The Year of Miracles: Ella Risbridger cooks through the end of the world

British journalist Ella Risbridger’s new food memoir The Year of Miracles was not a book about grief, she tells us in her first sentence. It was meant to be a cheerful little book about throwing dinner parties, a cheerful sequel to Risbridger’s 2019 hit Midnight Chicken, on how she cooked to deal with her depression. “But what can you do?” Risbridger continues. Grief “penetrates everything”.

Part of the charm of Midnight Chicken Here’s how Risbridger put her fine life on the page: a life of quirky, cozy, physical love with her partner, the Tall Man (real name John Underwood), in their tiny flat. It was marred only by the tragedy hidden in the acknowledgments on the back: In the time between Risbridger’s delivery of her manuscript and Midnight Chicken When it came out, Underwood had died at the age of 29 from a rare form of lymphoma. (Risbridger gives Underwood a pseudonym along with the rest of her friends The Year of Miracles. Here he becomes Jim.)

The Year of Miracles is Risbridger’s account of how she cooked her way through the grief that followed. And because it’s ominously set in 2020, she’s grieving not only the loss of her partner, but the loss of an entire life before the pandemic.

“This shall be the year that the world, my world, begins anew;” Risbridger writes as she first learns of the pandemic. “This is not the year for the end of the world because my world has already ended.”

The world doesn’t end completely and Risbridger keeps cooking. She cooks leftovers pie for her new roommate because she loves her; Crisis Cardamom Coffee Banana Bread because everyone was making banana bread at the start of lockdown; Turkish eggs because Jim would have hated them and he doesn’t mind them anymore.

It is this final question of what to do now that Jim is no longer here to voice his objections that leads Risbridger to some of her most moving passages. She spent years of her life as Jim’s caretaker, guiding him through chemotherapy and all the horrors that came with it, and becoming “essentially submissive, in a way that no other adult relationship requires.” Now that Jim is gone, she has space to think through her own preferences and deal with the guilt and horror that surrounds that space.

With her roommate, she invents “the Self-Esteem finger: you hold up a finger to show a desire that has no reference or recourse to anyone else, and you say ‘Self-esteem!'”. Jim loved and she hated, and she indulged in meals with very little meat, like the Turkish eggs in garlic yogurt.

A chapter heading The Year of Miracles.
Elisha Cunningham

You can cook from these recipes more or less successfully. The Vietnamese-flavored rice bowl that Risbridger dubbed Coconut Pow comes out bright and tart and sweet, although its many parts make it fiddly to put together, unless like Risbridger you’re already in the habit of keeping quick-pickled radishes and salted mango in your fridge . When I followed her recipe for cardamom buns, I found that she left out a few details about how to make them so I couldn’t seal them properly and the spiced butter filling dripped out of the buns as they baked. They were still absurdly delicious.

But the recipes here showcase Risbridger’s personality more than anything else. They are arranged chronologically, with 12 chapters, one for each month of the year, and they are specifically optimized for the way she runs her personal kitchen. As such, she always specifies the exact color and flakeness of the type of sea salt you should use, but when a recipe calls for just plain table salt, she tells you to pinch your flaky sea salt to dust because they never remember can hold normal table salt in stock.

What you’re really reading here is Risbridger’s lively, evocative prose, never more compelling than when she describes the sheer joy of her food. Fried eggplants are “bubbly and blackened and chewy and delicious”; Fresh dukkah is “a gorgeous sunset orange” that makes any salad a “riot”; eggs marinated in soy are “sticky” with “golden, runny yolks.” From time to time, she peppers her instructions with bossy repetition (“I know your life, and you don’t need any more flour”) and brazen admissions (“I have a weakness for adding leftover sour cream and chive dip, but I get it that this is horrible”).

Bouncing against Risbridger’s prose are Elisa Cunningham’s whimsical watercolor illustrations, ranging in detail from two-page tableaux of the neighbor’s cat in Risbridger’s fire escape garden to half a lemon curling around the bottom of a recipe for mashed parsnips. They’re sweetly messy sketches that match the sweetly messy energy of this home cook’s recipe book.

And that’s what you read at the end The Year of Miracles for: the sweetness and the mess. Cardamom buns that fall apart in the oven but are still buttery soft and rich in sugar and spice. An account of a life full of sadness that shouldn’t be and a world that ends over and over again and still manages to keep its beauty and charm.

It makes this cookbook memoir feel exuberant, unstoppable and triumphant on the side of love and life in the face of death, loss and grief.

The Year of Miracles is now available in bookstores. For more recommendations from the world of culture, see A good thing Archive.

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