ELLA RISBRIDGER ON LOCKDOWN
Described by The Times as "the most talented new cookbook writer of a generation", Ella Risbridger is the award-winning author of Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For). The warmth, beauty and deliciousness is second to none. So, in return for a Katto knife, she gave us her thoughts on lockdown cooking and the rituals of the kitchen.
I write this in exchange for a knife. I find, perhaps counterintuitively, there’s something soothing about that fact, as well as the presence of the knife itself next to my laptop. This is maybe surprising: knives, especially in South London, are so unsettling that some supermarkets refuse to sell them at all.
What are you talking about, I said, to the beleaguered shop assistant. I had just moved here, and my life had just fallen apart, and in the process I had lost a partner, a home, and all my kitchen equipment. What do you mean, knives are dangerous?
Of course, I knew - once I blinked off the fog of self-absorbed grief - what she meant. But to me, there is nothing more soothing than a kitchen knife: nothing more soothing than the possibilities of a kitchen knife and a sturdy chopping block.
And so I needed a knife, all the same. To be knifeless in the kitchen is to be static; and to be static, to me, defeats the whole point of being in the kitchen at all. The kitchen is a kind of temple to me, and the rituals of the kitchen a kind of prayer. Like making the sign of the cross, or lighting incense, the movements of cooking are the movements of hope. I will do this; it will be better.
There is to me nothing more soothing than chopping, or rather than chopping well: the ballet of a sharp knife through a carrot, into slices and then into dice and smaller dice, the blade rising and falling like the corps in Swan Lake.
I use the knife as a spatula, lifting the little jewels of carrot, celery and onion and sliding them into melted butter, turning them over and over until they shine and then, later, they soften. This process is what matters to me most. Incremental movement; step by step, we come a little closer to something complete, and something ready, something that nourishes and settles and soothes. Chicken soup, let’s say: the ultimate comfort food, crossing national borders and cultural boundaries.
Slice open the package of chicken thighs, strip the thyme and rosemary from the stems. Oil, butter, chicken stock. When you poach chicken in chicken stock they call it golden stock, sometimes, and it is golden: little bubbles of perfect, sunshine-coloured fat rising and shimmering on the surface.
Back to the knife: tiny cubes of potato, each almost as small as a dollhouse die, each precise and square. The more precise, the more soothing. There is nothing else you can think of, with this kind of work; nothing you can focus on except the delicate movement of the blade through the root.
Chicken out, and potato in; and the smallest white beans I have, soaked and rinsed. A handful of pasta stars, little and pretty. A spoon of pasta alphabets. Taking up the knife again, I strip the chicken from the bone, and the skin from the meat; shred the meat into delicate little filaments. Parmesan, black pepper, soft bread to tear and dip with butter and salt. This is why I cook, and how I cook, and yet there’s something I have to confess.
Maybe you read this, and felt angry, or maybe inferior, or maybe just in some way like this wasn’t...it. This wasn’t how you felt about cooking, today, or maybe not for a long time; maybe it isn’t comforting for you right now, where you are, to read about this slow beautiful process of time and dedication.
So here is my confession: this is how I used to feel, before this strange last year that made cooking the only hobby, the only joy, the only distraction.
This story is the story of my home, and yet writing this I feel like I am a little in exile. I am so tired of cooking, of my kitchen, of washing up. And maybe you are, too. Maybe you used to love cooking, before it was all there was. Maybe you’re sick of cooking for only the people in your house; sick of cooking only the things you already know how to cook; sick of making an effort for no reason; sick of trying; sick of not trying. And so for you I’ll tell the truth: this knife sits, shielded in beautiful leather, by my laptop to remind me that one day I’ll remember what I love, and what my kitchen’s for, and why it’s been my home for so long. And it sits by my laptop to remind me that it will be there for me again, when I need it.
The danger of kitchens, to me, is not in their knives so much as their expectation that I should live up to them: that we should somehow be more than we are.
Shiny pictures in cookbooks and food magazines, lengthy descriptions of the joy of cooking, press photos of beautiful women and capable men in chef’s whites or designer frocks: they all make it feel, sometimes, as though cooking is the kind of high art that we’ve failed at before we begin.
I feel like this often, and so I write this to remind myself of what I love; but also to remind myself that I can wait for this feeling to come back. I can wait; this knife’s not going anywhere. There will be a kitchen for me somewhere, sometime, full of the people I love and the work I love, and it will be my home. It will save me when I need it to save me, as it’s done so many times before. But in the meantime? In the meantime, let’s glory - if you feel like I do - in what we have, and what we want.
There are meals that soothe by their complexity - this ritual, as above - and meals that soothe for their instant gratification. You deserve- as I do- to have both. Think instant ramen, fish finger sandwiches, those beans with miniature mystery-meat, disgusting sausages. Anything on toast. Ready meals. Mini apple pies. Packet dal. Potato smiles, turkey dinosaurs, frozen peas with butter and salt. Three clementines and an orange-wrapped bar of caramel chocolate. Big spoon of peanut butter. Crumpets. Bagels. All bread-based products. There’s no need for me to tell you how good these knifeless things are: you know already. All you need, maybe, is the endorsement of an official food writer to accept what you already know in your heart: these things are delicious, and delicious is good for you. Right now, in the darkest winter I can remember, delicious is one of the only things left to us.
And yet, it won’t always be this way.
Someday we’ll cook for each other again; cook in a way that lives up to the knife. Someday we’ll go home again, with our families and our friends, and the good smells of something in a cast iron casserole, and fresh bread, and golden stock. All we have to do is hang on. Hang on, and maybe eat a Babybel.