SOUTHEND-ON-SEA, England — Is Jack Monroe the most improbable of celebrity “chefs?” You tell me.
I ring the buzzer at her little bungalow at the mouth of the Thames, an hour east of London, where the river opens to the sea.
Today she’s wearing a white T-shirt with “FEMME” in big red letters. She describes herself as a “non-binary transgendered person, somewhere between male and female on the spectrum.”
Meaning, “I’m comfortable in the middle ground,” she says. She came out as transgender a few years ago.
I offer her a housewarming gift: a can of beans. I have ulterior motives. I want her do something crazy with the cannellinis — like her black bean Nepalese tarkari or her butter bean and cider cassoulet.
The recipe that changed her life? That exploded on social media and turned her into a food impresario? Her Carrot, Cumin and Kidney Bean Burgers, which she can make for 9 pence apiece — or about 12 cents.
She learned to make them when she was poor. Five years ago, she was broke and desperate, relying on food banks. “Because I went through a particularly harrowing period of poverty is the reason I’m here talking with you today,” Monroe says. “I look at it like a necessary horror.”
Jack Monroe is not really a chef, although she is something of a celebrity (she sometimes makes the gossip pages of the tabloids). She’s a self-taught, natural cook. She doesn’t run a kitchen, doesn’t own a restaurant. But she will make curry for 50 people at a charity event.
“I was rubbish at rice,” she confesses.
Zest a lemon? “Had to learn that.”
She’s a best-selling cookbook author. Her latest is “Cooking on a Bootstrap.” Today she blogs, tweets — a lot, a lot — and posts on Instagram. She’s a lefty political foodie. She speaks. She campaigns — for people on very restricted budgets, for whom a few dollars make the difference in what is put on the dinner table.
Specifically, Monroe writes cookbooks for the overstressed, overextended parents living out on the edge of the financial cliff — who stand in grocery store aisles having to make existential decisions about Bacon Grill, which is a few pennies cheaper, as I learn from Monroe, than Spam.
Monroe is now pretty well known in Britain for writing recipes whose ingredients come from cans, from bags of frozen vegetables, from the discounted unfashionable off-brands, from Marmite. She calls herself the “Tin Can Cook.” In fact, her next cookbook will include 75 recipes, all from cans.
The Guardian called her “the poster girl for austerity Britain,” austerity being the U.K.’s political and economic program to reduce government spending across the board, but most controversially, on welfare benefits and health care.
We squeeze into her galley kitchen. It’s teeny. But there’s a big window, which lets in the drizzly light. On the walls, there’s a painting of a nun smoking a cigarette and an illustration of Monroe decked out as Rosie the Riveter. There are sharp knives, wooden spoons, pots and pans, all bought at charity shops, hanging from coat hooks, and basil, chive and cilantro growing on the sill.
There are also camera lights and a staging area on top of the mini-fridge, where she photographs her dishes for social media accounts and her cookbooks.
I ask where her food stylist would fit.
“I am the food stylist!” she says. “I’m also . . . ”
She starts counting on her fingers.
“I’m an author, writer, food blogger, photographer, sales manager, diarist, accountant, media manager, political commentator, TV presenter, radio show personality, activist . . .”
Her assistant Catherine shouts from the dining room. “And publicist!”
“Right,” Monroe says. “I’m publicist, patron of nine charities, creative director, food consultant, recipe developer — and mum.”
She moved here three months ago. Her parents live a few blocks away. She grew up nearby. It feels safe and quiet to be back — after crazy London.
She’s 30 years old. She’s doing all right now.
When Monroe was 24, she was working at the fire brigade as a dispatcher. “I had a young child, working the night shift, no child care, no one to look after my son, so I quit. I thought I’d find another job easy,” she recalls. It wasn’t so easy.
Britain was still crawling out of the global financial meltdown. She applied for a hundred jobs: apprentice car mechanic, traffic warden, forklift operator, fast-food server.
No dice, for 18 months.
“I was a young mother with a dependent.” She went into debt. “I went from nice flat and fire service job to cold and hungry with a child. I lived rough for two years, with six months relying on the food bank.”
She learned to make do. She hocked her TV. If the utility company turns off the gas, Monroe can show you how to fry bacon on the iron or boil an egg in an electric tea kettle.
