Jack Monroe: 'Being able to cook on a budget is still a vital skill'
By Ella Walker
Jack Monroe is eminently practical. The cook and food poverty campaigner is constantly generating recipes and, to be frank, needs "somewhere to put them".
Hence her latest collection, Cooking On A Bootstrap, which she considers both a coterie of tasty dishes and a manual for everything from food shopping and cooking on a budget, to basic kitchen equipment and how to navigate your way through other people's recipe books.
"It's a whole course on teaching yourself to cook well," says the 30-year-old.
"We're all really feeling the squeeze," she adds, nodding to years of austerity, food price hikes and wages lagging way behind inflation. "Everything is more expensive, and people are struggling financially. There is still sadly a need for my recipes and my work."
That makes it sound "miserable", the Southend-On-Sea-born chef admits wryly. But she argues that this book - based on A Girl Called Jack, the blog that first brought her into the public sphere, where she wrote
about life as a single mum and food bank user on benefits, and started sharing her ultra budget-friendly recipes - is anything but.
"It's political, it's irreverent, it's fun," she says. "It's basically like having a chat with me in the kitchen, which I find really nice, because cooking on a budget is so often presented as a really dour, miserable project."
Monroe is now largely vegan, but she remembers the moment she first realised she was "properly poor" - and it involved butter. "It wasn't that I'd had the heating off for a year, it wasn't that I couldn't
replace the light bulbs in my hallway, and it wasn't that I'd basically sold everything me and my son owned to try and pay the rent," she remembers. "I was wearing two jumpers because it was so cold, I was ill
all the time and I was absolutely starving - all of those things were pretty much fine on a day-to-day basis because I'd got used to them.
"It was when I was in the supermarket and realised I couldn't afford to buy butter any more - I lost my s***. I was like, 'That's it, I'm properly poor now, I can't afford butter', and I refused to buy margarine.
"That was my rock bottom," she adds with a self-deprecating laugh. "It was the last luxury to go. I gave up heating and lighting before I gave up my weekly block of butter. I realised if I put that back, I could have an extra bag of pasta, a tin of carrots and some button mushrooms. It was awful - I bought some 40p lard for cooking with and was slightly disgusted with myself."
No longer a food bank user - Monroe's written columns for the Guardian and New York Times since becoming a food writer - she still buys everything from the supermarket's cheap budget ranges (aside from when it comes to Marmite and Heinz Tomato Ketchup - those are non-negotiable:
"Sainsbury's Basics ketchup as a cooking ingredient, but Heinz as a dipping sauce!").
"They're just as good," she says strongly of the budget ranges. "If you're at home and opening your cupboards to feed yourself and your kid, they don't need serrano ham and extra virgin olive oil - they just need some food. It's not what you've got, it's what you can do with it."
Giving people confidence is key, she says. In fact, Monroe wants to imbue her readers with so much kitchen-based fearlessness that they "ride roughshod all over my recipes". It's not just about overcoming the worry that you don't have the skills to whip up a quick dinner though, we also need to bridge the gap prised open between home-cooking and aspirational food on TV and social media.
"The people I write for aren't instagramming their dinner, because their dinner is half a can of beans on white toast," explains Monroe. "What [Instagram, TV, Twitter, etc] does is create a disconnect.
"People think they can't [cook] because they don't have a great big kitchen or people standing to one side chopping their vegetables for them, or fancy whizzy blenders. It's sold to people as a dream rather
than a practical skill."
Learning to cook, she says, is fundamental, something we should be able to do as easily as breathing or walking: "Kids in school are taught to swim, but they're not taught to cook. I find that phenomenal because we all have an oven and we don't all live by the sea.
"We learn to talk, to read, to walk, and there seems to be some kind of shame or stigma attached to not being able to cook," she muses, incredulous.
Monroe points out that she was an "instinctive cook" rather than a natural one. Moving out of her parents' home aged 17, she taught herself by trawling supermarkets and stealing ideas, picking up the fanciest
pasta sauces and ready-meals, buying all the ingredients listed, and making her own version. "Cooking isn't difficult, but I didn't spring out of the womb armed with a whisk, I had to learn like everybody else."
She believes cooking courses should be compulsory in schools, but is clear that cooking confidence is not just young peoples' problem. "What I'd love to do is run free cookery workshops for people, the same way I
do with my friends, one-on-one in my own kitchen," says Monroe. "If you've got a can of tomatoes and a couple of basic herbs and spices, the culinary world is basically yours."
Blaming a lack of time for not making the effort to cook doesn't wash with her either. "Some of my recipes take 10 minutes - that's 10 measly, poxy minutes scrolling through Twitter of an evening. We've all got 10
minutes to better nourish and sustain ourselves."
She accepts that often we don't cook because of lack of self-interest, or self-worth - and admits she's been guilty of that too in the past, opting for "three bags of salt and vinegar crisps one after the other
for dinner" - but notes forcefully: "We all need to love and respect ourselves enough to want to make a meal for ourselves - it's a really basic act of love."
Cooking On A Bootstrap by Jack Monroe, photography by Mike English, is published by Bluebird. Available now.