Midnight Chicken | Ella Risbridger
Midnight Chicken (& other recipes worth living for.)
By Ella Risbridger
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Ella Risbridger: Hi. I'm Ella Risbridger. I'm the author of Midnight Chicken and Other Recipes Worth Living For. It's out now or very shortly in America and it's been out in the UK since January. It's mostly a cookbook but it's also got a lot of chatting in as well. I'm quite a chatty person.
Suzy Chase: One of the things that makes midnight chickens such a very good book is how hard it is to say exactly what it is. Yes, to be sure it's a cookbook, but it's also a manual for living and a declaration of hope. That is a quote from Nigella Lawson. Now did you set out to write a manual for living?
Ella Risbridger: I don't think I set out to do anything really. I set out to write a list of recipes, I set out to write ... I suppose I set out to write it more like a diary, the chatting parts I set out to write about what made my life worth living. Because it was a really useful way of reminding myself, this is what's good, this is how it works.
Ella Risbridger: I don't think I set out to do it, but I suppose it's always very hard at this end of a project and look back and think, "Well, what did I mean when I started ..." Particularly this project, it's been five years in the making and it's very hard to look back at yourself five years ago and think, "What was I trying to do? What did I want to achieve?" I certainly wanted to make something that reiterated to myself, if nothing else, I guess the value of being alive, the value of keeping going, the value of trying hard every day. But ultimately I wrote the book because I was writing these things down for myself.
Suzy Chase: Were you surprised at how much this resonated with people?
Ella Risbridger: Yeah, I was really surprised. I think everyone always says that. But I was surprised when I first wrote the blog that people really seem to love it. When it became a book, I thought some people would like it. I was quite like, "Oh, for sure." I think a handful of people were like this. I don't think it will be a terrible failure for Bloomsbury, the publishers.
Ella Risbridger: I did not expect this response because it's had, it's hard to talk about your own book, but it's had some really lovely reviews. You read a quote from Nigella Lawson, which I think is every cookbook writer's main dream. And I have been amazed at the number of people who have cared about this book and who have found it useful. I didn't expect the number of stories. I didn't expect to get so many letters and emails and texts and Instagram messages or whatever. To detail all the very complex and very private ways this book has helped people. I didn't expect that. I don't think anyone could, and I think you'd be mad to write a book and think you've done that.
Suzy Chase: When I was contacted by your publicist, I said yes immediately, when I heard that this cookbook was a combination and reflection. Talk a bit about the first story you ever wrote, which was about a chicken.
Ella Risbridger: So it's very interesting when people ask me this now because it's a story I've told a lot. And when you tell a story a lot, what happens is you don't know whether you remembering what actually happened or your many, many times you told the story. It's very hard for me to know now whether I actually have a memory of this actual chicken or maybe I just have a memory of writing about it.
Ella Risbridger: So the first thing I ever wrote about food was a ... actually, the first thing I ever wrote about food on a blog was actually a very long recipe for parsnip soup, which is full of jokes and it was on a different blog of things, on a Tumblr. I've always blogged on the Internet. I'm really an internet person. I grew up with the Internet and writing on the Internet. And I remember that, this is not something I've talked about really in interviews, but I remember writing that recipe for parsnip soup and feeling, "Oh yeah, I like this. I like writing like this."
Ella Risbridger: And then I became very anxious and very depressed, which is a big part of the book for people who are listening who haven't read it. It's a brilliant memoir about anxiety and depression, but you don't really know that unless you're looking closely. And I wrote about a roast chicken I'd made one day when I felt particularly unhappy, particularly as if the world was running away from me. And I wrote it, I put it on Twitter as I did put all of my life on Twitter at that point. And yeah, just really took off from there.
Suzy Chase: Describe the day after your 21st birthday and the number 25 bus.
Ella Risbridger: I'd really rather not.
Suzy Chase: Okay.
Ella Risbridger: I'm hoping to talk about why not, if that helps. So I don't really know what the American regulations are, but over here we have this organization called the Samaritans, do you have that?
Suzy Chase: No. What's that?
Ella Risbridger: So the Samaritans is essentially a suicide helpline. You can ring them at any point. I myself have rung them twice. I would say they weren't useful except that I'm still here and you really ring them when you're as low as dead. But they issue these guidelines for how you talk about suicide. And there was something I really considered when I was writing this book. You'll know this, you read it. There's very few details about self harm or about suicide because I don't think it's helpful. It can give people ideas, it can give people inspiration, it can make vulnerable people feel even more vulnerable.
Ella Risbridger: Briefly what happened is that after my 21st birthday, I really thought I would kill myself. And I tried and I very luckily failed, and I was taken to hospital and the hospital were fantastic. The NHS were amazing and immediately got me into crisis care, which given that I lived in a very poor, very over worked bit of London. Really, I look back and I'm like, "That was a miracle. That was a complete miracle." You had no right to expect such amazing quick crisis care, but I got it.
