Jack Monroe is an accidental, unqualified and unprofessional food writer (those are Jack’s words, not mine, but they’re true). She’s rarely out of the public eye – talking about food, or food politics, in books, articles, on Question Time, or in court when she went into battle with Katie Hopkins – and unexpectedly won. She’s had a tougher start, a harder ride, a feistier journey and a bloodier battle than any food writer I can think of – and is only 30.
Emma: What a story this is. Seven years ago you were working for the fire brigade, earning a really good salary – and then you had a baby.
Jack: Yes, I became a single mum and the benefits department deemed that I left my job voluntarily, so for 10 weeks I got no benefits. I started to accumulate bank charges because I couldn’t pay my bills, and that all led to a spiral of debt.
Emma: What did you do?
Jack: In that first year, I applied for 300 jobs – it was soul destroying. Before I had Johnny I’d gotten every job I applied for. After I had him, I turned into a bedraggled, skinny, grubby, single mother with dark circles under my eyes, looking harassed, walking into shops with a crying child in tow, and asking about vacancies in the window. I ended up very cold, very hungry, selling everything I owned in order to scrape money together for food and heating.
Emma: How did you cope?
Jack: It was very lonely. I didn’t want anybody knowing so I stopped speaking to people, I just withdrew into a little cave of cold and hunger. One thing that people don’t realise about poverty is how isolating it is. You’re living in a world of ‘no’ – ‘no, you can’t have dinner’, ‘no, you can’t turn the heating on’, ‘no, you can’t have a comic’, ‘no, you can’t replace your shoes’, ‘no, you can’t go there because it’s raining and we don’t have money for the bus’. And the impact of that endless, repetitive, deprivation has taken me years to recover from.
Emma: What turned it around for you?
Jack: I was eventually referred to a food bank, where I survived for six months on kindness and donated cans and packets. I started to write about my experiences online in a blog, and I haven’t stopped since.
Emma: How did that blog turn into your first cookbook?
Jack: I was offered a book deal by Penguin who said, ‘We’ve seen your website recipes feeding people on less than £10 a week – could you write 100 of them?’ I really needed a job, so I said yes, but it wasn’t without its difficulties – I didn’t have a computer so I was writing on my Nokia phone and sending them over one by one.
Emma: Did your life transform once it was published?
Jack: Not instantly. I got an email from the housing people saying, ‘It says on the BBC that you have a £25,000 book advance, so we’re stopping your benefits’. But book deals don’t work like that – I hadn’t got the money yet, but they took away my benefits anyway. So I slept on a mattress on the floor of a house I shared with five people. I didn’t feel successful.
Emma: It all happened quite quickly after that though. Within a year, you were doing adverts for Sainsbury’s.
Jack: And I couldn’t believe what I was paid! It was too much money.
Emma: How did you make peace with that?
Jack: I worked out the hours I’d spent on the job, gave myself the living wage for them, and donated the rest of the fee to food banks and homelessness projects.
Emma: It’s amazing you haven’t turned your back on all the hard stuff. And it’s so interesting that the brilliant resources you developed to tackle your own food poverty, became the thing that rescued you.
Jack: Yes, though I’d always had an odd relationship with food. My first publisher told me to never tell anyone, but I was anorexic as a teenager – I didn’t cope very well with going through puberty and I just stopped eating. Eight years of studiously reading packets meant I developed an absolutely forensic knowledge of calories, protein, carbohydrates – that’s where my knowledge of nutrition comes from. So when I became a single mum on the dole, I knew that the things that I used to avoid – pasta, rice, potatoes – would be the things that would keep me and my son alive. And when I then became a food writer, that encyclopaedic knowledge meant I really knew about how food works.
Emma: The time has come for us to eat your incredible pie. This recipe isn’t in your book?
Jack: No – I invented it for you. It’s the ultimate pie. A sheet of pastry, covered with a layer of bacon, then a layer of stuffing and meat, brushed with cranberry sauce, rolled up like a huge sausage roll and baked. If that isn’t food porn, I don’t know what is. Let’s call it The Pie of Pies.
Emma: Making it was like assembling some Ikea flat-pack furniture, only without the screwdrivers. Let’s call it The Flat-Pack Pie.
We eat. There is a respectful silence. We eat more, and more. It’s like, well, Boxing Day in a pie. We both know it’s the greatest, easiest, most impressive and yet simplest pie we’ve ever overeaten. We consider going into business opposite Greggs, just selling this one, perfect pie.
Emma: Your fourth cookbook comes out this year, Tin Can Cook. Aren’t cans the antithesis of what chefs love about food?
Jack: Firstly, I’m not a chef – I’m a food writer who can cook – and most of my recipes use tinned stuff in some way. But I worry people think of tins as ‘poor people food’. I wanted to restore a bit of dignity to people who use a food bank box as I used them a lot, so I developed recipes for food banks just using tins. I tested them on anyone that came around the house, and I surprised myself with how good some of them were. No one could tell it was just tins – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you can do with it.
Emma: You launched a Kickstarter to pay for copies of the book to go into food bank boxes? How did it go?
Jack: It raised £18,000 in three days – enough to put four copies into every Trussell Trust food bank in the country. That makes me feel so very proud.
Emma: Jack, you’re still ONLY 30! If it all stopped now (it won’t), how would you like to be remembered.
Jack: I’d like to think that I taught a few people to cook, I made some household budgets a bit better, and I gave some people hope that things might not always be as awful as they currently feel.
Try Jack's recipe for chicken, sausage & prune pie.
Read more articles by Emma Freud...
Jack’s book, Tin Can Cook, is out in May (£6.99, Bluebird). For more of her recipes, see cookingonabootstrap.com
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.