Ella Risbridger’s new cookbook opens predictably enough: “There are lots of ways to start a story, but this one begins with a chicken.” Here is the universal emblem of home cooking in the West — the poultry for every pot.
The second sentence is a little more ambiguous. “It was the first story I ever wrote about food, and it begins with a chicken in a cloth bag hanging on the back of a kitchen chair.”
And then the third. “It was dark outside, and I was lying on the hall floor, looking at the chicken through the door, and looking at the rust in the door hinges, and wondering if I was ever going to get up.”
Spoiler alert: As the British writer promises, “this is a hopeful story … a story about wanting to be alive.” But before she wanted to be alive, she didn’t. What she thought about, in the hospital, after attempting to step in front of a London bus, was baking pie. “I remember the pie, and I remember the way I worked through each ingredient, step by step, and how, when the duty psychiatrist asked me why, I could only think of short crust and soften the leeks in Irish butter until translucent and rub the butter into the flour and bind with milk,” she writes. It’s one of the only things she remembers about that hospital. And it was all she could think about until she went home and, with some assistance, made that pie. It was a small triumph that helped her begin to see that she had survived, that maybe she would “stop crying all the time” and, perhaps, “carry on cooking.” She did.
“Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For)” is the record of Risbridger’s learning to cope: “a kind of guidebook for falling back in love with the world, a how-to of weathering storms and finding your pattern and living, really living.”
She might have written a memoir with recipes, the format followed by Nora Ephron, Madhur Jaffrey, Nigel Slater and Ruth Reichl, to name a few. But Risbridger has instead given us a cookbook she hopes we get full of crumbs and sticky with sauce and syrup.
She didn’t intend to write a cookbook at age 21, when she set out on what would be a five-year project. But cooking saved her life, and she hoped to pass that along in an actionable way. “I wanted the book to be useful. Actually, I think that’s probably why it’s a cookbook, not a memoir,” she said in an interview. “There’s things in there that are helpful.”
Because of this, “Midnight Chicken” turns out to be a double departure; Risbridger dares to share her experience with depression while also offering recipes as prescriptions for happiness. In addition to roasting chicken, preparing Uplifting Chilli & Lemon Spaghetti, Stuck in a Bookshop Salmon & Sticky Rice, or Life Affirming Mussels can be a path to a better state of mind.
It is cooking as self-help and, as the book’s introduction presents it, “a kind of framework of joy on which you could hang your day.” Cooking is also, she emphasized in an interview, a “broad church” with “room for everybody,” and this is especially important because, for her, it is “always bound up with mental health and self care, but in a very basic sense,” which, she distinguishes, is not the same as “bubble baths and shopping.”
Discussions of maintaining physical and psychic equilibrium that revolve around food have tended to adhere to one of two tropes: those endorsing the health benefits and balancing properties of particular ingredients or types of dishes, and those justifying indulging in “comfort food.” The first is tinged with obligation and virtuousness, while the second often seems to bear the taint of guilt. Neither implies pure, unfettered enjoyment. Both are fixated on eating. Before “Midnight Chicken,” cooking itself had mostly been left out of the conversation, at least in cookbooks.
Beyond cookbooks, a number of writers have touched on the positive psychic effect preparing food has had on them. Ruby Tandoh’s recent book “Eat Up! Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want” wields pleasure as a weapon against the restrictions of the health food and diet industries. It’s aimed at eaters, but she doesn’t leave out cooking altogether. She says her own relationship to cooking corroborates the results of a 2016 study that found young people who participated in quotidian creative hobbies — such as cooking untried recipes — saw a more noticeable “upward spiral” in their well-being, inventiveness and positive energy than those who hadn’t. “Just taking a half an hour out of the day to be in the kitchen cooking, experimenting, tasting and feeling can be enough to drag me out of the slump of my depression,” Tandoh writes.
Like Tandoh, David Leite, founder of the blog Leite’s Culinaria, has been open about his struggles with mental health. In “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression,” he recalls his first professional culinary job, as the family cook for a college professor. He found that arranging his ingredients in the right order (what the pros refer to as mise en place, or “put in place”) provided a “kind of pleasure,” in that it allowed him “to impose control and order on something” even when he couldn’t do the same for himself. “At times, rare and unexpected, I’d feel small, almost imperceptible shivers of happiness,” he writes.
Ann Yang, co-founder of Misfit Foods, sees her relationship to cooking as “not about control at all.” In July, she penned an essay for Bon Appétit in which she disclosed she had been diagnosed with depression and, at 25, decided to step away from the successful business she built to take care of her mental health. Making meals for friends is one of the activities she has identified as a productive way of managing stress and a sense of alienation.
