The best food writing is never really about the food. There is almost always something else that sits at the heart of the food writing that most appeals to us; the essays, memoirs or cookbooks that we read cover to cover as though they were a novel. Food, when written well, is a character that interacts with the world around it. In the same way that The Great Gatsby isn’t really about Gatsby, or Nick, the very best food writing uses food to tell us more about ourselves, and who we are as individuals.
Nigel Slater remains one of the finest food writers around – whether he’s using food nostalgia as a means to explore family is his memoir Toast, or simply to meditate on the value of the seasons in books like his two Greenfeast volumes. Even Julia Child seems to have a sort of philosophy on her mind when she writes about food. In My Life in France she writes that ‘No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing’, and comes across as a sort of gourmand Yoda.
The Year of Miracles is the second cookbook by Ella Risbridger and, like its predecessor Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For), is about so much more than the recipes within. As debut cookbooks by non-household names go, Midnight Chicken was a phenomenal success, becoming a bestseller both in classic hardback and the less traditional novel-sized paperback formats, and winning Cookbook of the Year at the Guild of Food Writers Awards in 2020.
And, excellent a collection of recipes as it was, this success is every bit as much down to the real subject matter of the book. It was a book not about food, but finding peace for oneself through food. About coming to terms with what life has given you, and learning how to build something you want around that. Much of the book speaks lovingly of ‘The Tall Man’ – Risbridger’s partner with whom she shared a home. Their relationship is portrayed evocatively as one that, though not without its clashes, was built on mutual respect and a deep, empathetic love. Which made the revelation that was tucked away amidst the acknowledgements a tremendous gut punch for those readers who were not already aware of Risbridger’s story. Much of the book was written whilst her partner was receiving treatment in hospital. Around the time she handed in her final draft, The Tall Man passed away. Though this part of Risbridger’s life doesn’t directly feature in the book itself, it impacts it at every turn, with the author’s view the world inevitably tied to what that world is presenting to her.
Now, three years on from the publication of Midnight Chicken, we are gifted The Year of Miracles. It doesn’t feel entirely right to call the new title a sequel – we should reserve those for superhero films and YA adaptations on Netflix. This is simply: a life, continued. We return to Risbridger at the beginning of 2020, as she leaves the tiny flat she had shared with The Tall Man (here named Jim, though this is a pseudonym, as are all the other friend’s names throughout the book). Some months have passed since Jim’s death, and though she continues to grieve, the action of moving into a new home with a close friend feels like the opportunity for a fresh start. Of course, fresh starts were few and far between at the beginning of 2020, and so a food diary about change and new beginnings turns into something that is about grief, and solitude, and friends, and the family we build for ourselves as the world falls apart around us.
Fans of Midnight Chicken will find nothing to disappoint them here. Everything that made Risbridger’s first book so lovable returns for this, her fourth (she’s tucked a children’s novel and a poetry anthology in between). Elisa Cunningham’s bright illustrations return, offering imperfect visions of dishes that are sort of meant to be imperfect. Risbridger does not fuss with stiff, precise recipes. Her dishes are flexible, so that they can fit around whatever life is throwing at you. Her ingredients lists are gloriously candid, filled with little asides offering ideas for substitutes, or simply reassuring you. She calls for vanilla extract a number of times – the first comes with a plea ‘(not essence! never essence!)’, the second with practical advice: ‘(don’t worry about using very expensive stuff; they’ve run tests and you can’t tell in baked goods)’.
The recipes themselves are similarly unpretentious, with instructions that kindly explain why you do the things you do or, just as frequently, politely request that you ‘just trust me’ on the matter. As in Midnight Chicken, the dishes are a mix between big meals you might serve to friends (Bourride! Pho! Fish Pie!) and small moments of sustenance that will keep you going when you need them most. These dishes are often the most fun in the book – a celebration of the unlikely combinations we discover in our early adulthood, and can be raised infinitely with a smart food-centric mind like Risbridger’s. Here we have a Salt & Vinegar Crisp Omelette, Jacket Potato Garlic Soup, or Marmite Crumpet Cauliflower Cheese.
These recipes might not speak to everyone, but they will resonate with many. Risbridger approaches food as a restorative action. For the soul, for the heart, and for just about anything else that might need it. Every element of The Year of Miracles offers an element of comfort. Even as we touch on grief, guilt and the frustrations of living through a pandemic, Risbridger’s prose is written with such a contemplative warmth that it is impossible not to feel comforted – if only in knowing that we are not suffering alone.
As the miraculous year ticks along, and the seasons change, and lockdowns are lifted, we are exposed more and more to the friendships that fuel both Risbridger and the book itself. The best food writing is never really about food. Here, it is a way of connecting with friends, with those we love, those we have lost, and those we are only just getting to know. The food has as much to say as anyone in this story, and it serves as a means to bring people together – for a conversation in the park, a cry in the kitchen, or a singalong in the back garden. We don’t need food for any of these things, but it is there nonetheless, and it is something that can be shared between whoever might be nearby. Something to bring us all together.
It seems very likely that we can expect a third cookbook from Ella Risbridger at some point. After these first two, it would be a huge shame if there were not. What’s harder to guess is whether that third book will be all that similar to the two that came before it. The Year of Miracles itself was never intended to look like this, with the author initially pitching a ‘cheerful dinner-party’ cookbook. Perhaps that’s what we’ll get next. In a way, you sort of hope for it. For Risbridger to have an opportunity to explore something new. And down the line, maybe, there’ll be time again for another book like this. Not a sequel, simply: a life, continued.
Suitable for: Beginner, confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book:
The Year of Miracles by Ella Risbridger
£22, Bloomsbury Publishing
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas