THE NEW YORKER, 25 FEB 2014

In January, Jack Monroe, a young British woman in her twenties with a shagged, boyish haircut, uploaded her fourth video to YouTube. It showed Monroe in a gray T-shirt and cardigan, pushing sweated onions and greens around a saucepan with a wooden spoon on an electric stove. “Hi,” she says, meekly, and waves. Tonight she’s making turkey meatballs and spinach pasta. “I’m really tired and I don’t really fancy haute cuisine tonight, so here we go,” she explains with wry weariness. Monroe then squeezes the last of a tube of tomato paste into the pan. A fluorescent light casts a yellow glow as Monroe cooks, and the sizzling vegetables overpower her voice. A cat perches on a wooden IKEA stool in the background.

Monroe is a resourceful and skilled cook, with a recipe book out this month, but she is the opposite of most celebrity chefs. Since May, 2012, she has posted hundreds of budget recipes on her cheerful blog, called “A Girl Called Jack,” ranging from peach-and-chickpea curry (“a good place to hide extra vegetables”) to at least a dozen kinds of bread. She had no computer, so she typed out each recipe—and even her book—on a pay-as-you-go Nokia phone. Each recipe includes the price of each ingredient and the total price of the meal per serving, which typically adds up to less than one pound.

Back in July, 2012, though, while she was posting recipes for friends and then printing them out to distribute at a local food pantry, Monroe wrote an entry called “Hunger Hurts.” The short post told of her quick decline from a middle-class working woman to a single mother on the dole, suffering the pressure of rent arrears when her check arrived mysteriously short. She turned off her heat, unscrewed her light bulbs, and sold every valuable she owned to a pawnshop. Even though she organized her cooking so as not to spend more than ten pounds ($16.65) a week for food, she wasn’t able to keep herself and her son fed: “Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.”

After that post, Xanthe Clay, a writer from the Telegraph, wrote about her forty-nine pence lunch with Monroe, and a month later a book deal had been inked. Monroe has since been profiled in the Times. The Guardian, a paper for which she now posts weekly recipes, has called her the “modern face of poverty.” She works as an activist for Oxfam and serves as a spokesperson for Sainsbury, a budget supermarket chain in Britain (though she gives away that income to charity). And she has brought petitions to Parliament and written op-eds in support of food banks, where she received ingredients to keep her and her son fed between checks.

On her blog as well as in her newspaper columns and TV appearances, Monroe reminds her readers that people are not poor because they are lazy or stupid but because they have had a spate, maybe a long one, of bad luck. The fall can be precipitous. She delivers this message with a combination of even-keeled poise and youthful charm, smiling through her gapped teeth and posing in pictures with her three-year-old son, the towheaded “Small Boy.” She is able to illustrate the keen difficulty of poverty in short anecdotes: “I think people really don’t understand how little things get to you as a person when you’ve got a child that’s two years old, their feet grow, and they’re walking along and they are telling you that their shoes are hurting them and you know you haven’t got the money to go get a new pair of shoes.”

Some have found Monroe’s preaching hollow; to them, she represents a drain on the state, a single mother who left her full-time job to take care of her child and blog. Richard Littlejohn, writing for the Daily Mail, criticized her for quitting work, for spending her money on tattoos, and for thinking that England’s poor have any interest in kale pesto. Monroe responded to Littlejohn point by point, with plenty of sass, even offering him the extra bait of outing herself as a lesbian.

Monroe’s cookbook features a hundred budget recipes and winning photographs of Jack and Small Boy, making bread and “penny pizzas,” cut out with cookie cutters in the shape of hearts and ducks. She doesn’t “plate” her food; she spoons it into mismatching bowls, for herself and her son, and pushes a meatball to the side with her finger. When readers went overboard nitpicking her spaghetti carbonara recipe on the Guardian Web site, she tweeted, “Guess while people wet their knickers about ‘correct carbonara’ they can avoid talking about real issues.” Her recipes skew vegetarian, not for moral or health reasons but because it’s more affordable.

Monroe’s philosophy is that, in order to combat food poverty and pre-made, unhealthy food, cooking at home needs to be “less glossy, less sexy, less intimidating.” Her advice is practical and straightforward: a baby bottle will do if you don’t have a measuring cup; you don’t need anything better than a cheap blender, like the one she has in her kitchen. Dishes are based around “hero ingredients,” and her cookbook explains how to maximize them. She divides vegetables into groups—roots, “oniony things,” greens, leaves, and frozen vegetables—to help her readers swap what’s available more easily. Bottled lemon juice is just as good as a fresh lemon, and lasts longer; grow your own herbs if you can. Check what’s in your cupboard before you go shopping, then write a meal plan, and don’t buy anything that isn’t on your list. Shop with cash, so you never spend more than you have, and don’t be afraid to leave out ingredients from a recipe all together. Finally, “don’t have seconds—be creative with your leftovers instead.”

But Monroe keeps her message as light as possible, despite its grim origins. She offers tips for making recipes attractive to kids: rather than eight large fish cakes, form thirty small nuggets. She prizes variety, and her continuous addition of recipes promises plenty of ways to eat a varied diet cheaply. Even when resources are stretched, there’s always a way to indulge: “Life without treats and sweets and cakes is a bit rubbish, and at such low cost it’s a fun way to introduce the kids to the magic of cooking.” Monroe offers lots of recipes for cookies, crumbles, scones, and other sweets, while still staying within her ten-pound budget.

Monroe ends her book with a reprise of her “Hunger Hurts” blog post. Though she now has a job and a book deal, but there are still thousands more who suffer daily from hunger. Again, her advice is pragmatic and direct: donate to a local food bank, or bring your old clothes, shoes, and blankets to a homeless shelter. Volunteer at a children’s center. And “don’t step over people in the street—give them the 3 pounds you might have spent on a latte.” Monroe herself isn’t sure how much her habits will change now that her circumstances have. “If I woke up tomorrow having won the lottery, or being an overnight success with my book deal, I don’t think I’d change … It would take quite a while to be less careful with my spending. Once you’ve been in there, you never want to go back.” But she tries hard not to appear stingy, either: “There’s nothing wrong with having money, being successful,” she said on BBC Breakfast. “I don’t begrudge anyone having a good career, a big house, but we need to look around and see there are people who need a bit of help, and if everyone gave a little of it the world would be a much better place.”

The New Yorker, 25th Feb 2014.

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Categories: Blog

46 Comments »

  1. Well done. Keep flying the flag. About time those the other side of the pond heard of the winning ways you have with economical living and good food. As for the Daily Mail, double standards fill the whole publication.

  2. Sainburys is a budget chain? Sctually might be compared to some American stores – can anyone confirm?

    I’ve spent a lot of time in the states & it’s on the cards to move there to be with my girlfriend – among my concerns (healthcare, annual leave, crazy religious people making up discriminatory laws) are that I don’t recall seeing things like 15p tins of potatoes or 35p bags of pasta, no budget fruits for 90p – have I just been looking in the wrong grocery stores?

    How are the Americans doing jacks recipes adapting or sticking to her budgets from your american stores? I’m very interested to know.

    Sorry to take over & all jack…

    • Yes, you might be shopping at the wrong stores. However, depending on where you’ve been in the States, all the available stores could be the wrong stores. There are many ‘budget’ chains and whole sale stores that people can go to, including ALDIS (I think they are also in the UK). Family Dollar, Dollar General, Price Chopper, etc. are all fairly cheap places to buy food. Fresh produce can be a challenge in a lot of places, but if you know which day to buy, you can sometimes get produce discounted. We feed a family of 6 very liberally on $400.00 a month. With a bit more planning, we could feed all of us for less money and still have enough calories and nutrition. However, we know how to cook from basic ingredients, we grow many of our herbs and I stay at home full time so have plenty of opportunity to cook carefully and fully. Many people don’t have any of these skills or opportunities.

  3. I should think your wonderful recipes will now be able to help the millions of struggling Americans too. I hope that you get well renumerated for the great thing you have done, given practical help and above all hop to countless people here XX Jack you are amazing ! Thank god for people like you x

  4. I can only echo her reasoning of people who find themselves in poverty. Some of them are just unlucky, some have just been worked too hard in the past and are worn out. The empty headed “they are – lazy – never done any good – wasters” – is about as helpful as a dumb blonde on prozac. I too eat cheap and well, my latest creation – beer lasagne – vegemince and 25p supermarket beer. Wonderful – and cheap.

  5. Jack, I’ve been there (still am, to some extent) and your blog/Facebook entries are a Great thing to see when I wake up in the morning. Keep up the Great work. 🙂

  6. How refreshing to read a well written, unhysterical, unbiased piece of writing about a touchy subject. Apart from their gaffe about Sainsburys, and your “shaggy” I think they meant, hair, they have it spot on. And come on, the Mail a newspaper? I think not. Drivel and vitriol for people with no sense and fewer ethics. Keep on, keep on!

  7. Well done Jack. Been following you and your journey for quite a while now and am so very delighted that you seem to be going from strength to strength. Long may it continue!

