Why I’m hitting the Christmas Jack Pot

Hands up if you still have books on your shelf that people gave you last Christmas – unread? Quite a few of us, I’d imagine.

jackbook

I probably spend far too much money on books. It’s so easy – just point and click. And I love to give them, too. I had a great evening last week working as a volunteer wrapping people’s Christmas gifts in Waterstone’s for Booktrust. But the real joy was helping customers to find exactly the right book for a special person on their list.

The right book at the right time can transform a life. As writer Jackie Kay says,  “A good book nourishes the soul and gladdens the heart. It lifts you and makes things seem possible that didn’t seem possible before.”

One book that has the potential to do this for many desperate people next year is Jack Monroe’s cookery book, “A Girl Called Jack”, which will be released in February. In a market dominated by celebrity chefs and must-have foodie ingredients, Jack’s realism and compassion, not to mention her personal experience of cooking for herself and her little boy on £10.00 a week are a breath of fresh air.

But there’s a problem. No matter how competitively priced it is, the people who really need Jack’s help won’t be able to afford it.

I’ve been thinking about a way around this for a while now, and I’ve come up with one. Yes, it will cost me some money, but if I can resist impulse buys from Amazon for the next four months, that should not be a problem.

A wonderful scheme called World Book Night has been around for a few years now. The idea is very simple – that on April 23rd every year people give away copies of a book that has touched their life to other people who wouldn’t normally read it. You can find out more about it on their website.

This year WBN are doing something new. Up to now, they have supplied the books for people to give. This year, you can apply to be a Community Book Giver. That means you choose a book, you pay for it, and you choose who receives it.

What a great opportunity to get Jack’s book to the people who really need it. I’m going to make a commitment that from now until April 23rd, every penny I spend on books for myself will be matched by an equal donation to my Jack Pot. That means at least one copy of her book, because I’ve already ordered it! But knowing my complete lack of willpower where books are concerned, I expect to be able to pay for quite a few more copies.

And I’ll be contacting food banks in my area and offering them those copies of A Girl Called Jack, so they don’t just give short-term help to people in crisis, but they can offer some hope of better times and a way out. What they do with those books is up to them, but I’m sure they will reach people who can make very good use of them.

So, anybody else willing to come in on this plan? If you’re up for it, you can register as a Community Book Giver here.

It’s better to light one little candle than to curse the darkness. Happy Christmas.

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The Smirk of Ian Duncan Smith

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Anyone who worries about the Tories winning the next election should be sending Ian Duncan Smith fan mail after his performance yesterday (Don’t quote me out of context on that, please). It was so callous, inept and detached from reality that if Cameron isn’t giving him a bollocking right now, he’s not doing his job properly.

A crusading single mum with searing experience of life on benefits launches a petition to have the soaring rate of food bank use in Britain debated in the of Commons. Backed by the Daily Mirror, it gets 100,000 signatures in two days. Yes, two days. You’d have to be deaf not to recognise that as a bellwether of the national mood.

After the barracking that went on at the recent Bedroom Tax debate, I wasn’t holding out much hope of Jack Monroe’s absolutely valid concerns getting a sympathetic hearing. But even I would never have predicted that the architect of the whole sorry mess at the DWP would sit on the front bench smirking – chuckling, even – while Labour MP’s told stories of people fighting over discounted veggies in Tesco to such an extent that the supermarket now routinely employs security guards to keep order.

Jack has tweeted that she’s “gutted” that Labour’s motion calling on the government to “bring forward measures to reduce dependency on food banks”, was defeated in a vote by 294 to 251, a reduced government majority of 43. And in her place I’d feel the same, but that is such a shame. Her achievement has been astonishing. Food bank use is still trending on Twitter this morning – ahead of the Ronnie Briggs death, the continuing drama of the Nigella Lawson trial and, for that matter, Christmas. On Twitter, where attention is measured in nanoseconds, that’s really quite something.

I don’t really have time to be blogging today. Like most people, I have 1001 other things to do. But I want to say it loud and clear – this is a watershed moment for the Tories. They have reckoned without the power of social media. That clip of Ian Duncan Smith smirking and shortly afterwards leaving the chamber (the lack of senior ministers present was noted by none less than the Deputy Speaker as being ‘unfortunate’) needs to be You Tubed, tweeted, and generally shouted from the rooftops. And most of all, brought out to haunt them at the next election. Gordon Brown muttering that a woman in Rochdale was “bigoted” to ask him about immigration is nothing to this.

