Ella Risbridger On Using Cooking As A Tool For Tackling Anxiety | ExpatWomanFood.com
 
 

Ella Risbridger On Using Cooking As A Tool For Tackling Anxiety

The debut cookery book writer discusses her novelistic recipe collection and making the kitchen more accessible.

Posted on

20 January 2019

Ella Risbridger

All Credits: PA

Ella Risbridger is many, many hours into waiting for her plumber to arrive. “I live in hope,” she says wryly over the phone.

The food blogger-turned-cookbook writer, journalist and tweeter extraordinaire has many things on the go, in fact. Besides the interminable wait for the plumber, she is currently editing a poetry anthology, there’s homemade chicken stock simmering on the stove, and she’s halfway through a batch of her flaky sea salt-sprinkled chocolate cookies. “If I dropped my copy of the book,” she notes, “it would open on the cookies page. I make them so frequently.”

The book in question is her debut recipe collection, Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For), and five years in the writing, it is no longer ‘on the go’. Instead, as Risbridger, 26, puts it: “This is it, it’s finally here.”


Midnight Chicken is not your usual cookbook. For starters, glossy food photography has been sacked off for bright, wobbly illustrations by Elisa Cunningham. The pages are strewn with drawings of creamy garlic cloves in their pink paper skins; knobbly, zingy green gherkins; and even a pheasant hopping away from Risbridger’s Danny The Champion Of The Pie recipe.

The recipes themselves are less instructions for dinner, and more stories and moments, captured in a perfect “high and light and solid” cheese scone, or a blackberry pizza that is “a little bit sexier than nearly every pizza in the world”. There are musings on fog and the necessity for pea soup, what to make if your anxiety has had you stuck in a bookshop for 40 minutes (salmon with sticky rice), and how to chill homemade hummus (“For as long as you can bear it”).

It’s also a book of love. Risbridger’s partner, journalist John Underwood, and the ‘Tall Man’ found in her writings, who she credits with teaching her how to cook, died in 2018.

And while Midnight Chicken revels in food, it also shifts with, and navigates the demands of Risbridger’s anxiety disorder. Cooking became a lifeline and a way to manage, she explains in the book, and that eponymous roast chicken recipe (ginger, she reckons, is its secret elixir) was the beginning. Writing it all down, first in her blog, Eating With My Fingers, and then in book form was simply “natural”.

Ella Risbridger

“What I try to achieve with everything that I write about mental illness is to say, ‘OK, how can we live with this? How can we make a life worth living when things are really hard, when things feel really difficult, how can you find the good?” says Risbridger. “How can you find something to hang onto when you’re in that dark place?

“What I wanted to do most was to help,” she says of the driving force of the book. She wanted it to be useful, to make the kitchen accessible and “to make it clear that having anxiety or depression or any kind of mental illness, is a part of life”.

For Risbridger, her mental health issues made “everything feel very chaotic”, and cooking presented a “puzzle” that “fitted very perfectly into what I needed it to be. It combines this creative impulse, which I love, with this sense of inevitability: If you put these two things together, you’ll get this result.

“There’s a precision to it, a creativity, and, at the end of it, you’ve got something to eat – you’ve done something practical, you’ve taken a real step to help yourself.

“There’s something really soothing about that,” she adds.


Cooking offered a reliable kind of safety, rather than a fear of the unknown. “Without sounding horrible about it, I just had bigger problems. I was so nervous about everything, [I thought] ‘Well, cooking, what’s the worst that can happen?’”

Hence the book’s list of: What to do when it all goes wrong – e.g. “Order a takeaway. Nobody will care.”

“Cooking’s great. It’s essential for me, and everyone’s got to do it at some point, you might as well try and have fun with it – but it is just food,” Risbridger says matter-of-factly.


“If it goes wrong, it’s a pain – and I understand that’s quite a privileged position in itself, as some people might not have the money to chuck away dinner, and I can understand that’s a whole set of social and economic and financial realities that are really terrible – but I suspect, for most of the people reading and buying this book, they’re probably in a position where if dinner goes wrong and they have to have toast, it’s probably going to be OK.”

And there’s always her three core principles to fall back on:
1. Salt your pasta water (“It makes such a huge difference”)
2. If in doubt, butter (“That really makes me laugh”)
3. Keep going (“It really is a book about keeping going”)

While there are melancholic moments (Risbridger touches on a suicide attempt and difficult family relationships in the book), mostly it’s about the things she loves, like dumplings (“I would live on soup dumplings”) and mini pasta shapes (“They’re so adorable. To have a soup with tiny, tiny stars in just makes everything feel better”), and the hot-pink ribbon it has for keeping your place (“Isn’t it great?!”). But what comes across most, on practically every page, is how much she delights in cooking for others.


“I love having people for dinner,” Risbridger buzzes. “[I’ll say] ‘What do you want to eat? Come here and I’ll make it for you’ – I love that, it’s like giving people a birthday present, all the time.

“My flatmate, I text her in the middle of the day: ‘What do you want to eat?’ She’ll text back two words, like: ‘Maybe sausages?’ Great, I’ll go to Asda and I will think.”

Risbridger calls Midnight Chicken “a very accurate picture of my life five years ago, a lot has changed in my life since then”. And so when asked what happens next, she replies: “I need to work out where I’m going, what I’m doing.

“It’s been a bit of a year,” she muses. “I need a bit of time to just look at it all.”
But for now, there’s joy to be found here. Platefuls of it.


Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger is published by Bloomsbury. Available online now.