How Cooking Made Living Seem Possible

Book review: Midnight Chicken, by Ella Risbridger (Amazon / Book Depository)

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

Amazon Book Depository

14 thoughts on “How Cooking Made Living Seem Possible

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  1. Currently I hate cooking as I am always having to feed teen boys who demand meat all the time and do not do vegetables or fruit. Quite how they have avoided scurvy is a mystery. The Colwin books sounds good if ever I liberate myself from the teen feeding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no, that would be really tough! How ARE they avoiding scurvy if they’re eating like that? Sounds kind of like how my husband ate when we first met though! There’s a lot of meat in these recipes, if you need some more ideas… also in some kind of unexpected ways, like using pancetta for flavoring and the like. Laurie Colwin’s books are so lovely, I can’t recommend them enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I was around 30 when I roasted my first chicken, and if you buy yourself a chicken roaster (I found mine at a garage sale), it’s quite easy! The hard part is taking the stupid chicken apart. I know there are videos online of how to de-bone a chicken, but good gravy. If I’m going to do it, I’m making a turkey and saving most of it in freezer bags so I only have to do it once in a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deboning it does sound incredibly unpleasant. I can’t remember how this recipe dealt with that, I’ll have to check it again. The style in these was big on just kind of casually tearing into things and soaking up the sauce with bread, that kind of thing. Roasting one has always seemed so ambitious when I’m fine with cooking the parts as is, but the recipe made it sound worth attempting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like an interesting mash up of genres-I like the idea of a cookbook/memoir that’s readable. But, I do review cookbooks because I frequently follow recipes, and to be honest, the recipes in this book sound kind of gross LOL obviously this is completely subjective but I dont’ like sardines, anchovies, olives, and the idea of blueberries on pizza is sort of unappetizing…I feel bad writing that, but I dont’ think this book would be for me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt bad writing it too, but if I’d realized the recipes were more like that I would’ve waited to get it at the library instead of buying it since there were only a dozen or so I ended up marking to try. So if I can help someone else realize it’s not really for them, all the better 🙂 Blackberries on pizza was one I had to read over a few times, I thought I was misreading something. I could even imagine it as some kind of…white pizza/flatbread thing MAYBE (still not so appetizing) but definitely not with tomato sauce.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the recipes in this book (though you are right – the amount of sweet stuff in the non-sweet recipes is absurd and gives the lie to the “no sweet tooth” thing) – but then I do love both olives and anchovies, so they are probably more up my street. I recommend the midnight chicken recipe completely – I roast a whole chicken fairly often, because it’s a pretty cost-effective way of making several meals at once, and this is my very favourite way to do it.

    I do agree about the voice, though – I’m 29, and I felt like I was just within the upper end of the target demographic, and too old for it a couple of times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a dozen or so recipes bookmarked, I think I was just disappointed as I was making mental edits in so many of them because there was so much that didn’t fit my tastes. The midnight chicken recipe was such a standout though! I’m still a little intimidated by the whole chicken but it sounds too good not to attempt 🙂

      I’m 33 and felt way beyond the target demographic. I didn’t get the impression it would be like that at all from the excerpts and reviews I’d read though, so that was disappointing too. I would recommend it unhesitatingly to younger people though, I could see where it might affect others completely differently. I’m glad you got so many good recipes from it!

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