Ella Risbridger: But I don't like to dwell on the actual suicide attempt in the same way I don't write about self harm because I don't think it's useful. Everyone can imagine that. What I think is helpful is to say, "This is how I got better." I don't think I need to say, "This is what the lowest ebb actually looked like." I would rather just say, "Well, it happened and here's what happened next. Does that make sense?"
Suzy Chase: Yeah, and I really think you were brave for talking about that and brave for showing, "Hey, I got through it. I'm on the other side."
Ella Risbridger: Thank you. All I can say is that it didn't seem to me brave, it seemed to be necessary. I have always written about things that happened to me and when bad things have happened to me, I've written about them too. Because I am an Instagram generation. I love Instagram. I use it all the time. I did all of my growing up on Twitter, as I think a lot of people did, but I was particularly too much online. And I think probably, because I came from this place where blogging and tweeting and being very open, even though when I obviously first started using social media, I was sort of not under my own name because no one was, everyone just had a username. And I think because I came from this place of talking very openly about it, it seemed to me that the only thing to do was to continue. And the actually being open might be a good thing.
Ella Risbridger: We're certainly in a place now where openness about mental health is definitely, at least on paper, very much celebrated. I don't know if it's the case. I think there are probably thousands of people, millions of people, in situations where they can't talk openly about their mental health. Which to me gives me a sense of responsibility in that I can do it. I can do it without threat to my job. I can do it without threat to my relationships. I can talk openly about what it is like to be suicidal, and then I can talk about, 'Well, hey, here is what happens when it got better. Here is what it felt like for me to get better."
Ella Risbridger: Something I'm really passionate about talking about now is what recovery looks like and what recovery really feels like.
Suzy Chase: This too shall pass.
Ella Risbridger: This too shall pass. You know, it's trite. it's a cliche, but it's cliche for a reason. It's something I personally find incredibly helpful, this too shall pass. I think about it all the time. And it does, everything passes. The good things pass, the bad things pass. That's the one inevitable thing is that, well, something else will happen.
Suzy Chase: On a lighter note, I love how you believe in bad cooking and experimental cooking and giving it a go cooking. Talk a little bit about that.
Ella Risbridger: Oh my God. I think it's the only kind of cooking. I don't think there's any joy to be had in ... Okay, maybe it's fine, follow a recipe, do it perfectly. That's quite nice. But making something, trying something, being like, "Oh, I've seen these things in the supermarket and maybe I'll just Google around and find a recipe. Maybe I'll try this. Maybe I'll try that." I worry that people treat cooking too seriously.
Suzy Chase: They do.
Ella Risbridger: I worry that they treat ... But then I think people treat making anything very seriously. I think people treat making art seriously. They treat making music seriously. They treat writing seriously, and I think they're meant to be fun. You're meant to just have a go with all of it. It doesn't matter if it's bad.
Ella Risbridger: Obviously there are a huge number of people for whom wasting food is an impossible luxury, but they're probably not the people buying my book, to be honest. Because if it's an impossible luxury, you're probably not buying a large hardback cookbook with a million, very beautiful, exquisite watercolors. I didn't do the watercolors, this is why I can be very, very boastful about them. Elisa Cunningham is the illustrator and they are just fantastic.
Ella Risbridger: But for most people who are in a position to be buying a cookbook and thinking about that cookbook, the people who tend to get who I think ... You know who it's aimed at? There's certainly the people who I think are most likely to come across my work, are people who have some spare time or they have some spare money and they can afford to relax a little bit about cooking. To try and to play and to see because the worst that happens is you have to get a takeaway. Like the worst that happens is you have toast. You'll live for one meal, you can just eat, you can have toast, it will be fine if it goes wrong. And the thing is it probably won't go that room. The stakes are very low in cooking. It's just food.
Suzy Chase: I thought you were going to say the stakes are low for toast.
Ella Risbridger: Oh God, I mean the stakes are so low for toast. I mean, I would live off toast. It's a real ... I'm a cookbook writer. I am a cook. I really would just live off toast, Marmite toast is the best food in the world. This is probably not something Americans know about-
Suzy Chase: No.
Ella Risbridger: ... or care about very much, but it's the dream. It's a very English [crosstalk 00:10:06].
Suzy Chase: Toast and butter is our dream over here.
Ella Risbridger: You put butter on the toast and then you put a little bit of Marmite. The problem with Marmite is that you put too much on, it's just meant to be like a little savory hint with the butter. Oh, it's dreamy.
Suzy Chase: You think breakfast foods are the best foods. Talk about bacon sandwiches with red sauce and sausage sandwiches with brown sauce. Never red. Now what's the red sauce that goes with your bacon sandwiches?
Ella Risbridger: Ketchup.
Suzy Chase: Oh.
Ella Risbridger: [crosstalk] ketchup. Ketchup and brown sauce is HP, which is like a ... It's very hard to explain to Americans. It's like Houses of Parliament sauce. I don't think it's anything to do with Houses of Parliament? It's kind of-
Suzy Chase: Like a steak sauce?
