy Luck Club
or the crab and crab and mayonnaise stuffed avocados
from The Bell Jar
. But it seems there are only a few books which feature full recipes in them. The 2013 spy novel Red Sparrow
(and the source material for the 2018 Jennifer Lawrence film) apparently (and unexpectedly!) has recipes punctuating the end of every chapter, and the 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
features the recipes from the eponymous cafe at the end of the novel. Recipes are often, it seems, featured in cozy mysteries: a subgenre of crime fiction in which a usually female amateur detective solves a murder or crime in a small village. However, the most famous book to feature recipes is surely Nora Ephron’s widely beloved 1983 novel Heartburn
is about the breakdown of a marriage between Rachel Samstat and Mark Feldman, a food writer and a political journalist, but it is about much more beyond this: infidelity, pregnancy, revenge, recovery. Recipes are featured throughout the novel, and there is a real sense of democracy in the sorts of recipes Ephron chose to include, with everything from instructions on how to boil an egg and make mashed potatoes to recipes for linguine alla cecca and sorrel soup. The recipes and, in turn, the act of cooking, serve as many things throughout the novel: they offer a respite from Samstat’s heartache, they offer nourishment and comfort, they are sometimes a surrogate for security and sex, and they are a way through which she is able to perform her self-worth and ability to exist beyond her marriage, if even just for herself. However, Ephron acknowledges the tensions that often exist in women’s relationship with cooking. “Every so often I would look at my women friends who were happily married and didn't cook,” Samstat says, “and I would always find myself wondering how they did it. Would anyone love me if I couldn’t cook? I always thought cooking was part of the package: Step right up, it’s Rachel Samstat, she’s bright, she’s funny and she can cook.”
Something that interested me while writing Supper Club
was what cooking represents to women: it is often a drudgery, a sometimes-thankless form of domestic labor, yet it is also an important leisure activity and a way of relaxing. Food cooked by men in restaurants is seen as scientific, serious, whereas food cooked by women at home is seen as negligible, trivial. Men are perhaps inclined to have a less conflicted relationship with cooking, to view cooking as more of a leisure activity or to take a hobbyist’s approach, as they are less likely to pick up the bulk of the food work in a household. Women might have a harder time reconciling cooking as something relaxing and enjoyable when they are more likely to be responsible for getting food on the table for the family every night. Something I wanted to explore in Supper Club
is the tension at the heart of women cooking: it is often an invisible form of women’s work and yet offers the potential to be creative, regenerative, soothing, and self-nourishing.
I recently watched a scene in the new season of Good Girls
, which speaks to some of the ideas I was exploring in Supper Club
. The show follows three suburban mothers who find themselves in respectively desperate situations and start working for an organized crime group. In this scene, one of the mothers explains to their crime boss how a bundt cake is different from a fruitcake or an upside-down cake. The show does good work in dignifying various forms of domestic labor, from childcare through to housework, not just as work, but as skilled work: work requiring meticulous planning and a breadth of knowledge and experience. When Christina Hendricks, the actor playing the character, talks about the bundt cake, her language is precise and authoritative, her delivery is confident. It is only a very short scene but it felt quite exciting, a small nod of acknowledgement that cooking something at home is work worthy of feeling good about. It feels there is something of a cultural shift towards acknowledging the fraught terrain women’s work can be, moving away from a certain feeling of snobbery exhibited towards women who gained pleasure or satisfaction from engaging in these typically “feminine” activities. In Supper Club
, I wanted to explore how cooking, and in particular, how cooking for other women, could be a vital reclamation.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the short story collection A Selfie as Big as the Ritz
. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian
, The Independent
, Vice, the Times Literary Supplement
, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is featured in Best British Short Stories 2017
. She writes and teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She lives in Manchester, England. Her debut novel, Supper Club,
is a sharply intelligent, intimate, and timely portrait of female awakening and an essential coming-of-age story for our times, offering a unique take on womanhood, female desire, female friendship, and the radical potential of food.