Having a baby at 21 catapulted Jack Monroe into adulthood but giving up her job for a work life balance also brought her into a poverty trap.
A chance headline, changed all that, she tells Joe McNamee
Just as it used to be said of some WWII veterans, that they’d ‘had a good war’, so there are those who’ve ‘had a good recession’, especially a cohort of the foodie brigade whom, once the dust had settled, took to the challenge of eating on a reduced budget with a convert’s zeal, hellbent on creating cut-price Cordon Bleu.
At the top of the pile, the poster-girl for foodie Recessionistas was overnight success Jack Monroe, aka A Girl Called Jack, dubbed the ‘face of British austerity’ on the front page of the New York Times, in 2012.
Except, Jack Monroe wasn’t overly concerned with rattling off alternative recipes for discount dauphinoise or marked-down mutton. The recession wasn’t simply a challenge to her culinary ingenuity; it was a far more sobering test of basic survival skills — and her ability to provide for herself and a young son on social welfare, with a food budget of just £10 a week.
It is a test she often felt close to failing. Jack Monroe was born to an Irish mother, from Belfast, and a Greek-Cypriot father and she and her brother were raised in the seaside town of Southend, in Essex, along with four other foster siblings. Her mother was a nurse and her father a fireman, a far cry from the privileged upbringing implied by several detractors.
“It always make me laugh when people throw out the assertion of my lovely middle class upbringing, my parents weren’t exactly bankers with trust funds.
“When I was about five or six, Mum hurt her back lifting a patient and had to leave nursing so she started fostering children instead.”
The young Jack, (or Melissa, as she was before changing her name in 2012), left school after her GCSEs, taking any number of casual jobs.
“I lived in a seaside town with a good selection of jobs available back then. You’d walk in on a Friday and start on Saturday. But when I turned 18, my Dad said to me it’s about time you had a career rather than messing around with coffee shops.
“I agreed with him and tried for the fire service. I absolutely loved it. The fire service is a family unlike anything else.”
Then Monroe became pregnant. “Jonny came along entirely by accident, I wasn’t planning to have a child, at the tender age of 21.
“I wasn’t in a longterm, committed relationship but we had been friends for years, and still are. I’ve got a bright well-adjusted, happy son who has a brilliant relationship with his father.”
With a rather ad hoc system of childcare, drawing on friends and family, Monroe returned to work but was expected to continue working long shifts of 12+ hours, including two all-night shifts per week and 30 miles from home.
Her request for more flexible working hours was refused and, exhausted, at the end of her tether and fretting deeply about the effect of her chaotic schedule on young Jonny, Monroe left the fire service assuming, just as in her teens, she would immediately walk into another job.
“With hindsight, I was completely naïve. It didn’t happen, I was being spat out into a much more competitive and hostile job market.”
It was the beginning of an 18-month spiral downwards into poverty. Struggling to survive on social welfare, she sold off most of her personal possessions and even her son’s toys.
“I started to get threatening letters from the landlord, wolves at the door, bailiffs and debt collectors — trying to make ends meet.”
One day, her local paper ran a story headlined ‘Druggies, Drunks and Single Mums Driving Upmarket Shops Out of Southend’.
An infuriated Jack wrote a response, a missive so long, the paper ran it over three days. It prompted a friend to suggest she write a blog.
“I’d always kept diaries as a teenager and this was like a diary all over again.”
Having sold her computer to pay bills, she typed the initial posts out on her mobile phone. Then one day, she went ‘viral’.
“It was a 31st July 2012, I’d written a post called, Hunger Hurts, and a couple of friends shared it on Facebook and the blog stats went from about 100 readers to over a million views to date.
“It just struck a chord. And once I’d started, I just couldn’t stop and the responses were overwhelmingly positive.”
Focussing on food, she began posting smart recipes costing mere pence and the Observer Food Monthly awarded her Best Food Blog in Britain. She began a weekly budget recipe column in the Guardian, which continues to this day and became an in-demand speaker on poverty and food politics, including a fringe event organised by Oxfam at the Tory party conference.
“I got a standing ovation and it prompted a big enquiry into food bank usage. You can spend all day preaching to the choir but if you want to change anything you need to wade straight into the snakepit and try and persuade those people to change it.”
And even the ‘choir’ were fair game. Now out, loud and proud as a “liberal, leftwing lezzer”, she received an invitation to the Fortnum & Mason Food Awards — surely a ‘home’ crowd for the media’s newest darling?
“I strolled into a room full of all these big food names. I didn’t expect to win so, when I did, I said, ‘I had baked beans for breakfast and this cocktail in my hand cost more than last week’s food bill.
“If anyone needs to hear what I’m on about, you are all here. How can you all stand there and spend £32 on a box of chocolates when there are people in Britain dealing with poverty every day’.”
The awards continued to rack up and she earned a book deal, but as her popularity continued to grow, so did the backlash, most especially, when Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn delivered a startling piece of invective, accusing Monroe of fabrication and of making a lifestyle choice to go on the dole.
“I woke up one morning to find he had written an entire column on me. I read it yelling to myself, ‘that’s not true,’ repeatedly.
“I spent two days sobbing. I was a wreck and then I came out the other side thinking, no one’s ever going to make me feel like that again.”
Monroe wrote a response, coolly countering Littlejohn’s diatribe, point-by-point. It was widely circulated and, in the wake of the publicity, her social media following increased by thousands. She even wrote a personal letter to Littlejohn, tongue firmly in cheek, thanking him for the boost to her career.
Monroe’s serious culinary experimentation began when she first moved out of home, aged 17.
“I started teaching myself from the BBC Good Food website, which is a really good resource, and I got books from charity shops.
“One of my first experiments was Thai Green Curry.
“People had been telling me that it would be cheaper and healthier to cook everything from scratch so I picked up a jar of Lloyd Grossman sauce and went around the store picking up the ingredients as they were listed on the jar. It came to about £27!
“One of the first books I fell absolutely in love with was For The Love of Food, by Denis Cotter. It was just the language he uses around food, completely different to any other food writer I’d come across at the time — so in love with ingredients.
“Another book I love and read like a novel is Kitchen, by Nigella Lawson, the language is romantic, seductive, inviting.
“I’m working on a project at the moment exploring very old English cookbooks, it’s completely different, very straightforward and pragmatic. I enjoy that as a glimpse in to other times. You don’t need an entire love letter for a potato bake.”* Joe McNamee conducts a public interview with Jack Monroe, at the Ballymaloe Grainstore, on Saturday May 16, as part of the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine
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