To call Ella Risbridger’s two food-related books 'cookbooks' would do her writing a disservice. While yes, ostensibly Midnight Chicken and The Year of Miracles are collections of recipes, they are so much more than that. Both books track the intersection between food and grief. They make radiance out of the mundane. They will have you crying, and laughing and yearning. Your heart will fill up while reading them, and sometimes it will constrict in pain. Risbridger offers up food – sometimes complicated, sometimes sometimes simple, always wonderful – to you as a lens and says 'Hello, look at this! Isn’t this reason enough to want to stay alive? Maybe even to be happy?'

Risbridger’s first food book, Midnight Chicken, charts her journey with mental illness and how cooking helped her manage suicidal ideation, or as she aptly puts it, "recipes worth living for". Until, that is, her long-term partner, dubbed "The Tall Man" is diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma part-way through her writing the book and staying alive takes on a whole new meaning. Her second food book, The Year of Miracles, follows her journey of putting herself back together after his death, a period of time that travels through the Covid-19 pandemic.

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“I was never a very ‘cook-y’ child,” Risbridger tells me. “We spent a lot of time outside and I spent a lot of time reading. I wasn’t really into food. My partner was a really keen cook. He was kind of quite an erratic cook, but an exciting ibe, and he made cooking and food a way of life for both of us. I think I was looking for a way to feel less mad as well. Some people get into running, I tried and I’m like, 'I’m not a runner. Now I’m just depressed and running.'” Despite the seriousness of the topic, Risbridger radiates a palpable warmth. It’s unsurprising – this tangible sense of emotion is what makes her writing so arresting. It’s how she’s managed to produce two books that seem to draw you into her world of large cups of tea, warming plates of carbs and a kitchen where food seems to be nurtured and love bubbles over.

“I was seeing the GP a lot, and I was trying all these antidepressants and none of them were working,” she continues. “I kept spiralling lower and lower into this horrible pit, and I was like, 'You know what? I could cook.'" And do that she did. In the foreword for Midnight Chicken’s eponymous recipe, Risbridger describes lying on the floor of her flat and feeling unable to get up. But there was a chicken she had bought from the shop that needed roasting, and the process of slowly coaxing this raw material to something edible and delicious ultimately lifted her up, even if just for a moment.

I kept spiralling lower and lower into this horrible pit, and I was like 'You know what? I could cook.'

It is one thing to cook food. It is another thing entirely, however, to write an entire book about it. “I’m a writer before I’m a cook. Cooking is a hobby, but writing is who I am,” Risbridger tells me. “I had this very underwhelming food blog called Eating with My Fingers, which I did about five posts on. And then I was like, 'Hmm, this could be a book.' I was just one of those people with no back-up plan. Like, 'I’m going to be a writer in London.' 'OK, but what are you going to do if that doesn’t work?' 'I don’t know, be a writer in Paris?'” She laughs. “I was really surprised it was a cookbook, but food had become such a huge part of my life that I couldn’t write about my life without writing about food.”

While both books sit along a similar content thread, they ultimately have different focuses, and the way food is discussed feels discernibly different, too. In The Year of Miracles, food is positioned more as a source of pure joy than a lifeline to be clung onto. “The interesting thing about the shift between the first and second book was that cooking had stopped being a thing I did to get me through, and it started being a thing I did because I liked it and because I was hungry,” Risbridger tells me. “That felt like a really wonderful shift to me, this move away from clinging desperately to a thing, to being like 'How can I have a more normal relationship with this?'”

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The Year of Miracles focuses on a theme of friendship, something Risbridger says “was the only thing that stayed from the book Bloomsbury bought.” It’s unsurprising to see why – Risbridger’s friends rallied in the aftermath of her partner’s death, and her descriptions of their interactions and their love and support is enough to spark tears. It was ultimately events outside of Risbridger’s – or anyone’s – control, that led to the direction of the book changing. “It was going to be about dinner parties and all of the people we had over in 2020 and how fun that was,” she tells me. “And then that did not happen.”

Instead, like all of us, Risbridger was forced indoors, with limited contact with friends and family. Suddenly finding herself with a fair amount of free time, she developed something of a green finger, somehow managing to turn a corner of her ‘car parking space’ of a garden into a thriving vegetable patch. There is a metaphor to be found within her story. As her seedlings begin to grow, so too does Risbridger. As the weather begins to warm, so too does Risbridger. Grief isn’t something you ever let go of, but it is something you learn to live with. It seems that each recipe that utilises Risbridger's abundant garden is a dialogue on her own growing wellbeing.

Risbridger’s ability to use food as a starting off point for complex observations about life and emotions, grief and memory is indicative of how food is so tied up within our lives and our world. But, for Risbridger at least, it’s about how food and love are interchangeable. “I think the whole book was supposed to be…” Risbridgers starts saying, before trailing off thoughtfully. “I hope,” she rephrases, “that the book is about being open to love. And opening yourself up to being vulnerable.”

It is about this, and so much more.