Distinct from baking, she said in an interview, cooking involves “being very comfortable with ambiguity” and “the idea that things might not turn out as you expected them.” The feeling of achievement that comes with the completion of a task — and one she can execute in a set amount of time — helps her. “It has the same sort of creative satisfaction of painting, but on top of that there’s this additional gratification, sense of accomplishment and peace around taking care of people you love,” she said. “Being able to really feel like you can express to someone that you care about them in a different way that’s not verbal, or like physical touch, is also really powerful and therapeutic.”
Leite agrees. When he’s “cooking for family and friends, it is still a source of joy,” he said via email. “I feel a sense of self-care by caring for others.” And he still reaps the centering rewards of preparation. “Any repetitive task seems to help me. Chopping vegetables, stirring risotto, whipping cream. I kind of flip into kitchen hypnosis, if you will. It keeps me very much in the moment — mindful.”
Cooking can also serve as a powerful and restorative way to handle loss. In July, former criminal barrister Olivia Potts released “A Half Baked Idea,” her memoir about baking her way out of grief and lawyering after her mother died. Along the way, the British author discovered that cooking could be “meditative” (setting marmalade to simmer), “enlivening” (toasting spices in a dry pan), “exhilarating” (flambeing crepes suzette) and “pure joy” (“the moment that honeycomb billows”). “There was something calming about recipes — a set of instructions that, if followed properly, would result in a predictable outcome,” she writes. “Everything around me was dissolving into uncertainty, but here, consequences followed neatly, from actions.” Nigella Lawson has posited that cooking can be a form of keeping the deceased present and said that writing her first book, “How to Eat,” allowed her to continue her relationship with her mother, who died when Lawson was 25.
That same book helped fellow British cookbook author Diana Henry through her postnatal depression. Similarly, in Chrissy Teigen’s second cookbook, “Cravings: Hungry for More,” she opened up about her postpartum depression and acknowledged the role cooking played in getting her back into her normal routine. In Henry’s case, it was less about the actual cooking and more about the anticipation of it. “I contemplated the lunches I would make when I felt more up to it. Things were going to be all right,” she wrote in an essay for the Telegraph last year. “Many — mostly women — have used ‘How to Eat’ not just as a cookbook but as a balm during periods of depression, divorce or illness.”
“Midnight Chicken” seems poised to emerge as a balm for a new generation of cooks. And it might be the first of many. Next month, “The Art of Escapism Cooking” by Taiwanese-born, Hong Kong-based food blogger Mandy Lee will be published in the United States. Lee records her agonizing displacement — and the cooking that helped her endure it — when she moved from New York to Beijing for her husband’s job.
For Risbridger, the key to encouraging a restorative approach to cooking is not to enforce it as another avenue for achieving perfection. That makes “Midnight Chicken” an antidote to so much current recipe-driven food content, either reproachful (in the BuzzFeed manner of “Things You’re Doing Wrong” articles) or competitive (the quest to have the most photogenic, correctly finished dish on Instagram). She assures readers that her recipes can be executed while tipsy, left on the stove too long and made with ingredients you can be careless in measuring.
Most of her repertoire is for people who are short on time and cash. Because, as Tandoh points out in “Eat Up!,” that’s where reality can put a pin in this otherwise positive premise: “It doesn’t help that the narratives around cooking for pleasure — as opposed to cooking for sustenance or money — are all rooted in bougie rituals of going to the farmers market, traveling the world for recipe ideas, or spending an eternity making cute jars of jams.”
In an email interview, she confessed her own “inconsistent relationship with cooking.” Making a quick weeknight dinner for one doesn’t readily present itself as the desirable option. What she does relish are the more lavish, time-consuming productions, and for her, that means baking. “The fact that the food I cook in these moments isn’t daily fare, isn’t just nutrition, doesn’t fulfill any real purpose aside from pleasure — that’s precisely what makes it feel good,” she noted. “I’ve still got some work to do when it comes to practicing what I preach and rediscovering the special moments in the everyday.”
She might start with toast. Risbridger’s is heaped with blackened broccoli and almonds and asks so little of us; it all comes together in one roasting pan (or baking sheet), crisping of the bread included. Making toast hardly seems like cooking at all. But that’s the point, and this one is quite the satisfying gateway; you get some meditative chopping in there, the rush of the heat, and the dramatic, risky business of charring. Still, you’re just making toast. No big deal.
For some, toast may be too much. Yang emphasized that depression is different for everyone. Taking to the kitchen isn’t a universal panacea. But even if we haven’t all been diagnosed, we do face worry, despair and estrangement, and we have to eat to survive; it’s as good as any endorsement to at least try cooking. It might just save a life.
Druckman is editor of the upcoming book “Women on Food.”
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