Jack Monroe Knows What To Do With Those Tins In Your Cupboard

She has inadvertently been training for lockdown her whole career.

Jack Monroe

by grazia |
Updated on

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our way of life in a remarkably short time. It has affected the way we work, the way we exercise, the way we communicate. And it has also hit us right in the stomach. Panic-buying has meant bare supermarket shelves. Certain items are impossible to come by, and restaurants have closed. We are looking at the tins at the back of our cupboards and the jars in our fridges with new vigour, considering how best to get creative and introduce variety into our three meals a day. And, as we do so, cook Jack Monroe is beside us with some valuable advice, claiming her place as the natural, if reluctant, poster girl for lockdown cooking.

‘People are suffering terribly. But, at the same time, I think that we will come out of this with a much greater of sense of what we are capable of,’ Jack explains over the phone. She has somehow found half an hour to speak, in between writing, researching and filming, all for her new BBC One show Daily Kitchen Live. ‘I learned that ten years ago, as a single mum on the dole,’ she adds. ‘I was resilient, I learned new things, and I was getting by one day at a time. It’s a powerful thing to learn about yourself.’

Since 2014, via her first cookbook A Girl Called Jack, she has been a staunch proponent of finding creative, budget-friendly ways to eat. Additions to her catalogue – Cooking On A Bootstrap, last year’s Tin Can Cook, and the forthcoming Good Food For Bad Days – sustain this reputation. She has been a big name in food for years, but has been thrust into the limelight by the current situation. She is hesitant to call anything a silver lining. ‘We can't underplay the magnitude of the situation that we're in,' she says. ‘But there are positives. People are getting in touch with their neighbours. People are leaning to be self-reliant in a way they hadn’t been before. Learning skills they didn’t have. Baking bread. Shooting videos. Sewing facemasks. We are all being forced to be comfortable with exactly who, what and where we are, exactly at this point in time, because we don’t have another option.’

Now, more than ever, the country needs someone who believes in the power of food. ‘For me food is emotional,' she begins. ‘It's sensual. It's educational. It's about bringing the family together around the table. It's about taking moments of pleasure on your own. It's about doing something kind for yourself at the end of a difficult day. It's about learning new things. It's about textures and smells. It's about sticking your hand in a load of things and smooshing it about like Playdough. It consumes every inch of my life.’

We are all being forced to be comfortable with who, what and where we are, because we don’t have another option.

Her food journey has been a long one, and she has had her own personal mental health struggles. She has been honest about her difficulties with online trolling and the negative effects of social media, as well as her battle with alcoholism. She has now sought help and feels good about her current state. ‘I don't really have time to be anxious at the moment,' she laughs. ‘Anxiety feels like a luxury. I decided to invest in my mental health last year and got myself a therapist and a psychiatrist. I say “got myself”, but they’re not in my house at my beck and call. We just check in every now and again. Being able to examine some of my experiences, and detach, has given me a way of looking after myself.’

She is, indeed, incredibly busy. Her first week of Daily Kitchen Live was filmed from her kitchen on the south coast before she started coming into a London studio last week. It is the first time she has felt brave enough to participate in such a project.

‘I've been asked to do TV work and series a lot in the last five years, and I’ve always turned it down flat,' she says. ‘All the other things I’ve been asked to do were asking me to move to a council estate to teach them how to cook, or do a life swap with a Michelin star chef. They’d want me to safety pin my sleeves up so that my tattoos were visible at all times. It was putting me in a box or painting me as a character. But this didn't have any agenda. By mid-week, I’d built a TV studio in my kitchen and, by the end of the week, I could do something I thought I couldn’t. It’s undone five or six years of excuses.’

Jack’s association with tinned food goes back to her childhood, feasting on slippery canned peaches after finding a reference to them in a Jilly Cooper novel. She doesn’t understand the snobbery for such food, and hopes perceptions may change.

‘Some of the finest delicacies in the world come in tins,’ she points out. ‘Like Foie gras, or caviar. Stewed steak from the tin, if you rinse it off, is slow cooked, tender, juicy beef, the kind you would get if it had been simmering in a bourguignon for 12 hours straight. It’s not just about poverty or food banks, it's about saving time, it’s about making cooking accessible. It’s a gateway drug into the kitchen.’ At home, she has been experimenting even now. A bag of polenta at the back of the cupboard has invoked new passions.

Jack, who lives with her son and her partner Louisa Compton, has always loved food. She has worked in cafes, chip shops, supermarkets and restaurants. The only job she’s had that didn’t revolve around food was one in the fire service. ‘But chip pans did set on fire,' she adds.

‘Years ago, I was sitting at a bar on a first date with a woman who I’d met on a dating app,' she recalls. ‘She didn’t know who I was, or what I did. And she dropped into conversation that if she could just take a pill once a day and not eat a meal, that would do. At that moment, I just knew I had to leave.’

When this is over, Jack may emerge as one of the country’s favourite cooks. Her food is tasty, yes, but also, vitally, accessible. She encourages substitution, and improvisation. It is a flexible, and all-too-rare addition to the sometimes intimidatingly prescriptive world of cookery books. ‘My mission,' she extols, ‘has always been to teach people to not need me.’ Clearly, though, we’re not at that stage quite yet. .

Good Food for Bad Days is available to pre-order now and is published on 28 May.

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