"When everything is broken, read" Ellabell Risberger
Today I decided to do a website post so started going through my list, discarding two along the way - one because It's title was ambiguous in that there were a few with similar titles and I no longer knew which was the one I had seen. Indeed the most likely looking one was all about halal food, so I abandoned it for that reason. The second one was dead and not that interesting looking so I moved on to the third. It was called Eating with my Fingers, which was an intriguing title, but I could see straightaway that it too was dead - the last post having been written in September 2018. However, the tile was indeed intriguing so I thought I would check out the last post Midnight chicken pie just to see if there was a reason it had been discontinued, and whether it had perhaps moved elsewhere.
What I found was completely unexpected. A long and heartfelt, heartbreaking outpouring of grief at the loss of the writer's (Ellabell Risberger) partner (John, The Tall Man) to cancer. And yet it was hopeful. Rightfully so it seems because the book she had just written - Midnight Chicken - was a bestseller, and she has since written another one The Year of Miracles, also a bestseller, not to mention a children's book, and poetry as well. She is working on a novel.
She now also seems to have come out as gay - or possibly bisexual given that she had definitely been in a loving partnership with John - The Tall Man - as she calls him. They may even have been married along the way - or were planning to be. The website, however, in spite of the hopeful note of her last post, has not been continued.
And it is worth dipping into. Not just for the food although that is worth paying attention to as well.
I have read a few of her posts now and in every one there has been a line or two worth keeping/remembering/absorbing. I suppose if I imagine myself as a cynic, they could be seen as over the top, self-indulgent, irritating sentimental rubbish, although personally I find them poetic every now and then, thoughtful, insightful even, amusing. Perhaps the best way to show how it is is to present a few of her posts. You can make up your own mind as to which side of the fence you sit on.
Her very first post and the title of her first book - also of her last post with the subtitle Pie Edition. Her photographs are small - this is of her Midnight chicken, which is a roast chicken rubbed with a mix of mustard, chilli, garlic, lemon, pepper, rosemary and thyme. Below is a picture that somebody who made it took - rather more professional and cookbooky.
The recipe itself begins:
"Once upon a time, and in the beginning, was a chicken. Take it out of its packaging; let it breathe. Sit it in a baking tray. Leave it alone. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees."
"Carve the chicken. Let Tall Man have a go at carving the chicken. Look at a useful guide on YouTube. Try and follow it. Fail. Tear the chicken from the bones. Drink. Eat. Feel glad."
Which might give you a bit of a feeling of her writing. But the post is so much more than that. For this is the story of a time when she was considering suicide (we never know why) and how The Tall Man found her, lifted her up and made her cook chicken:
"This is the story of a chicken; and how to roast it; and how to eat it. This is the story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. This is a story about being alive, and more importantly, about wanting to be alive."
The story goes on in her second post The stock is rising which begins with those words at the top of the page, amplified further along the page to:
"When everything is broken, read; and make this, and eat. You will be safe. It will be okay."
Those words really struck home for me because I remembered a particularly traumatic time in my life and how I dealt with it, at least partially, and definitely immediately, by reading Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.
It's still something I do when I'm feeling down - on days like the past few when the rain relentlessly drips down and the clouds gather and it's dark by 4 o'clock - or at least it seems like that. Chicken stock - or I suppose, the legendary spirit lifting chicken soup, or, as she rather more eloquently puts it.
"This is a stock for the day the dark is rising in you, and the world is black and white with whirling snow. This will see you through the worst days; this is easy, and simple, and good, and comforting. This is good. This is good. Tonight will be bad, and tomorrow beyond imagining, but perhaps the next day, you will feel a little better."
This one was written whilst The Tall Man was in hospital and, of course, she was feeling down. But the thing that attracted me, apart from the very notion of cooking carrots on toast, was a paragraph about carrots growing underground:
"Imagine that colour underground, for nobody but the moles and the earthworms and the bones - I love that. I love that I still a little bit believe - because the colour is so vivid, because it makes so much sense to my soul - that if I ate enough I could see in the dark. I love that you can walk past a row of carrots and not know at all about that wild pop of vivid orange under the earth. And I love that good carrots come with earth still in the leaves, the same way that all leeks come with earth folded under their wrappings, and I love that to get the tops you have to have the earth, too, to remind you where the food came from."
"It’s not like the meals I used to make, or the way I used to cook, but I think it’s pretty good all the same. I am trying to feel less guilty about finding things to love in my new life, because there are so many things to love: the sky is blue, and the colours of the carrots are bright and vivid, and the toast is crisp, and there’s Joni on the stereo, and it’s hard not to believe in some goodness in the world.
"The best thing about food is making it for someone else; the best bit of food is sharing it, tearing it, of folding blue cheese onto a round smooth cracker, of cold old takeaway curry pleated into a naan, of shredding chicken and ginger and garlic into hot oil, of pouring tahini into smooth chickpeas, of pressing bacon into fresh baguette, of giving it, hands out, palms out, to you. You. You."
Well Mother's Day is coming up and the recipe in this post is a simple breakfast of tea, and fried egg on toast, so it's appropriate.
It's really a love letter to her man, but it ends with appropriately Mother's Day - no every day words:
"And all of this has been a long way of saying that there’s nothing quite like meeting someone who matches you, and who brings you tea when you need it, and who brings you breakfast, and there is nothing quite like bringing someone else food, feeding someone else, of making something for someone else"
Last one. Just to show you a good idea this one. Basically she has put together in a jar a set of ingredients that is a flavour base for all sorts of things - you know the kind of thing, onions, garlic, chilli, herbs, oil. On a day when you just don't feel like doing all that chopping.
"It turns out that chopping a bulb of garlic is very much more pleasant on a lazy Saturday morning in front of Don’t Tell The Bride on iPlayer than it is on a wet Tuesday night after an awfully long day; and that the wet Tuesday night is made infinitely more pleasant by the knowledge that the chopping is all already done."
It will only keep for a week or so though. And as she says:
"(You can also buy this secret weapon from Waitrose: there it’s called Olio Aglio Peperoncini, and it’s very nice and useful, and quite a lot more expensive than doing it yourself. Plus, you have to find a Waitrose and carry it home.)"
So there you go - I suspect it's the kind of blog you would either love or hate. It's not American - which you might have thought, but English. Since John's death - I now find that he was John Underwood - a writer, she has surrounded herself with friends, living with Tash - one of them, in what she describes as a 'kind of non- marital domestic set-up' - and kept writing,
And what about the food? It all sounds and looks good - sensible, comforting - like our sausage and sauerkraut dinner of last night. She begins her About page with these words:
"This blog has three main morals, and I urge you to remember them and apply them liberally.
1. Salt your pasta water.
2. If in doubt, butter.
3. Keep going."
Two last quotes:
"For me food writing is less about the the food and more of just a really interesting way to tell stories. It's an interesting way to crack into people's personal lives."
And written during COVID lockdown: "Right now, in the darkest winter I can remember, delicious is one of the only things left to us."