This post is a review in two parts which I hope to seamlessly merge together into one engaging whole. If you're coming to this post thinking that there is actually a recipe at the end, prepare to be disappointed, but maybe stick with it anyway because this is a review about one very amazing book that I wish for everyone to read, and also a personal review of the past three-and-a-bit months.
This post is a review in two parts which I hope to seamlessly merge together into one engaging whole. If you’re coming to this post thinking that there is actually a recipe at the end, prepare to be disappointed, but maybe stick with it anyway because this is a review about one very amazing book that I wish for everyone to read, and also a personal review of the past three-and-a-bit months.
First, the easy bit. For reasons that will become apparent below, and not altogether unsurprising given this current skewed and uncomfortable reality of our Covid days, I’ve been feeling a bit low. Quite low, in fact. I’m an avid reader at the best of times, but I needed to swap reading feeds that demanded of me to feel inspired and motivated on one hand before slapping me down harshly with some horrific thread bashing people senseless with ill-informed ideologies, confirming the mantra that opinions really are like arseholes; and endless “news” stories of spiraling death tolls and incredible hardship of so many. So, I retreated to books.
Recipe books, history books, books about food science; novels, poetry and short stories, feminism and art. I picked them all up, dusted them down, cracked open the pages of books long promised to be read but rarely given the time or, luxury of luxuries, a book to be re-read. Escapism in its purest form – delve into a different world, a time before Covid and go away to some place new for twenty minutes, an hour or, before you know it, four.
A book I picked up to re-read was probably, on the face of it, not the sanest option, given my ongoing and pervasive low mood. But, I remember being so captivated by Midnight Chicken (& other recipes worth living for) the first time around that I was compelled to revisit again. Written, beautifully – so beautifully, by Ella Risbridger, it is the story of how food can save you: the act of cooking, of eating depending on your mood and whether its raining outside or not; eating as an act of communion; food as love – food as a reason for living.
It’s funny how, depending on the context of your own life when you pick up a book and start reading, the same pages, the same words can take on a different meaning. When I first picked up Midnight Chicken, I was preparing to take to the famous De Barra’s stage for, possibly, one of the worst attended sessions of Spoken Word they have ever seen. Those who came along were so gracious to allow me to have the stage to myself for a whole 40 minutes or so while I, hopefully, delivered a message that food writing is so much more than just recipes and restaurant reviews. I chose Midnight Chicken then as an example of how writing a recipe as a piece of prose rather than instruction can be a wonderfully cathartic thing for the writer, and an emotional experience for the reader. I may never make Ella’s Midnight Chicken recipe with my hands, but I will make it over and over again in my heart, my mind and in my soul for times when, I too, can barely pick myself up off the floor and carry on.
It was a perfect illustrative piece to choose for that event. But coming back to it, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, when so much of our lives became even more entwined with the pursuit of food, and feeding and comfort, and the fucking emotionality of everything we are experiencing on an individual and collective basis right now, Midnight Chicken was the support-group-in-a-book I was looking for. In the opening salvo, Ella writes:
“This – this collection of recipes – is the story of how I learned to manage again: 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.”
‘Finding your pattern’… I have lost my pattern during lockdown. But it came on me slowly – it sneaked up on me and then pulled the rug out from right underneath at the very last moment. When we were all told to stay at home and everything was #staysafe I really didn’t think things would get so bad. To be fair, in Ireland, things are nowhere near as bad as in other countries, but, as was said to me many years ago and probably the only useful soundbite to ever come out of one of those corporate away day-motivational things: perception is reality. My perspective was this: things weren’t so bad. In the early days, I was still working and still in college – even though classes had moved online. West Cork was flooded with food, no supermarket queues to contend with, and with everyone working from home, there was a beautiful silence that descended over everywhere. We had good weather, and we could hear the birds – so many birds full of song. We ate well. I was cooking non-stop, and there was always a bottle of wine ready to go. My diary started emptying of appointments and, for the first time in about two decades, I had nowhere to be: no pressing deadlines (except for college), and I was beginning to get through a to-do list that was poorly neglected.
I am not alone, this was the reality for many. But then, didn’t it go and get worse. One week turned into two; two weeks into four – was I ever going to see the ocean again? Even Buddy was getting bored of the same daily walk.
Then it got worse again when the roadmap came out. It signified the nail in the coffin for my summer tour season, and two weeks later, I was compelled to cancel the October workshop and refund a lot of money. I stopped writing, I just couldn’t find anything to be joyful about. My only writing was for the college assignments, and I really threw myself into those, but eventually, that stopped too as we reached the end of year one. And then – nothing.
Everything became annoying. The overreaching, incessant chirpyness of social media – of all media, actually – annoying. The weather getting a lot less nice the moment we were able to travel further than the front door – annoying. Coming up with something else to cook today – annoying. The fact that Mr Flavour’s job changed two weeks into Lockdown which means our days are now upside down – annoying. Trying to motivate myself to get out of bed and attempt to achieve something – annoying. I was even annoying myself for being so annoyed all the time. So, I went downhill a bit and I did what any good introvert does which is to try my best to disappear and hide away – stick my fingers in my ears and go “lalalalalala” until the bad, annoying stuff went away and things could go back to normal. My saving graces were the unflappable Mr Flavour, Buddy, my erstwhile Springer Spaniel, and my garden. This time last year, the garden had no walls and was just a large muddy patch of a disaster zone. It took a long time to do because of bad weather, but I am glad we pushed hard to get it finished because now I am harvesting goodies from the garden to go with our meals and the flowers are doing well too creating a haven for bees and other pollinators, at least when they’re not being rained on or blown away by an unusually unseasonal persistent northerly wind. Also, more meals have been taken al fresco than indoors – something I am hugely in favour of.
In the middle of it all, my last living uncle back in England passed away. He had been suffering with dementia for years, living in a home, but it was Covid that eventually saw him off. It seems if you die when a ward of court, no-one is in a rush to provide dignity in death. It took 8 weeks to arrange a funeral, which only happened Wednesday last week, with no-one present. It’ll be another couple of weeks before the ashes will be ready for collection and they can be interred in the family plot. All again, at a distance, and probably with no-one in attendance. Our family is teeny tiny and we are flung about all over the place. Needless to say, this would not be the way we would usually do things. Pandemics make saying goodbye in any meaningful way impossible.
But back to the book. There’s a twist in the tale of Midnight Chicken which comes right at the end, after you’ve invested huge emotion in following Ella’s personal journey from the edge of suicide to a young woman learning to love the world again – all thanks to food and one good man. The twist will make you cry – there’s now a ripple on the page where a big fat tear landed. I let it lay there rather than hastily wipe it away. As slowly, trepidatiously, we tiptoe out of lockdown and re-emerge into a world that feels familiar but fundamentally changed, there are two lessons I will keep in mind at all times. Firstly: if we, if I, am to survive, it is time to start living again – thanks Ella. Secondly: go gently, even more gently than usual. If perception is reality, then each person’s lived experience of what we have been through will be as unique to the person stood next to us, or two meters away anyway, as our fingerprints. Patience and empathy seem to me even more important to surviving and thriving than ever before.
Please read Ella’s book. Very few of us will have had the urge to step in front on the No.25 bus to Oxford Circus as she did, but many more of us will have felt something similar and probably never confided in anyone. This is a book of hope, then, and that is something we could all do with a shot of right about now.
I leave you with Ella’s six morals, three at the books beginning and three at the end, which she implores us all to apply liberally:
web design and development by the designer of things