I’ve been working too much, and this winter has been brutal. I had to sell my beloved Honda Fit and buy an Outback because the Beloved Fit was just not holding up to driving over the Bozeman pass three days a week. That I have the kind of financial stability that means I can drive into the Subaru dealership and just trade in my car for a new one, and finance it, and all that, is something of a miracle to me, especially considering I quit my “real” job four years ago, but here we are.
However, weeks of subzero temperatures, teaching writing to 75 students, and writing instructional manuals on the side has left me spent. It’s been the kind of winter that just feels like you’re under siege. My students are struggling too — between a serious flu going around, and working too many jobs, and taking insane course loads to avoid taking on more debt — then fighting our way across campus in temperatures that have hardly gone above zero since early February, with so much snow that TWO gyms collapsed. Well, we’ve all felt like it’s Just Too Much.
But the arrival of Ella Risbridger’s lovely and poignant book, Midnight Chicken has reminded me of why I believe so strongly that when we don’t know what to do with ourselves, making something with our hands can be a salvation. It’s the sort of cookery book that made me love the genre in the first place, a book in the vein of Laurie Colwin, or Patience Gray, or even MFK Fisher. It’s a book about cooking as an antidote to despair, and a means of building a life that feels like it has some kind of meaning.
It’s a book after my own heart.
Risberger was in her early 20s, living in London with the man she loved, when she realized she had “fallen out of love with the world.” Depression had fallen upon her, and try though she might, it escalated to the point that she tried to step in front of a bus. This book is the story of her journey back to the world, a journey begun as she sat in the emergency room, thinking
… how I wanted to cook again. It was like a little map: I will get through this, and I will cook something, and I will eat it, and I will be alive. I will be alive and I will make something with my own two hands, and I will get through this. This too will pass –it has to — because there is a pie at the end. With a crisp crust and a soft yielding centre, and my first initial done in pastry on the top and brushed with golden egg…
This is a book all about getting through hard times by doubling down on the things one can do. Make pastry. Cook a chicken. Survive an office job by packing nice things for lunch, and not eating them at your desk, but going outside, finding a bit of a park, with a bench, and unwrapping a potato you baked in the morning that is still a bit warm, cracking it open to slip in a pat of butter, and eating it as small birds also survive the city in your bit of a park.
The recipes are my favorite kind — delicious and unfussy, certainly NOT cheffy restaurant recipes. There’s a chili-lemon pasta for days when hope is waning, a simple cookie (that probably needs a wee bit more flour at my altitude, but was quick and delicious nonetheless, and Himself is always happy to have chocolate chip cookies when he’s renovating a house). There’s a terrifying English pork pie, which she admits resulted in her entire kitchen being coated in molten lard in the middle of the night, and a lot of soups, with buttered toast, that she claims are better eaten in bed (is it a sign of age that I’m HORRIFIED by this? Butter and crumbs in the sheets?)
Most of all though, it is a story about love. Her love for the Tall Man, who she met at 17, moved in with at 19, and lost way too early to cancer in her mid twenties. The book is suffused with their love, and not in a soppy way, but with the realistic glow of knowing that you once found your person, and he found you, and you built a life together as broke broke young people. They built the kind of found family that so many of us have done — a family built on dinners cooked and shared in their tiny flat, with too much wine, and dishes dumped in the sink for later, and everyone crowded into the sofa to watch bad movies late into the night.
It’s an extraordinary book. I think it might not be available in the US yet, but I got my copy on Alibris.com –where frankly, I buy most of my books these days.