    (AND I’m now known for being ‘quite the chef’ – despite the fact that I rarely cook anything that is not from your blog anymore… Hurray for us!)

  8. Yes a great piece of writing – summed up a girl called jack from how I understood she was about rather than the nasty criticisms she has had at times.

  9. Brilliant. Can’t imagine what other achievements another article in a year might list, but I am sure there will be plenty. May you continue to go from strength to strength.

  10. My copy of ‘a girl called Jack’ finally landed on the mat today after pre-ordering it weeks ago. It doesn’t disappoint! Great to see you getting such great write ups across the pond!..much deserved! I look forward to seeing many more …and I also am looking forward to trying out your courgette, tomato and Brie gratin tonight! Congratulations!! …and keep up the good work 🙂

  11. Just woken (I’m a midwife working nights) to your debut cookery book! Amazing-real-delicious-achievable! Until now my bible was the ‘paupers cookbook’ – it has now been replaced! Be very proud of yourself Jack! Just ordered numerous copies for my children, friends, colleagues-that’s Christmas and birthdays sorted! We are hooked on your chickpea loaf and kidney bean burgers. You Truely are a superstar leading the way With Real, nutritious, cheap meals – and no ‘food porn’ in site! Susie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  12. Bought your book today, now debating whether to give it to one of my adult kids or keep it for myself! Might have to buy more copies…well done, that woman!

  13. Apart from describing Sainsbury’s incorrectly as a “budget supermarket” one very commendable, well written article – a perfect feather in your cap. Well done.

  14. My copy of your book arrived today, my treat for the weekend will be reading it from cover to cover and planning next weeks meals. Thank you so much, my four small girls are going to love helping too with some of the kid friendly recipes x

  15. It may be a generally accurate article but someone has not done any research if they describe Sainsbury’s supermarket as budget! It is only lower than M & S and Waitrose and is the highest of the mainstream supermarkets.

  16. I love your blog. I was without a job with two small boys. Electricity was turned off and so was my water. I also didn’t eat so my boys could eat what little we had. I totally related to your hunger hurts. I got so skinny you could see my bones under skin. I lived in a place that didn’t have a food bank and because I was only separated I couldn’t get food stamps.
    I also couldn’t take my kids to the hospital when they were very, very sick. I had not money and no insurance. My son was wheezing, his breathing labored and they wouldn’t see him or my other son who was also sick. I drove to another town. The hospital was the same. I was praying the entire time. When I cried at the second hospital, “Please someone help my babies.!” A nurse came down from another floor to the emergency room. She gave me the name of a doctor who would see my boys. The doctor was waiting for us at the door of his office. He is the only doctor that has ever prayed over my boys. I was amazed and very grateful. He healed my boys.
    It hadn’t occurred to me to call my parents who were living in another country. I finally did though. They helped me raise my boys. After getting a teaching job. I went back to the town that we had lived in when we were so poor. I went to the grocery store there and bought whatever i wanted. I was so delighted to know that I actually could buy, within reason, the food that I wanted.
    My boys are grown now. I pray that they will never know hunger. Even though I can buy whatever food I want now, My current husband is a sweetheart, I am obsessed with food and fixing it in new economical ways which is why I love your blog! I am so glad that you are doing what you are doing and that you are no longer wondering where your next meal will come. Sometimes I think we go through adversity so that we will appreciate the good all the more.

  17. This probably won’t get read but I just want to say I’m sixteen and I bought the book using a voucher I’ve been saving for months to buy it and it doesn’t disappoint- the book is amazing. My mum gives me a small amount of money each month to spend on my groceries and reading this blog has helped so much, in conjunction with religiously studying mysupermarket.com. Thank you Jack for being such a brilliant role model. 🙂

  18. Hi jack. I got your book on publication day and just wanted to say thanks. Its really great. I have already made the kidney bean burgers and the lemon sultana and raisin bread. Really nice. We have decided to cut down on our expenses as we are planning a big overseas move plus we spend too much money on groceries anyway.
    the book has also shown me new ideas for meals that i never would have thought of, such as mandarins with pasta.
    Also i was really happy to hear that you are writing book two :-)) congragulations. Hopefully it wont be ages and ages and ages before being published.

  19. As well as calling Sainsburys a budget supermarket, I notice it keeps mentioning social security checks (cheques) being delayed. Is that how welfare payments are made these days in America rather than the bank transfers most of us get in Blighty?

    Of course I’m sure our articles make tons of mistakes about foreign countries too, and we use anachronisms too – e.g. talking about a “dole queue” when they don’t really exist literally now.

  20. Just finished reading your book and I love it. Thank you for all that you do. I’m looking forward to many more books!

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