“Midnight Chicken” is ostensibly a cookbook — there are more than 80 recipes here, from breakfast to dessert — but it’s more than a list of instructions on how to make a really good roasted chicken, proper Bolognese or salted caramel brown butter brownies. It’s a candid account of how making these foods — or any foods, really — can be a profoundly rejuvenating experience. It is also, slyly, a love story that takes a bittersweet turn halfway down the first page of acknowledgments.
Before you reach that twist, though, delight in the pages that precede it: a charming, witty coming-of-age-slash-recovery story that is refreshingly free of saccharine (the ingredient and the sentiment), a cookbook that rewards creativity over rules. (How do you know when your sticky rice is ready? Ditch the timer and put a few grains in your mouth: They should “taste nutty-sweet, a little sharp, a little sour; dense and dark, yet strangely wholesome — like a risotto in a black hole.”) Perhaps it’s not surprising that Risbridger’s next book is a poetry collection, or that the role models she’s been likened to are Nigella Lawson and Laurie Colwin.
Risbridger has also been compared to Sylvia Plath, which she finds both flattering and alarming. Anyway, she doesn’t want to dwell on her dark moments. “A lot of people, cleverer and more learned than me, have written books about why people try to kill themselves,” Risbridger writes. “I prefer to think of the reasons I didn’t.”
Her book is full of them: ad-hoc recipes that find their way to deliciousness, messy dinner parties that last till morning, meals eaten under the stars with friends. Her recipes come with titles like, “In Defence of Avocado Toast,” “Would I Lie to You Labneh” and “Inelegant Samosas.”
“The cooking you will find here is the kind of cooking you can do a little bit drunk,” she writes. “It’s the kind of cooking that will forgive you if you forget about it for a while, or if you’re less than precise with your weighing and measuring.” (Beware, too: The oven temperatures are in Celsius.)
Midnight chicken, for instance, is made with a 1.6 kg bird and about 8 cloves of garlic “or as many as you can muster.” This was one of the first recipe she wrote — on her blog, Eating With My Fingers — the one that sparked her interest in food (and life). It’s the one she cooked with her live-in boyfriend, a man she affectionately refers to in the book only as Tall Man. It was Tall Man — a nearly 6-foot-6 journalist whose real name is John Underwood — who one day found her lying on the floor, frozen with despair.
Nearby was a chair, on the back of which hung a cloth bag with a chicken inside. The couple cooked that chicken together, and later, after the bus incident, a pie — an adaptation of her grandmother’s that includes 125 grams of lard. “It was like a little map,” she writes. “I will get through this. I will cook something, and I will eat it and I will be alive.”
Could recovery be this simple? Of course not, Risbridger says: “Depression is not logical, anxiety is not logical. If it were, it would be a lot easier to get out of it.” Still, her bird-by-bird approach worked. All these years later, Risbridger exudes good cheer. “I’m amazing,” she said by phone from her home in London recently, where she was putting the finishing touches on her next book, “Set Me on Fire: A Poem for Every Feeling,” and preparing to shop for that evening’s dinner (“a risotto with peas, possibly ham”). Now 26, she has given up coffee, and spends her days writing and planning meals.
“Midnight Chicken” is, by Risbridger’s own account, a rookie cookbook. She did not attend cooking school but studied comparative literature at King’s College, London (where a favorite book was “Midnight’s Children”). The recipes here are quite basic (and many quite British): cheese scones, chili-and-lemon spaghetti, “glumday porridge,” chicken curry, rare roast beef for two. They are comfort foods written by a woman who was seeking comfort — not only because of her own mental health struggles, but also, we learn in that twist in the acknowledgments, because at age 25, Tall Man was diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma. Much of this book was written in hospital corridors, its recipes tested late at night, after long days spent around food that was less than appetizing.
But the result is a scrapbook of happier times, a feeling that’s captured, too, by the whimsical watercolor illustrations by Elisa Cunningham. “This is a book about life, a book about joy, it’s a book about making the best of what you have,” Risbridger says.
Risbridger made the best of what she had. During some very difficult days, she found her way into the kitchen, notebook in hand, and conjured up not just recipes, but memories, stories, hope. Before Risbridger gets to the cooking, she wends her way through the past, in essays that paint a picture of a young woman who loves books and family and friends, a woman you’d want to have dinner with, and even better, have her cook it for you:
“My grandfather let me eat apple pie for breakfast. Once we asked him could we have ice cream before breakfast, and he said if we could find any, we were welcome to it. We went to the outside freezer and found two boxes of Cornettos. He let us eat them all. . .He was kind when he saw us, but he did not see us often, and when he died, I had not seen him in a long time. . . .[He was] a person whose death left no hole in my present, but whose dying made a clear breach with the past: someone I missed not for me, but for who I used to be. How do you grieve for someone you no longer know? Me, I grieved with bread. Bread is the staff (stuff?) of grief because it is the staff of life. Tiny microscopic life forms, breathing and bubbling and growing under your hands: It lives.”
That’s the opening of “How to Grieve With Challah Bread,” a recipe that Risbridger would sadly come to need again. Go out and buy some flour, eggs, salt, sugar, oil and yeast. “Begin with the yeast,” as Risbridger suggests, and feel how “life goes on.”
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.
& Other Recipes Worth Living For
Bloomsbury. 288 pp. $30