Good Taste: Rebecca May Johnson

This is an essay commissioned by Book Works in response to Diana Georgiou’s novel, Other Reflexes. We asked five writers and artists to each respond to one of the book’s chapters, each themed around a particular sense, with a text-based work of some kind. In this piece, Rebecca May Johnson responds to the prompt of taste.

Follow the Good Thing

‘kalon praman which literally translates as good thing’

The ‘good thing’ recurs in Diana Georgiou’s Other Reflexes, and it makes me feel good and hungry at the same time. I am fed by the idea of the ‘good thing’ even before it has been described. I consider its conceptual power.

The best use of the word ‘good’ is when it is applied to food. ‘Good’ is imprecise in ways which enhance its effectiveness in a culinary context; it suits every appetite. When paired with the compelling mystery of an edible ‘thing’, ‘good’ becomes unassailable.

My claim will be supported by biased comparison.

‘Excellent’ infers a simpering interest in competition, in excelling beyond others. It introduces a hierarchical feel to proceedings, officious and uptight. Excellent is by no means relaxed: a dining room appears with chairs that make me sit with a rod straight back. One does not recline into excellence. Furthermore, a dish called excellent in terms of its culinary display might be thin on the ground, scanty in volume. I am not supported, cushioned, or propped up by excellent. Nor does it provoke desire.

‘Great’ suggests pre-eminence but is used too frequently to convince; the word has a hollow ring. It infers significance without describing quality. I use ‘great’ in messages to suggest enthusiasm for a plan when I am really, very tired. ‘Meet you on Tuesday at 8pm.’ Great. On receiving bad news, it expresses sarcasm. Oh great. ‘The place has great food’ is confusing, suggesting neither comfort, nor transcendence but rather, overselling. Suddenly I need proof: the word is not enough, deflating.

‘Delicious’ can be effective and is evocative of something that is good to eat. However there remain unanswered questions: would you want to eat a whole plate of it? Would it overwhelm? Would my palate tire of an abundance of delicious. I would add, too, that one tongue’s delicious is another’s way off the mark – as in, too specific in emphasis, a note that is too strong for half the crowd. A delicious thing could be narrow.

The general aura of benevolence that flows from ‘good thing’ does not point to technical skill, though it may be the result of great technical skill – it does not require such forensic admiration. A good thing is instantly familiar and puts me at ease; we don’t have to change to meet its level, a ‘good thing’ meets us at our level, whatever that is –

‘…two smooth, flat, black beach stones and a bowl of almonds. ‘Play with this,’ she said, with her dark blue eyes smiling at me.’

The nature of a ‘good thing’ could be that it confers ‘good feeling’ upon the eater, an improvement to mood or spiritual wellbeing. There is also the idea that eating it might be ‘good for’ us in the sense of nonspecific but definite benefit to health. The effects of a ‘good thing’ are holistic and ever-expanding – 

‘The women who trusted grandma did so on account of her cooking…
…a single bite from one of her dishes would suffice to banish any doubt.’

A good thing inspires confidence and that is why it spreads through time: I saw a man film himself cooking a soup and speaking about two generations before him over a hundred years who made the soup and said he was making it because it was good and then I made it and it made me feel good and I fed it to my lover then my lover made it and it made us and two others feel good and they asked how it was made and suggested they might make it too.

‘Grandma’s version of the chronicles of the good thing began with the Egyptians.’

Because it is the grandma who cooks the good thing, it is grandma who writes its history for her audience. She overrules those who would dissent – in the ‘three parallel streets either side of her house’, anyway. When ingested, a good thing overtakes the mind-body like a sweet drug, melting divisions produced by logocentrism –

Conversation would often lead to red cheeks and quavering voices competing on the level of sound rather than rhetoric. Perhaps this is why there was always some syrupy semolina and almond baked good thing lying around. It helped to keep their mouths occupied; to sweeten hoarse throats and sour faces; to make them pause and take turns in speaking. I kept my mouth shut through those tournaments and even when I grew up, I knew it was better to just eat the cake.

A good thing is truthful – you know it when you taste it.

Rebecca May Johnson is a writer and co-editor of Vittles. Her first book, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, was published by Pushkin Press in 2022. She earned a PhD in Contemporary German Literature from UCL for her study of Barbara Köhler’s reworking of the Odyssey, Niemands Frau.

Other Reflexes is out now – order it here.

Good Taste: Rebecca May Johnson; ; 2024; | Commissions: IntersticesOther Responses Artist: Georgiou, Diana; Contributor: Johnson, Rebecca May; Editors: Homersham, Lizzie; Penney, Bridget; Shlaim, Tamar; | Publisher: Book Works: