Reviewing a Landmark Cookbook: Midnight Chicken & Other Recipes Worth Living For
Midnight Chicken has changed the way I think about cookbooks.
I asked for this cookbook for my birthday. It was published early this year and I was curious, although hesitant enough not to buy the book myself. A cookbook with illustrations? Part recipe book, part memoir? A book that begins its story with a suicide attempt? Curious and hesitant.
I started reading just as we moved house and I quit my job to go freelance. I reached for Midnight Chicken when I was feeling adrift. Serendipitously, Ella’s voice offered an anchor.
I read about (and then cooked quickly after) Glumday Porridge, A Proper Ham Sandwich, Big Hearty Black Bean Soup, (Not Quite) Chao Xa Ga, Marital Harmony Sausage Pasta and the rest.
I vowed to train myself to like horseradish, yearning to replicate the Rare Roast Beef for Two recipe (topside of beef served in doughy white rolls with horseradish). I gleefully baked Wicked Stepmother Black Bread, even though I am a patchy bread baker. I urged summer forward so I could make Jam for Out of Doors Jam Sandwiches and eat them outside in the sunshine, as is right.
I devoured the book. Each recipe vibrant, alive and individual with its own story. In Midnight Chicken Ella proves that recipes are not just instructions, dormant, waiting to be picked up and put down by hungry passers-by. They are our memories. Memories immortalised in teaspoon measures and grams. In Midnight Chicken Ella is generous with her memories, again and again, sharing her stories and her life experiences in the form of food.
I think the reason why this book has imprinted on me so, though, is this: I thought Midnight Chicken was a collection of Ella’s memories alone. Not until the acknowledgements, did I realise it was a collection of Ella and John’s, an immortalisation of them.
Here comes the spoiler if you’re unfamiliar with the book and would rather read it in obliviousness as I did.
In the acknowledgements Ella confirms what some readers might have already known. Her partner John, or The Tall Man as she affectionately refers to him throughout the book, has died.
On reading this my heart broke and I cried real, hot tears. I had thought the pain that inspired Midnight Chicken had been Ella’s alone, her personal struggle with depression. I had thought this recipe book, which I had come to love so fiercely, was the story of a woman who had struggled and found food and an excellent partner to share it with. The end. But that wasn’t the end. I re-read recipes with The Tall Man at their heart, The Tall Man’s Cheese Scones, Life Affirming Mussels, Whiskey & Rye Blondies, and my heart ached.
Their tender, happy love is captured on the pages between instructions to pour yourself a glass of wine (of which there are many), and to add more butter.
I’m not sure what we’ve done to deserve such honesty from food writers, but whatever it is that compelled Ella to write Midnight Chicken, I am grateful.
So yes, Midnight Chicken has changed the way I think about cookbooks. I am hungrier for stories. I want to devour them alongside the recipes I make as they work, symbiotically, to enrich one another. And until Ella releases her next book, I’m going to return to Nigella and Nigel and the rest of my cookbooks to see if I’ve missed any generously shared memories tucked between the recipes.
Buy this book. Buy it for the recipes, for the writing, for Ella’s generosity. Buy it for the Sausage Pasta recipe alone. Buy this book, I urge you, it’s a one of a kind.