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.