So, well done Jack. You got them on the run. Now have a great Christmas with your little lad.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/iain-duncan-smith-leaves-commons-debate-on-food-banks-early-9013917.html

Hunger Hurts – One Year On and still hungry for change

(Picture from The Guardian)
(Picture from The Guardian)

 

I want to ask you to do something. It’ll only take a few moments but it might change you – you’ve been warned.

I want you to read this:

Hunger Hurts – One Year On, by Jack Monroe 

Words are incredibly powerful. They can wound or they can heal. They can silence people or they can give them a voice. They can be used to threaten a woman with rape if she sticks her neck out, or appears on TV without conforming to our conventional standards of fashion and taste – even if she’s a Cambridge professor. They can be used to kick people when they’re already down and fighting for breath. Fat slag. Shirker. Asking for it. The kind of woman who has tattoos on her arms and tiles we don’t like on her kitchen walls. That’s what words can do.

Or they can tell the truth. They can break our hearts. They can challenge us to look beyond our nice, cosy little world and realise what a shit life many people have to lead. Who knows what errors of judgement got them there? In the end, it doesn’t matter. We all make errors of judgement sometimes. Some of us have more wiggle room then others, that’s all. Doesn’t make us better people. It makes us luckier people.

Even if every parent on welfare was a complete and utter shirker – and they’re not, of course – that’s not the point. What would matter is that their kids are going to bed hungry, and trying to concentrate in school hungry, and doing without the birthday parties and school trips and a hundred other little things most children grow up thinking everyone has. And it wouldn’t be their fault. And that ought to matter to any civilized society.

But what makes me angrier still is that Jack is not a shirker. Read her blog over the last couple of years and you’ll be amazed how much she’s done for her local community. And, worst of all, her financial situation, already precarious in the extreme, was made infinitely worse when she make the effort to get a job. That’s when her debts spiralled out of control.

The truth is staring us in the face. We live in a country where, even if there are any jobs, people can’t afford to go out to work. They can’t afford to give their kids the example of a working parent earning enough to give them a decent standard of living. And it’s a bloody disgrace.

Rising food prices, the deregulation of our labour market, insanely high private rents coupled with a critical lack of social housing and an economy bumping along close to rock bottom has created a perfect storm making life almost intolerable for millions of decent, ordinary people in this country. And what do the rest of us do about it? We say unemployment is falling, and they could get jobs if they really wanted to, conveniently ignoring the inconvenient truth that they would be minimum wage, zero-hour contract jobs that would be 100% focussed on getting the best possible deal for the employers and the bare minimum for the people like Jack, sitting at home running out of food and praying for the phone to ring, so they could get some work, any work, and stop feeling ashamed to go out.

You try phoning Housing Benefit and telling them you only got two hours work last week, and you might not even get that next week – you just don’t know –  and meanwhile they’ve stopped paying your rent for the next six weeks and probably lost your bloody file. And then ask yourself why people on benefits are reluctant to go out to work.

When I was an evangelical Christian, we heard a lot about people giving their testimony. It’s a powerful thing. And that’s why we need people like Jack to tell their stories, and make the rest of us listen. This week, women in Britain have heard a lot about the harm that the Internet can do. But it’s because of the Internet that people like her have been given a voice. (And that brings me on to another issue, about how much we need public libraries and other places where people in severe poverty can use the Internet, but I’ll save that rant for another time).

In the end, what matters is what Jack’s words in all their pain and honesty inspire us to change – in our own lives, our own spending priorities, the way we vote, the way we spend our time. Food is the great uniting force, the thing that everybody needs and has an opinion on, and it’s great to see this woman taking on the celebrity-obsessed decadence of TV and media food porn and talking about the choices real people have to make. But that’s only the beginning. She’s flavour of the month right now, and that won’t last forever. But in a year’s time, when we’ve all forgotten about Nigella’s husband hitting her in public, there’ll still be women suffering from domestic violence. And there’ll still be women and children in poverty, going to bed hungry, when people have forgotten Jack.