She started the blog “A Girl Named Jack” in 2012, about her experiences in the kitchen, cooking for pennies, using ingredients she picked up at the food bank. She reminds me, “There are 1.5 million Brits who used a food bank last year, and 4.2 million are currently below the poverty line.”
Lately, she’s also been using her platform to advocate for people with disabilities, such as the arthritis that she says “affects my hands and hip/knee/foot mostly, worse in winter,” and some days keeps her from being able to grip a knife or stand for long at the stove. In August, she tweeted, “13.9 million disabled people in the UK. We all need to eat. Where’s our bloody spoonie simple nutritious non-patronizing representative accessible affordable prime time cookery show?”
If cooking out of cans sounds dour, it is not. If you add carrots and cumin and onion to something in a can, and learn a few tricks, there is a happy ending here, I think. There is comfort food.
Monroe rummages around in the freezer and pulls out plastic bags labeled “beef with white wine and orange” and “pasta e fagioli” and “beurre blanc,” her version of the French emulsified butter sauce. None of this looks, and surely doesn’t taste, like someone’s idea of poor people food, which is the whole point.
“I live in a world where I want everyone to be able to put beurre blanc on the table for dinner,” Monroe says. “And I get a lot of grief for that.”
“People say, ‘I thought you were living in poverty.’ People have definite ideas about what poor people can and can’t eat.” This topic revs her up.
“Food snobs will tell you that poor people don’t eat pasta; they eat spaghetti out of tins. Because here in Britain, risotto costs 15 pounds (about $20), and you eat it in fancy restaurants, and it’s Italian.”
“But it’s rice,” she says. “Risotto. Is. Rice.”
Monroe eschews arborio and uses long-grain instead, because it’s cheaper. Poor people — meaning people living on tight budgets, making do with simple ingredients — “these poor people developed, over many years, the recipes we crave.”
Consider her take on the Roman classic, cacio e pepe — made with Spaghetti Hoops.
“Oh my, that one divided the Internet,” she says. “People were telling me, ‘Jack, you’ve gone too far this time.’ ”
Instead of boiling dried pasta or using fresh, she opens a can of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops (the U.K. version of the American SpaghettiOs), which sell here for 23 pence, or about 30 cents, and rinses off the tomato sauce.
“Gently. That’s the trick,” Monroe says. “You rinse the sauce off very carefully, like washing a newborn baby’s head for the first time.”
Then pepper and a hard cheese, doesn’t have to be Parmesan.
This goes on.
Don’t have a lemon? Lemons are expensive. “Buy a bottle of lemon juice; it lasts forever.” Making stuffing? Monroe uses crusts of toast her son wouldn’t eat. Chestnuts outside your comfort zone? Use peanut butter instead. Don’t have a slug of white wine to put in the soup? Black tea works just as well, she says.
In her “Bootstrap” book, she urges readers to forgo stock: “I use chicken stock cubes. There, I said it.”
Microwave? “All the time,” she says. “Don’t trust anyone who says they don’t.”
Most of her recipes are vegetarian or vegan. But certainly not all. There’s space for her creamy salmon pasta (which she makes with a can of fish paste) and baked bean turkey meatballs.
“I wear Doc Martens leather boots, so I’m not a vegan. I am a vague-one.” She riffs off a line in an interview she did a couple of years ago in the Guardian. “My veganism is a little like my lesbianism. There’s always an exception, and it’s almost always worth it.”
Monroe’s “sweet spot” are recipes that cost about $3 to make. Three bucks and 20 minutes.
We walk together to the train station. I’m carrying the beans I had brought her earlier. She has transformed them into “sweet-sour cannellini,” with vinegar, onion, sugar and a hot pepper. She sealed the beans in a jar, handed it to me and warned not to eat them for a week.
“If you wait a little while, then they’re incredible.”
Monroe tells me that, as a kid, she was fascinated by Princess Diana. “I was an 8-year-old royalist.” She remembers how Diana held the hands of AIDS patients. “What I loved about Diana is she stopped to listen to people’s stories.”
This leads to memories of her own poverty, the fear of want, and dark days. She says she struggled with hoarding. “That was the poverty. I couldn’t throw anything away.” She struggled with her identity, too. And with bullies. “I’ve had people pull me back from the railroad track,” she says. “I’ve had people hold my hand and give me a cuppa — and a biscuit.”
That’s why they call it comfort food.