Ella Risbridger: It's kind of like a Worcester sauce, I guess.
Suzy Chase: Okay.
Ella Risbridger: It's kind of a little bit like that. Everybody really, I was talking about this with my flatmate this morning because I had a bacon sandwich with ketchup for breakfast because I went to a birthday party yesterday and this morning said, "I'm too fragile. I need a bacon sandwich and a large cup of tea."
Ella Risbridger: My flatmate was like, "Oh, why would you put ketchup in a bacon sandwich, that's horrible. Ketchup is for sausage sandwiches." And we realized that everybody has their own complicated, what makes the perfect bacon sandwich, what makes perfect sausage sandwich? I like making very sweeping statements about, "This is what you must do." Because I think that they're so obviously hyperbolic that it really gives people something to push back against and fight against.
Ella Risbridger: And I think it's part of the same thing we were just talking about, in not taking things too seriously. When I say, Never red sauce. No nothing, you must never do this." I think it's so obvious to me that it's a bit silly and a bit flipping to anyone would make this kind of sweeping grand statement about a breakfast food. It invites the reader to challenge and to like, "No, that's not what I think at all." And once you're having a friendly fight about ketchup, you're kind of already into relaxing into thinking about food and the way we eat and the way different people eat different things, and the way we have different relationships to authenticity, which is I think a really interesting question. I find the quest for authenticity in food to be one that is enough purist and essentialist view, which is less fun than trying stuff and mixing stuff together and mixing ingredients and seeing what happens.
Suzy Chase: I can honestly tell you I've never shed a tear reading a cookbook.
Ella Risbridger: A lot of people tell me that.
Suzy Chase: Okay.
Ella Risbridger: Which is a very weird thing to have. A lot of people tell me they've cried while listening to this podcast ... Not listening to this podcast, so sorry. A lot of people tell me they've cried while reading my book.
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh.
Ella Risbridger: It feels like a huge responsibility. I never quite know what to say. People are very invested in a way that I never expected, but it feels very moving. To have all these people who care about me and who also see themselves reflected in, or maybe a way they didn't before. I am not a minority in the publishing industry. I am a white woman who went to a nice school and has anxiety. There are lots of women like me in the publishing industry. But for whatever reason, my story and the story I've told in this book has really struck a chord with lots of people in ways that perhaps other stories haven't.
Ella Risbridger: And that feels like a huge responsibility and a huge privilege. And it's not one I take lightly at all. Every time someone shares a story with me about why this book touched them, or why they feel about it the way they do, every time I'm moved. I don't ever take it for granted and I never would.
Suzy Chase: So last night I made your recipe for trashy ginger beer chicken on page one oh two. You call this proper grubby food that taste like absolute scandal. You use paper plates and don't try to gussy it up. Describe this dish.
Ella Risbridger: It's like a sticky chicken drumstick recipe. It's got sesame seeds in it. It's slightly Chinesey flavors. I guess this is part of [inaudible] I was talking about earlier with authenticity. There's no way that dish is authentic to anyone at all. I got part of it out of a ... I think I got the idea from some Vietnamese chicken wings, but I ended up using ginger beer because my late partner couldn't have any alcohol because he was immune compromised. So I ended up being like, "Oh, ginger beer. That would be better."
Ella Risbridger: I just think it tastes like late night chicken for me. I don't know if late night chicken's a thing in America but in London, late night chicken, late night fried chicken is the thing. The chicken shops stay open past everything else and you know you get like the bus home and get some late night chicken and it's so bad but so great.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called my last meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Ella Risbridger: I would have Pho, like the Vietnamese broth with all the noodles and rare beef. And then I would have two pieces of Marmite toast. If that came across as very pat, that's because I was having this conversation on the train on the way in.
Suzy Chase: Oh really?
Ella Risbridger: Really prepared. Anyway, go on with your question?
Suzy Chase: Usually people aren't prepared and they have to him and haw for a few minutes. That was good. You were ready.
Ella Risbridger: Straight up, Vietnamese food all the way and then some toast.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Ella Risbridger: So my Twitter is @missellabell, M-I-S-S-E-L-L-A-B-E-L-L. I've taken a big step back on being on that. I am on Instagram, which is @ellarisbrigder, I think. Yeah, @ellarisbridger on Instagram, and I do post there sometimes. But I'm really trying to take a step back and I really recommend it even if just for a few weeks. Try it. I can read books again now, which I stopped being able to do for ages. And I'm testing recipes and working on new projects.
Suzy Chase: At the end of Midnight Chicken you wrote three last things. Number one, wash up as you go along. Number two, if it smells fine, it's probably fine. And number three, it's probably all going to be fine in the end. Words to live by. Thanks so much, Ella-
Ella Risbridger: Words to live by.
Suzy Chase: ... for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Ella Risbridger: Thank you so much for having me.
Outro: Follow Suzy Chase on Instagram at cookerybythebook, and subscribe at cookerybythebook.com or in Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening to Cookery by the Book Podcast, the only podcast devoted to cookbooks since 2015.