A celebrity chef on $16 a week - Macleans.ca

A celebrity chef on $16 a week

How frugal meals turned a single mom into a foodie hero


Richard Cannon / Getty Images

The unwritten conceit of foodie life is that it isn’t cheap. If you’re regularly whipping up brie and bacon risotto, or carrot, cumin and kidney-bean burgers, financially, you must be okay. Except if you’re Jack Monroe, a single mother living in Southend, England. Then you have so little money, your weekly grocery budget for your toddler and yourself tops out at $16—and that risotto costs a remarkable 42 cents.

Through her almost-magical recipe ingenuity—and a bit of grocery-store math—Monroe, a 25-year-old blogger, is redefining what it means to eat poor, and earning foodie hero status in England. Her recipes won her an award from the upscale Fortnum & Mason grocers, and her fans include British food writer Nigel Slater.

Monroe was a fire-department phone operator before she left her $40,000-a-year job in 2011 when she couldn’t find child care. Living on benefits and unable to find steady work, she spiralled into poverty and debt. When welfare payments fell short of the bills, she’d miss meals and turn off the heat in her apartment. She sold her camera and iPhone. As an outlet, she started blogging on an old Nokia phone about local politics and poverty. One morning, her son Jonny looked up from a breakfast of a single Weetabix, mashed with a bit of water, and asked for more. Her housing cheque was $160 short that month. She was a week behind on rent.

It was the turning point. “I knew, if I could make food work for me and Jonny, I’d be holding our family together,” Monroe says. Family dinners were a staple of her own middle-class upbringing, and she loved to cook. She scrounged around her apartment for change and headed to the store. That week, she sold the entire contents of her home in a one-day garage sale and moved to a cheaper flat. She budgeted $16 a week for food.

On her blog, A Girl Called Jack, she posted cheap recipes and charted undulating grocery-store prices—she can rattle off costs of basket basics like an auctioneer (canned potatoes, for example, are cheaper than raw). A year later, she is a celebrity, a so-called “austerity chef,” purveyor of cheap, healthy and tasty meals for a culture divorced from cooking. Monroe serves sharp rebuttals to welfare stereotypes along with spiced potato soup (cost: 16 cents). She appears regularly on TV and radio shows and in the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers, offering recipes and commentary. Her readership (16,000 blog followers, 12,000 on Twitter) includes British aristocrats, grocery-chain bosses and food-bank frequenters. She’s addressed Parliament and attended a G8 summit. Her cookbook—published by Penguin and priced about the same as a week’s shop—comes out next year.

It will feature meals such as roasted zucchini and feta potato salad, and baked trout in tomato sauce with lemon and herb rice—written with a blend of invention and inspiration from chefs such as Slater and Nigella Lawson, but pared down, with “ingredients I can afford,” she says. “When you’ve only got a jar of fish paste in the cupboard and some yogourt in the fridge, you think, ‘I wonder, if I mix these together, what would it turn out like.’ ”

An idea based on Gordon Ramsay’s “posh” salmon mousse, a blend of salmon and cream, the dish sits on the same line Monroe straddles, between the glossy magazines and “fancy-pants gadgets” of foodie culture, and the 30 per cent of British families relying on benefits, who may barely afford budget grocery brands. While she scoffs at the “asafoetida and artichoke club” and recipes stocked with “impossible-to-find ingredients,” she also makes lavender sugar.

Not everyone’s convinced. She’s criticized for using too much canned food, or for being too fancy herself. But Monroe says she’s not a chef, nor is she glorifying austerity. She and her son share a reliably cheap room in a house, because only part of the $40,000 book-deal money has come through and most of it went to rent and debts. They remain on a $16-a-week food budget. She misses roast chicken, fresh out of the oven. “I haven’t had pork belly for so long now,” she says wistfully. “I miss steak.” There will come a time, she says, when she can afford them again, but for now, “I’m happy eating bacon.”


A celebrity chef on $16 a week

  1. Jack makes sure our politicians cannot kid themselves (and us) that welfare provides a sum adequate to live on. And in the UK, more and more working families are having to rely on food banks to feed their families. Jack gives them a voice and exposes the ugly self indulgence at the heart of the foodie culture.

    • And why should said people be ALLOWED to sit around living on welfare? The UK provides childcare allowance as well as child benefit and numerous other tax breaks and pay outs to single parents. So I’m sorry if my hard-earned tax money doesn’t quite cover expensive ingredients and posh brands. Go and get a job. If you don’t want to then you’ll have to make do.

      If anything Jack proves that you CAN live on welfare and feed yourself healthy, delicious and filling food- you just have to be thrifty about it. When you’re receiving government cheques instead of working you should be thrifty, or else there is no incentive to work and everybody would be sitting around receiving payouts until there was nobody left to pay taxes.

      Of course those struggling in extreme circumstances should be helped with childcare and those benefits should be available to those who truly do need them. But there’s no reason those claiming ‘unemployment’ for years on end should be as comfortable as somebody who goes out and works themselves stupid in order to provide for their family.

      • Not to mention the UK provides council housing to those who cannot afford their own.

        And as for the comment that Jack exposes the ‘ugly self indulgence at the heart of the foodie culture’… why shouldn’t people who have worked hard to have nice things be able to enjoy their income and spend it in a way they enjoy? What is so amoral about a family with two parents who work 9-5 7 days a week indulging in some of the finer things once in a while?
        If anything it is completely self-indulgent for somebody who DOESN’T work to expect the exact same luxuries as somebody who works 7 days a week.

        • The government provides council housing? They’ve sold most of it! Almost no one in my generation is ever gonna be eligible for council housing, and unless we can get a mortgage will either be living with parents or bled dry by private landlords.

          And it should be recalled anyone single and childless under 35 who loses their job will only receive barely enough to rent a room in combined Job Seekers Allowance and Housing Benefit – so if they don’t have savings (like most of us) and they’re renting a flat or house they’re basically screwed unless they have family or access to credit to help.

          (Single, childless people aren’t in priority need so usually don’t get “emergency housing”, ie often vatly over-priced hostels full of drug addicts with no kitchens).