My favorite kind of cookbook is the kind that reads like a novel. I don’t need a good cookbook to teach me new techniques or give me new ingredients. I just want it to wrap me up in the peculiar warm comfort of good food writing: that sense of food as refuge, food as sanctuary, food as an affirmation of life. I will happily read a recipe for scrambled eggs if it can give me that sense (M.F.K. Fisher’s does, and so does Laurie Colwin’s).
Midnight Chicken, a new cookbook by British author Ella Risbridger, probably could teach me some new techniques, if I were to read it like an instruction manual. I have my eye on Risbridger’s recipe for bolognese (it involves an ox cheek and four squares of dark chocolate), although it strikes me as something better cooked on a chilly November day than in June. And her recipe for labneh reads beautifully simply: “I promise you this is as simple and good as it sounds,” she writes, “and I would never lie to you about cheese.”
But reading Midnight Chicken that way would be a waste, because everything about this book begs to be savored and enjoyed. It’s a beautiful book, and I mean that in multiple senses.
It’s beautiful to look at. It has the kind of sturdy cloth binding you want from a book you plan to bang around the kitchen, but it doesn’t look utilitarian. It’s strewn with delicate watercolor illustrations by artist Elisa Cunningham that are alternately instructive diagrams or mood pieces: pickles dancing down the margins on this page, directions for how to braid challah on this one, a double-page spread showing an idyllic park picnic over there.
And it’s beautiful to read. Risbridger’s voice is lyrical and tender, and her voice carries through her instructions so easily that she passes my scrambled egg test without breaking a sweat. “Don’t bother adding cream or milk,” she instructs firmly; “it only dilutes the egginess, and makes them pallid.”
Throughout Midnight Chicken, Risbridger is writing as much about life as she is about food. It’s a sort of set of instructions for what she thinks the best way to live your life is. “I take mine black, first thing,” she writes of coffee. “Black, and back to bed — and perhaps that’s a good rule, for the morning: however you begin, take it back to bed. I set the alarm ten minutes earlier just for this.”
But of course this is a cookbook, and food is the main thing here — the main metaphor through which Risbridger thinks about life. In this book, food is a means of soothing, a means of healing. Risbridger begins the book with a particularly bad bout of depression, one that leaves her lying on her hall floor, staring up at a raw chicken still in a grocery bag. Midnight Chicken, she tells us, is “the story of how I got up off the floor,” and roasted her chicken and ate it at midnight.
“This is a story of eating things,” she writes, “which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. More importantly, this is a story about wanting to be alive.” And so she walks us through the recipes for Life Affirming Mussels and Reading in the Rafters Parkin and Stuck in a Bookshop Salmon & Sticky Rice.
Tucked away in the back matter, there’s a tragic coda. Risbridger writes frequently about her partner John Underwood, whom she refers to as the Tall Man, but it’s not until the acknowledgments that she explains that he died in the spring of 2018. “This book was written in hospital corridors and chapels and in the long, lonely nights watching to see if he was still breathing,” she writes, “and I wrote it at least in part to keep our world alive if he couldn’t be.”
Risbridger’s frequent reminders that life is worth living and enjoying are, in this context, extremely hard-won. That’s part of what keeps them from feeling maudlin and gives them their force: They are written by someone who believes them because she has to.
At the end of the book, Risbridger appends a list of “Three Last Things.” After reminding us to wash the dishes as we go and smell the food as we cook, she writes comfortingly, with telling parentheses: “It’s probably all going to be fine (in the end).”