A cookbook might seem an odd choice for a book review on a mental-focused platform. However, Ella Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken is no ordinary cookbook. There are recipes, sure, but it is more than that. In the author’s own words: “what it really is is an annotated list of things worth living for: a manifesto of moments worth living for”.
Accompanying each beautifully-illustrated recipe is anecdotes and stories from Risbridger’s own life. In the first, for the titular Midnight Chicken, she explains that this story began when she was lying on the hallway floor, looking up at a raw chicken in a cloth bag, wondering if she could stay there forever. But this, as she says, is “a hopeful story”.
“This is the story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive.”
Many recipes detail moments she realised there was a way of picking herself up off the floor and putting one foot in front of each other. Whether in the form of Challah Bread made to smooth the rough edges of grief, “Life Affirming Mussels” that can sit in the memory as a reminder of life’s more beautiful moments, or simply avocado on toast made to make facing the world seem like less of a challenge, Risbridger seasons each story with small details and kind reminders that sometimes all the prompts you need that life can be lovely can be found in your own kitchen cupboard.
Risbridger writes compellingly throughout. Unusually for me, I found myself turning each page desperate not to look at the next delicious recipe (believe me; they look lush!) but instead to read each anecdote and understand what significance each meal had in Risbridger’s own life. It’s beautifully written and packs a real emotional punch, demonstrating how important food can be in life.
However, what really brought this home for me came whilst reading the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Just as Risbridger finished writing the final draft of this book, her partner (who she talks about throughout the book as the “The Tall Man”) died. It is a gut punch written in a section in books usually reserved for effusive thanks to people we don’t know. It truly and tragically emphasises what Risbridger demonstrates throughout the book about the power of shared memories made at the table. As she says, “I wrote [this book] at least in part to keep our world alive, if he couldn’t be”.
This sentiment was particularly compelling to me. After losing my dad, my most powerful and enduring memories of him often seem to involve food. The soups he made that always seemed to be bubbling away on the hob (carrot and coriander; broccoli and stilton….), the plate of chips he proudly made from the potatoes he’d grown in the back garden, and of course, the big plate of garlic and chilli spaghetti my auntie made the night after he’d died and the rest of us were sat very still not wanting to move.
Food is life. It’s memories made in exotic lands or on your lap curled up on the sofa; it’s a balm for sadness or the perfect overture to an even more perfect day; to quote Risbridger:
“Dinner parties and Saturday afternoons in the kitchen, and lazy breakfasts, and picnics on the heath […] Moments, hours, mornings, afternoons, days. And days worth living for add up to weeks, and weeks worth living for add up to months, and so on and so on, until you’ve unexpectedly built yourself a life worth having; a life worth living”
This book review was written by ECBC contributor and designated cook, Matt. If you want to submit your own book review, check out our blog submission guidelines.