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

British journalist Ella Risbridger’s new food memoir The year of miracles it was not, she informs us in its first sentence, “meant to be” a book about grief. It was meant to be a happy little book about hosting dinner parties, a happy follow-up to Risbridge’s 2019 success Midnight Chicken, about how she used to cook as a way to deal with her depression. “But what can you do?” Risbridger continues. Grief “gets into everything.”

Part of its charm Midnight Chicken it was how Risbridger created her wonderful life on the page: a life of quirky, comfortable, biblical love with her partner, the Tall Man (real name John Underwood) in their Tiny Flat. Marred only by the tragedy hidden on the back page in the acknowledgments: In the space between Risbridger handing in her manuscript and Midnight Chicken coming out, Underwood had died of a rare form of lymphoma at the age of 29. (Risbridger gives Underwood, along with the rest of her friends, a nickname in The year of miracles. Here, it becomes Jim.)

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

“This is supposed to be the year the world, my world, starts over.” Risbridger writes as she hears news about the pandemic for the first time. “This is not the year the world is supposed to end, because my world has already ended.”

The world does not end and Risbridger continues to cook it. She’s cooking Leftovers Pie for her new roommate, because she loves her. Banana bread with coffee cardamom, because everyone was making banana bread at the beginning of the lockdown. Turkey eggs, because Jim would hate them and he’s no longer there to object.

It’s this last question, what to do now that Jim is no longer here to make his objections known, that leads Risbridger to some of her most striking passages. She spent years of her life as Jim’s caregiver, guiding him through chemotherapy and all the attendant horrors, becoming “submissive, essentially, in a way that no other adult relationship requires.” Now that Jim is gone, she has space to think about 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 one finger, to show a desire that has no reference or appeal to anyone else, and you say ‘self-esteem!’ He stops making roast dinners, which have no reference to anyone else. Jim loved and hated, and he indulges in meals with very little meat, such as Turkish eggs in garlic yogurt.

A chapter header from The year of miracles.
Eliza Cunningham

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

But the recipes here are more indicative of Risbridger’s personality than anything else. They are organized chronologically, with 12 chapters, one for each month of the year, and are optimized specifically for the way she runs her personal kitchen. Therefore, it always specifies the exact color and flake of the type of sea salt to use, but when a recipe calls for plain table salt, it tells you to pinch your powdered sea salt because it never remembers to keep plain table salt in stock.

What you’re really reading about here is Risbridger’s glowing, evocative prose, which is never more compelling than when she describes the sheer joy of her food. Roasted eggplants are “bubbly and blackened and chewy and delicious.” Fresh dukkah is “a beautiful sunset orange” that makes any salad a “riot”. Soy-marinated eggs are “gooey” with “golden, runny yolks.” Periodically, she peppers her instructions with bossy repetitions (“I know your life and you don’t need any more flour”) and shameless confessions (“I have a weakness for adding sour cream and chive dip, but I understand it’s horrible”).

Contrasting with Risbridger’s prose are Elisa Cunningham’s whimsical watercolor illustrations, which range artfully from two-page spread panels of the neighbor’s cat in Risbridge’s fire escape garden to half a lemon rolling in the bottom margin of a parsnip puree recipe. They’re sweetly messy sketches, matching the sweetly messy energy of this home cook’s recipe book.

And that, after all, is what you’re reading The year of miracles for: the sweetness and the mess. Cardamom buns that fall apart in the oven but are still buttery and rich in sugar and spice. An account of a life full of sadness that shouldn’t have been there, and a world that ends over and over and over and manages to retain its beauty and charm regardless.

It’s what makes this memoir cookbook 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 archives.

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