There is a German word, kummerspeck, that translates literally as ‘grief-bacon,’ and metaphorically as ‘comfort eating’. This book is the grief-bacon book…This is the book I wanted to read when I was sad, but it’s also a book for good days.
I’m not going to make it a regular thing to review cookbooks, because I’m not making it a regular thing to read them. I picked this one up because it had something that made me think that, in terms of literary value, it was more than merely a recipe collection, and it is.
British writer and poet Ella Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken & Other Recipes Worth Living For is a cookbook but it’s much more, including more readable (you can read it cover to cover), thanks to Risbridger’s experience before writing it. She’d attempted suicide, and while recovering from that lowest point, found cooking therapeutic, as many of us do.
Developing recipes and preparing meals not only distracted her when she needed distracting, but helped her fall back in love with the world. The book has a strong memoir aspect built of Risbridger’s reflections around these dishes, their meaning and soothing or healing abilities, and ideas of food as a tool for reconnecting with life and helping to make it worth living even in its darkest moments.
But this is a hopeful story. It’s the story of how I got up off the floor.
It’s also the story of how to roast a chicken, and how to eat it. This is a story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. More importantly, this is a story about wanting to be alive.
It reads more personally than other cookbooks, with longer, story-like introductions to most recipes. Risbridger’s voice is dreamy, warm, candid, and hopeful. She writes in a calmly reassuring tone about things that are helpful to hear. With plenty of gentle, kind encouragements to keep going, keep living, whatever the circumstances may be: “Dinner as a glorious reward for a day done well, or consolation for a day gone badly, or just a plain old celebration of still being here, of having survived another one.”
Then there’s the story she tells in the acknowledgements/I learned by googling, that her partner, referenced lovingly throughout and who supported her through her depression, passed away as she was finishing the book. The thought that all of this involved so much of him and the essence of their lives and preserving the memory of that broke me a little.
But that story and sentimentality aside, I was disappointed. I read an NPR interview and couldn’t get this fast enough, sensing shades of Laurie Colwin. The more I read, I realized the anticipated magic wasn’t happening. I didn’t always connect with the voice, and I hate to say this because it shouldn’t be a factor, but as I felt happened somewhat here, I might be a tad older than the intended audience. This is a book to be read in your twenties if possible, and then as soon as possible. It’ll soothe your spirit and warm your heart when you need it.
With the recipes, I think my tastes are just different — she promises you’ll learn to love anchovies and sardines with these but I know myself too well and it’s not happening. If this particular door is still open for you, go forth bravely. They can be omitted from some of the recipes, as can olives, which I’m always dismayed to see are heavily involved in anything, but these omissions and all the other little adjustments I was mentally making mean that it’s kind of taking the heart out of much of it.
There’s an apology in the desserts section about not being big on sweets which I thought was taking the piss (am I using that right?) because there’s SO much sweet stuff in breakfasts and other non-dessert recipes, from amaretto in soup to pomegranate molasses in salad to blackberries on pizza (with tomato sauce, to my surprise). If these things sound good to you and match your general tastes, you’ll love this for the cooking alone; acquire immediately.
On the other hand, the Midnight Chicken recipe sounds amazing enough for me to attempt roasting a whole chicken for the first time, and some things like tomato garlic soup, “trashy ginger beer chicken”, soy-lime salmon and sticky rice, “uplifting chili and lemon spaghetti,” and green harissa sound fantastic. But it felt like wading through too much baking, breadmaking and sort of involved savory pastry-type things to get to the kind of dishes I actually like. Just personal preference — give the recipes a browse before you commit.
Artist Elisa Cunningham’s watercolors are perfect– cheerful, sunny, and appealing, and Risbridger’s spirit is really something. I loved the message of all these little, happy, reassuring moments you can create adding up to a life worth living. That was absolutely lovely and worthwhile and something I’ll be keeping in mind on bad days. Particularly from an emotional perspective, although also for its detailed but frequently joking kitchen instructions, it’s a book that’ll help a lot of people. 3/5
This may have looked like a cookbook, but what it really is is an annotated list of things worth living for: a manifesto of moments worth living for…
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.
Midnight Chicken: & Other Recipes Worth Living For
by Ella Risbridger
published June 11 2019 by Bloomsbury in the US