I’ve been meaning to write this since some commenters on the Guardian website sniffed that they didn’t want to eat bean goulash or mushroom soup. Bully for them. I do.
Then yesterday, I was forwarded an article by Shirley Goode, the 80′s doyenne of budget cooking, about me, which didn’t read as all that complimentary – but perhaps I’m over sensitive. I get a LOT of rubbish thrown my way – from criticism about my portions, to death threats, so it’s hard not to take it to heart sometimes.
I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest cook, although I can sweat an onion and sauté a chicken thigh with the best of them, and enliven simple dishes with herbs and spices at little cost. I cut my hand open on a film for the Guardian on Friday when opening kidney beans, and I’ve been pronouncing ‘mangetout’ wrong for years. I hate being filmed when I’m cooking, because I’m awkward and self conscious and lack the easy cheeky narrative of Jamie Oliver, worried instead that I will be judged for putting ingredients in the wrong order, or not chopping an onion in a polished, professional way.
But I can pair flavours together, and I can make decent food from budget ingredients – I can cobble a meal together from the dregs in a cupboard and sad flimsy veg in the bottom of the fridge, and I know how to preserve eggs and make simple but fancy things like lavender sugar. Gosh, I even grow my own chillies, and nasturtiums.
I know criticism, or critique, is part and parcel of ‘being famous’ – but I didn’t put myself on a pedestal. I have never claimed that my life is an ideal life. I didn’t start this whole adventure by setting up a food blog – I started to add food to what was essentially a local politics blog, when I found that actually, I could make soups and chillis and goulash from a handful of ingredients from my supermarket value range. Instead of going to bed hungry, I could now prepare three meals for myself and my son every day, and I wanted to share that information. When I worked out that I could make a protein-packed tomato and bean soup for less money than the value range can of dubious tomato soup in the supermarket, I wanted to let people know, so they could eat a little better for a little less.
A fellow blogger recently calculated the nutritional breakdown of two of my carrot, cumin and kidney bean burgers – and reported that they were low in fat, high in protein, and generally a healthy, well balanced meal. I was relieved, although unsurprised – I have been living off my own recipes for the past year, and have a BMI of 22, exactly right for my height and weight. I have an energetic lifestyle, no health problems, and am a UK size 10, something that has remained fairly constant since I started cooking for myself this way (apart from this year’s Live Below The Line challenge, where my weight plummeted in 11 days to something unprintable, and unfortunately two days before my appearance on BBC Breakfast, where I looked far thinner than I usually do and was attacked by anonymous internet critics who stated that I “clearly don’t like food” “looks like she’s starving” “I don’t want to eat her food if it makes me look like a refugee”. Ouch.)
The point is – there are different levels of cooking ability, and different kinds of experts. As shown on the Great British Budget Menu, the ‘experts’ can’t actually cook decent food on a very low budget, with an inability to understand that a cup of tea with six sugars in is a cheap energy hit for someone that doesn’t have a spare £11 kicking around for a side of salmon.
I’m not a celebrity chef. I’m not a chef at all. I’m a mum, that had a good Home Economics teacher ten years ago and can knock up a meal from some crap in the cupboard, that my three year old will eat, and wants to show other people how to do the same. The messages I get every single day, on Twitter, in my email, on my Facebook page, say to me that the food I cook is delicious, simple, and is changing the way that people shop and eat. And I rejoice – because yes, my food IS simple, and that’s the point. Because the doyennes of celebrity chef culture seem to have forgotten, that not everyone can make a white sauce, or shortcrust pastry, or owns a hundred and ten fancy pants gadgets.
So, I can’t make a soufflé and I’ve never used a bain-marie, but I can feed my kid in ten minutes when he’s tugging on my leg, without having to pop to the shop for ten new ingredients.
There’s room in the foodie world for all of us – the fancy pants polished restaurant grub, and the ten minute fish paste pasta. But I believe that to tackle food poverty and a culture of ping-ping meals, cooking at home needs to be less glossy, less sexy, less fancy kitchen equipment, less intimidating – and more accessible, more about what you can make from what’s in the cupboard, to spend less, reduce waste, and not spending all day tarting about in the kitchen or scouring shelves for asfoedita and artichokes.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/agirlcalledjack
A Girl Called Jack is available to order here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/A-Girl-Called-Jack-Monroe/dp/0718178947