Jack Monroe at home in Southend. All photos by Sophie Davidson.
There is no lingering on the threshold of Jack Monroe’s world. No sooner has she opened the front door of her Southend home to me than she is gone, rushing to tidy the living room and bounding lithely up the stairs, the sound of her singing soaring through down the hallway as she does her hair.The food writer and campaigner is busy testing recipes for her new book – her fourth, Tin Can Cook – as well as organising photoshoots and documenting the whole process in characteristically chatty snippets on social media. As she reminds me more than once during the course of our interview: “We've got work to do.”
To understand the urgency of Jack’s mission, you have to understand her. Although her recipes now regularly make the pages of national newspapers, Jack’s food writing had a humble start on her blog, A Girl Called Jack, at a time when she was relying on food banks for support. A 2012 post titled “Hunger Hurts” recounted in unsparing detail the pain of going hungry in the sixth richest country in the world. “This morning,” she wrote, “small boy had one of the last Weetabix, mashed with water, with a glass of tap water to wash it down with. I tell him I’m not hungry, but the rumblings of my stomach call me a liar. But these are the things that we do.”
When that post went viral, it was a breakout moment. Jack was interviewed, again and again, held up as proof that food poverty exists not “over there”, but right here on our doorsteps. What’s more, it can happen to anyone.“We are all, or most of us, a couple of bad accidents or turns of events away from being in an absolute hole,” Jack tells me, perched on the kitchen counter now, legs swinging energetically. “I was working with the fire service in a job that should have been a job for life, with career progression, with a pension and promotion, and within a year I was sleeping on a sofa under a section 21 notice being evicted from my home and not eating or four days.”What brought Jack’s blog to people’s attention was her story. But the thing that made people come back again and again were her recipes: clever, resourceful, informal cooking borne out of Jack’s need to feed herself and her young son as cheaply as possible. Straight away, there was an appetite for her work. These were recipes that would guide rather than prescribe, dealing in realism over aspiration. Jack used economy range products and fastidiously price-checked all her recipes to give a cost per portion. She came up with smart, Delia-esque ingredient swaps to save time and money. And crucially, the recipes tasted great.
It wasn’t long before there was a book deal with publishing behemoth Penguin Random House. Two glossy cookbooks – A Girl Called Jack and A Year in 120 Recipes – followed in swift succession, each taking Jack’s no-nonsense, affordable cooking gospel to the masses.
Jack describes herself as “like a King Edward, a good all-rounder.” (She even chose the name Jack as a nod to “Jack of all trades”.) But food – cooking it, writing about it, campaigning for everyone to have access to it – has always been at the heart of what she does. Before her job in the fire service (the job that she would eventually lose, sending her sliding into poverty), and long before her food blog, cookbooks and TV appearances, Jack left school at 16 and went straight to work.“I look back and nearly all of my early jobs were in food,” she recounts. “Darren at Debenhams taught me how to cook an egg on the hot plate, and at the supermarket I worked at, I was on the cheese and ham counter for a while. My god, that was fun. I learned loads about cheese and curing meats.”There’s a fairytale quality to this steady ascent: from supermarket deli counter to bestselling food writer – a kind of smart, scrappy Cinderella. At least, that’s how Jack likes to tell it.“All of that,” she muses, “little building blocks to where I am now. It was all for something. It was for this!”This unfussy hunger for everything haute cuisine or tin of beans, value range or artisanally made – is refreshing. And for a working-class writer who has felt the grind of poverty first hand, it’s not apolitical either. Finding a foothold in the largely middle-class world of food writing has presented challenges.
“I've had editors who've said, ‘Is this extra virgin olive oil?' or, 'Which type of salt do you use?' or, 'Cumin seeds or ground?'” she vents. “Every edit I sent back was, ‘Whatever's in the cupboard, whatever you've got!’”Tin Can Cook is a challenge to this fussiness or, as Jack puts it, “a politer ‘fuck you,’ to basically the whole cookbook industry.” Using predominantly ingredients from tin cans, the book's recipes – rhubarb and custard pancakes, “tin-estrone”, beer-battered sardines – are an exuberant rebuttal to the idea that good food must be expensive, farm-fresh and unprocessed.
