I’ve fallen hard for Ella Risbridger.
I found my way to her through Cupboard love: my biggest romances always begin in the kitchen, which led me to her website, and to her writing about her late partner, and his cancer. And, ultimately, to Midnight Chicken, her cookbook cum memoir. Wherein she writes:
I always start with a cup of tea. Writing this down it feels simultaneously absurdly English, and also not at all English, to have a proper cup of tea in the morning. Yorkshire, with a splash of milk and a teaspoon of sugar (brewed in the cup, milk and sugar and the teabag waiting for the kettle to boil), or Earl Grey with a brief twist-and-pinch of lemon. Lady Grey, Lapsang Souchong, green, red. Begin with a big mug of tea. Or maybe you’d rather have coffee. Three spoonfuls of ground beans in the bottom of the cafetiere, water just off boiling, and the bold crema that emerges when you press the plunger down, all glass and silver and daringly continental. I take mine black, first thing. Black, and back to bed — and perhaps that’s a good rule, for the morning: however you begin, take it back to bed. I set the alarm ten minutes earlier just for this. Some people meditate; I make to-do lists in bed with a mug of something hot. Propped up against the pillows, cup in one hand, pen in the other, contemplating the day ahead: it’s sort of like a battle plan.
When I was a little girl, every day I used to tell my mum: this is my Big Plan, and this is my Little Plan. I still do this, and I always begin both plans with breakfast. Partly because that or way the to-do list gets off to a good start, and partly because breakfast is important. Old wives and young nutritionists are united on this one: eat breakfast, and eat breakfast well. Breakfast like a king, the old saying goes. And I do. So should you. A small space carved out at the very beginning of the day just for you — it makes everything else smoother, tidier, easier.
Reading this, I became conscious that my morning routine, for as long as I can remember, has seemed a frantic giant slalom, a race to get myself up, get Oliver up, get us abluted and dress and fed and ready for the 9:30 a.m. gong, when our respective days start formally.
A decade ago, I had yet to become a skier in this race, having shirked all responsibility for the morning, save walking Oliver to school, to Catherine. And even the walking-to-school part was in some doubt, as I wrote in 2007:
Yesterday I lollygagged in bed 10 minutes later than usual. I was in no danger of falling out of line, but from Catherine’s reaction — “are you taking Oliver to school today?” — it was obvious that she still harbours some doubts about my long-term abilities in this regard. Indeed I think that part of my steely resolve on this issue is to simply to demonstrate to Catherine that I am not a total lay-about and that it is possible for me to make some contribution to the efficient running of the household, no matter how small it might ultimately be.
I am proud that I conquered at least some of my layabouty tendencies, and did, indeed, walk (and, later, drive) Oliver to school for the rest of that school year, and the 11 school years thereafter.
Eventually, though, sleeping in until the last minute, jumping out of bed, and getting Oliver to school became untenable: while Catherine was bound and determined to make Oliver’s breakfast and lunch every day (a stab at the darkness, I think, and proof to herself that she was still whole), eventually the balance of responsibilities had to shift. I started to get Oliver rousted (not always a simple task), and then started to make him breakfast, and, eventually, took on the entire party. And I did this, against my worser nature, with jaw clenched and eyes on the leave-for-school deadline.
It worked, but it cast the day in a cruel light, and reading Risbridger write about a “small space carved out at the very beginning of the day just for you” seemed so overwhelmingly attractive, that my body, traditionally primed to fight back viciously against any attempt to wake up before the absolute latest possible time (8:00 a.m. in the recent structure of the family day), graciously consented to allow me to wake up, without an alarm, at 7:05 a.m. yesterday.
At which point I went downstairs, boiled the kettle, made myself a cup of Lady Baker’s English Breakfast, and sat myself down on the big orange chair in the living room (I could not bring myself to go for the total Risbridger and go back to bed). In the fumble to accomplish this, I forgot my phone upstairs, which left me free to not check the latest COVID death count but, instead, to continue reading Midnight Chicken.
By the time the 8:00 a.m. alarm went off upstairs, I was, true to promise, primed for a “smoother, tidier, easier” morning.
And I did it all over again this morning, albeit with an Assam tea, which seemed better suited to the task.
As it happens, I was able to invoke this life lesson at an Autism Society zoom last night, led by Peter Mutch. It turns out that what I found my own circuitous route to is called self-care in the mental health game; that was Peter’s focus last night, and while he covered things ranging from muscle relaxation and diaphragm breathing to walks in the woods, the idea of taking time for yourself, time that can feel needlessly self-indulgent, was key to it all. I was happy to be able to share my morning tea story with the assembled.
Meanwhile, Midnight Chicken is just such a terrific book, the kind of book that I feel I should immediately purchase for everyone I know. Here is Risbridger writing about the joy of making morning pastries:
And then you offer a little platter of miniature pastries to your people, and everybody tells you how wonderful you are, and you have done nothing but be gloriously lazy and make pastries on the sofa. Serve these pastries with very hot coffee made in one of those natty little Italian espresso pots. Having wanted such an espresso pot for years, I recently acquired one, and it is an endless joy to me. I recommend, if you can, fulfilling small dreams like this as often as possible.
And on pikelets (“like crumpets, but untidy”):
Now whisk like billy-o. Keep whisking: 3-4 minutes of whisking with your whole strength. Come on, you’ll get an hour to rest in a minute.. This puts the holes in the pikelet, which sounds like an old-fashioned idiom for breaking something (‘By Jove, that’s put the holes in the pikelet!’) but isn’t: the bubbles of air you’re beating into the mixture become the holes when you griddle it. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel, and take your tea back to bed.
After an hour or so (it’ll stand a little bit longer, so don’t worry if you’re at a good bit of your book, or otherwise occupied), come back and check the mixture. It should be bubbly and frothy, and about half as big again as when you left it. Stick your largest frying pan over a medium heat, adding a drizzle of oil if your pan’s not non-stick.
Her recipe for the eponymous Midnight Chicken is, almost, enough to make me consider breaking my vegetarian vows and tracking down a chicken.
I can’t afford to buy a copy for all of you, so please go and order one from The Bookmark.