The Year of Miracles, book review by Ella Risbridger

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At the tender age of 25, while her peers were posting latte foam on Instagram and downloading dating apps, British author Ella Risbridger lost her longtime boyfriend to cancer. Commissioned to write a “Cookbook for a Merry Dinner Party,” she handed her indulgent editors “The Year of Miracles” insteada glowing reminder of grief, renewal, and the dual comforts of friendship and cooking.

Sweetly illustrated with watercolors by Elisa Cunningham, ‘The Year of Miraclesmakes a poignant sequel to Risbridger’s 2019 bestseller, Midnight Chicken.” In “Midnight Chicken” Risbridger wrote about cooking her way out of a suicidal depression. In The Year of Miraclesshe cooks her way through grief. The two books are a gift for readers and chefs alike, although for Risbridger’s sake we can hope there aren’t any additions to the bittersweet series any time soon.

Cooking can be therapeutic. For Ella Risbridger, it saved her life.

The year the title alludes to is 2020 (a tough year for everyone) and the wonders are the many small joys we create or simply acknowledge in our everyday lives. These homely delights, Risbridger assures, will carry us through dark times. “I know now that waiting for miracles is futile,” she proclaims in her introduction. “You have to choose to find her from what you have and where you are.”

Here’s where Risbridger is at the beginning of the book: sitting dejectedly amid stacks marked “for sale” and “keep” in the “aftermath” of the home she shared with her boyfriend. What she has: the carcass of a chicken. She conjures up a cake from the remains of the bird and now she has to conjure up a new one from the remains of her destroyed world.

She does just that over the course of a year, detailing her troubled progress month after month with stories about the dishes she’s cooked and the people she’s cooked them for. She moves in with a friend, prepares her focaccia, plants tomatoes, bakes a rhubarb pudding cake and decides to paint her kitchen pink. She also falls in love, although she refuses to prioritize romance over friendship. The idea “that we should save the flowers and the chocolates and the poems and the songs for the one” horrifies her. “What a waste!” She writes. “Pity!”

Risbridger’s recipes are discursive and poetic with suggestions on how we can even more deeply enjoy the cooking process itself. Her recipe for Yuzu Meringue Bars is finicky, and she wants us to get into the excitement. “It’s a commitment, and it’s worth it,” she writes, arguing that every moment you spend at these bars “is a perfect moment: quiet and calm and interesting.”

Stanley Tucci opens his recipe book and heart in his tender memoir ‘Taste’

Again and again she asks us to slow down and enjoy what is there, to look closely and lovingly at the beauty and wholeness of the everyday. A humble corner shop “smells like spices and donuts and someone else’s dinner, and inside is — well, inside is the world,” she writes. “A world in a corner shop; Eternity in an hour.” She mixes instant ramen with cheese and egg, a mince that evokes a luscious, poetic outpouring: “The yolk flows through the broth, salty and rich, scarlet, golden, saffron and crocus and purple and rose , all the colors of a living fire and always, every minute, new.”

Has anyone ever written such a lyrical tribute to Top Ramen? Is it maybe a bit overripe? You can overdo the heady wonders of the ordinary (or drab or difficult), and Risbridger sometimes does. She compares mourning to a shipwreck and tells us: “You learn how to live in the sea and how beautiful it is here, with the birds and the stars and this phosphorescent seaweed stuff that lights up Blue Planet II . . . You see the great white albatross and the great blue whale as if you never knew if the ship had never sunk.”

If your grieving experience felt more like being slammed into a coral reef while hammerhead sharks circled, you’re not alone. Likewise, the consolation of small comforts can be exaggerated, as in an unreadable interlude about chicken soup. “If the feeling persists – the bad feeling – there is only one way out,” Risbridger writes. “The way is chicken soup.” Her meandering three-page recipe for this magical elixir may test your tolerance for the twee.

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But these excesses don’t spoil the book, which is for the most part wise and tender, a reminder that no matter how grim your situation, the world abounds in beauty should you choose to see it. You may be filled with dread, but there’s birthday cakes to freeze, friends to drink, fish pies to bake: “Think buttered mashed potatoes that crisp under the grill until browned, cheese bubbles on top; think soft white fish flaking off the fork; Think tender chunks of salmon and the tiny treat of a shrimp.” And now there’s the treat, not so tiny or small, from Risbridger’s book.

Jennifer Reeseis the author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.

Recipes about love + sadness + growing things

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