“Here's how to take tins – generally seen as apocalypse or undignified food – and turn them into something that you could serve up at any dinner table across Britain and be proud of it,” Jack explains.A mackerel salad recipe uses everything from three tins: the oil from the tinned mackerel whisked for a dressing with the juice from tinned mandarins, and black beans sprinkled liberally through to make a beautiful salad of orange and silver.“It could be served at The Ivy,” she enthuses, “and it came out of three tin cans that cost no more than £1.50 for all three of them.”
The tin can hasn’t always been so treasured. While we wax lyrical about cured meats, salt-packed anchovies or, Nigella’s favourite, pickled eggs, we struggle to muster quite the same enthusiasm for cans, which are, at the end of the day, just another way of preserving the food we eat. Before Tin Can Cook, the last cookbook devoted to the topic was Ambrose Heath’s wartime recipes collection, Good Things From Tinned Foods, which says something about the survivalist, austerity mindset that the tin can seems to evoke. The reluctance of the food world to really celebrate the tinned food seems less to do with the quality of the food itself than with how the tin can is codified: as a budget item and an emblem of an impoverished British food culture, its gleaming opacity at odds with the “honesty” we demand of our food today.
“[Cans] remove part of the process – the chopping, the parboiling, the cooking – and turn cooking into something that pretty much anyone can do,” says Jack. “I want to empower people who might have lost their way in the kitchen or never known their way around it in the first place. And just go, this is a thing you can do, you can do this, and if you want I can show you how.”At a time when so much food writing is focussed on the ethics of where we get our ingredients from, Jack is determined that we don't lose sight who that food goes to. That means writing cookbooks not just for the middle classes, but for those with low incomes, people who are disabled, and, at the heart of Tin Can Cook, food bank users, for whom tinned foods are a lifeline.
Jack was a food bank user for six long months after she lost her job.“I remember getting like a tin of Spam and being like, ‘Well, what on earth am I going to do with that to turn it into a meal?’” she says. The memories of that confusion and hunger are what galvanised her to tackle tinned foods head on. “I basically wanted to write the book that I wish I'd had back then.”With a record 1.6 million emergency food packages given out by the Trussell Trust food bank charity in the last year, it’s clear that Britain is facing an extreme hunger crisis. And so, Jack has been hard at work. She has lobbied parliament. She has campaigned alongside the Child Poverty Action Group. Keenly aware that the people who most need cheap recipe ideas are those least likely to be able to afford a cookbook, Jack also started a fundraiser which has so far raised £24,000 for free copies of Tin Can Cook for food banks and their users. (“I'm never going to get rich doing this,” she notes wryly, “but I want to make a difference.”) She also lists the bulk of her recipes for free on her website, and has convinced a few tinned food companies – including Heinz – to donate cans to food banks.
“So much done so far,” she smiles, “but so much left to do.”When Jack won an Observer Food Monthly Award for “best food personality” last year, it marked a decisive change of register, from food blogger to food celebrity. But her heart will always be in the kitchen.“I know what I’m here for now,” she says, hopping down from her countertop soapbox to dish out lunch. “I've found my niche. I'm just going to keep doing it.”She serves bowls of a thick, wine-red stew which has been very gently simmering on the stove since I arrived. She has christened it “borlotouille”, like ratatouille but with tender borlotti beans added to the rich, tomato base. It is warming, filling and fragrant with garlic – enough to make even the most stubborn tin can-sceptic eat their words. We enjoy it in the happy half-silence of people more eager to eat than to speak, though not before getting a requisite photo for Jack’s Instagram.As I’m leaving, I pause to take a look at the dozens of cards displayed proudly in the hallway. Some are cartoonish; others are more serious; many say, simply: thank you. They are mostly from Jack's readers, people who slowly, recipe by simple recipe, discovered not only that they could cook, but that they actually enjoyed it.
“I wanted to surround myself with physical reminders of, look, you're doing something good,” Jack beams.She pauses for a moment, and we look up at the cards, bellies full. But the revery can’t last long. As if remembering who she is, Jack clatters back into chaotic motion. She needs to get ready for the school run, test some more recipes, make arrangements for a big shoot. She bustles me out of the door and into the bright afternoon sun. I don’t blame her. There is so much work to do.@rubytandoh