I am just a humble blogger. Few people even read my stuff, let alone retweet it. But Jack Monroe must have thought that once. The point is that she did what she could. And she’s gone right on doing what she can do, right through all the times when most people would have said they’d enough to think about just getting through the day, until somebody noticed and it built up into something much bigger and more influential then anyone would have dreamed possible.

So I’ll start where I am. A well-off, fortunate, hopefully not too smug, balsamic oil-loving, middle class, middle aged woman in a nice Manchester suburb, with a job at a nice little church school. I’ll stop hating on myself and do some hard thinking about what I could change. Here and now. Maybe I could start going to church again, even if I’m not sure what I believe in these days, and get them to start a food bank. Or at least help out the one a few miles away. It’s a start.

And I’d like to make a proposal. Can someone, somewhere, tell me how to get a few armbands made, with HUNGER HURTS written on them? (Assuming that slogan hasn’t already been taken by some less appropriate movement – I don’t claim to be right on top of all these things.)

And how about making 30 July the day when, every year, we remember all the girls, and boys, like Jack?

 

Maple Syrup and Jack Monroe

jack-monroe
Frugal foodie blogger Jack Monroe

It was the maple syrup that did it in the end.

Only yesterday, my daughter asked me where it was. I couldn’t find it. But I did today, when I dug a pot of cream cheese out of the fridge and discovered that the lid was covered in a sticky brown goo.

The maple syrup had ended up right at the back of the dreaded top shelf of the fridge. It doesn’t help that ever since our last kitchen revamp, when due to a misunderstanding that involved our already-large fridge being built into a unit and further raised off the floor, that the top shelf has been impossible to reach without steps.

Devoting it to condiments and preserves only partly solved the problem. The same few favourites – Tiptree thick-cut marmalade, Geeta’s mango chutney and Branston pickle, stayed within relatively easy reach while their more obscure neighbours were shoved into oblivion until something tipped over and made a thorough clear-out impossible to put off any longer.

I like to pride myself on my foodiness. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve been inclined to read Jack Monroe’s austerity recipes and think, “But it would be so much nicer with top-notch ingredients. I might try that with smoked salmon, or whatever…” I know this makes me sound obnoxious and that’s fair comment. I have my garden of herbs, a comfortable income and ethnic grocery stores within easy reach. I also have a shelf of glossy cookery books, many of them proclaiming the joys of getting back to “real food”, whatever that is. River Cottage may talk about back to basics, but they’re the first to say how desirable it would be to use a certain, exclusive ingredient like cider brandy if you just happen to have it in. And when I didn’t, there was always internet shopping.

If you’re wondering who Jack Monroe is, well she’s becoming quite well-known as a thrifty cook and austerity blogger. Her account of hitting rock bottom and having nothing to feed herself or her two-year-old son with is the best description of contemporary poverty I’ve read in a long while. Because there were similar experiences in my childhood memories (though admittedly less severe) I’ve been suffering from food anxiety ever since. I’m always terrified of running out of food. And it has to be perfect food. If an obscure ingredient will make all the difference, then I have to have it. No tinned spuds or salmon paste for me.

Jack’s story and her cost-effective solutions to it have been working their way into my conscience for a good while now, just waiting for the right moment to take root. And with the spilt maple syrup, it came.

I cleared the dreaded top shelf and the contents filled my worktops. I’d forgotten ever buying many of them, and they weren’t cheap. Some were worthy attempts at preserving the fruits of my japonica and windfall apples. Others were trophies from gorgeous farmers’ markets – like the coconut chutney that only really goes with one sort of cheese, which I might eat twice a year. But most were the direct result of slavishly-followed fashionable recipes.

Do I really need three different types of mayo? Four mustards? Six chutneys? Redcurrant and cranberry jellies? All the ingredients to make my own tartare sauce, plus three versions of the ready-made variety (which I secretly prefer)? Isn’t all this getting rather silly – not to mention immoral, in an age of burgeoning food banks?

There’s a wise old saying; the best is the enemy of the good. It is important to eat healthily every day, and to avoid industrially processed food if you possibly can. But frankly, it isn’t going to kill you if you have to chuck tinned veg into a curry or flavour a sauce with a bit of Heinz tomato ketchup. I hate waste, and that’s why it goes against all my instincts to throw away even food that’s long past it’s best-by date. But I really seem to have a blind spot when it comes to buying food I didn’t really need in the first place.

When I stop to think about it, it does me no credit to be fussing over balsamic vinegar when so many people are living on 6p tins of baked beans. In future, I’m going to avoid buying expensive condiments for specific recipes unless I plan menus around using them up – possibly in meals for the freezer. And I apologise to Jack Monroe. Her little boy seems to be doing pretty well on tinned potatoes to me, and it’s downright hypocritical of me to say how wonderful she is and then turn my snooty middle-class nose up at her recipes.

Five trusty kitchen gadgets I wouldn’t be without

I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, and in that time I’ve acquired my fair share of equipment. There isn’t room on my worktop for every gadget I’ve collected in that time. As a compromise, we had a cupboard built into our last kitchen refit to store them. It’s shallow, and goes floor to ceiling, more or less, so you can see at a glance what’s in there.

There’s a lot of fashion and a lot of snobbery attached to the batterie de cuisine. Every time I go around Lakeland, once the home of plastic practicality, a place where you could buy every freezer bag and carton you could ever need, and a good few you’d never thought of, I’m struck by how much of their stuff these days is likely to get used once or twice and then languish in storage. I mean, how many cake pops does a person really need? We’ve got along fine without them for most of human history.

As I’ve got older, I’ve tended to buy fewer cooking items, and spend more on those I do buy. The ideal cook’s helper should be like an extension of your arm, something you use without even thinking about it. But it should, in a perfect world, also give you pleasure every time you use it, feel the weight of it in your hands and appreciate its perfect design.

So here are the top five items in my kitchen, electrical or otherwise, that tick those boxes for me. Some were old friends from the moment of purchase, others took a while to grow on me as I discovered new ways of using them. All are things I really wouldn’t want to be without.

1. Kenwood Chef Mixer

Continue reading “Five trusty kitchen gadgets I wouldn’t be without”

Dieting – when it’s all inside your head

With all these toned athletes on display, I’m sure many people are resolving – yet again – to lose a few extra pounds. I began to pile mine on after having two children, followed by a period of ill-health and three operations, and before I knew it I was a size 20 bordering on 22. Not good, particularly in view of my age (53) and family history of diabetes.

Macaroni cheese with leek & bacon
Macaroni cheese with leek & bacon (Photo credit: Great British Chefs)

I tried Diet Chef and it certainly delivered, for two weeks, but I felt uncomfortable about living on a diet of 80% processed food, no matter how impeccable its credentials, and it really is true that within a few days everything tastes the same. I could never face the ritual weekly humiliation of Weight Watchers, though others swear by it. My downfall was always the chocolate-dominated snacking of the late afternoons.

I was mostly pretty good about exercise, but the main purpose it served was making me feel marginally less guilty about having a BMI of 31. Something had to change, but what seemed to be holding me back wasn’t so much greed as fear.

I mention this because my own belief is that there’s no miracle cure for weight issues, but clearly there are an awful lot of miserable overweight people out there who would give anything to eat more healthily and stick to it. Like depression, which it often accompanies or resembles, in many cases of obesity an appeal to willpower is not enough.

For me, the key has been figuring out why I overeat. I think (fingers crossed) I’ve managed to do this without the help of a counsellor, though that might be worthwhile for  some people. The breakthrough came when I realised how anxious I was about food – getting enough, getting it right, eating as perfectly as possible. Every meal had to be Heston Blumenthal as far as quality went, and River Cottage-standard ethical. Now, I’m not saying these ideals aren’t good – perhaps the second rather more than the first. I’ve got very strong views about food, where it should come from, how it should be cooked and served. But that didn’t stop me breaking out into regular fish-and-chip and sticky-toffee-pudding binges.

One weekend we stayed in a very posh guest house in Sussex – the kind of place where people go to stay when they do Glyndebourne, darling. I was in heaven – for me it was the epitome of the South of England good life. I came down to breakfast and was met with a breathtaking array of fruit, yoghurts, artisan breads – you name it, they had it, all exquisitely served.

I doubled up with IBS, left my smoked salmon and scrambled eggs half-finished and spent the next half-hour in the bathroom.

It didn’t stop there. We were going to a family picnic, as we do once a year. On the way, since my daughter had never visited the Royal Pavilion, we decided to stop off in Brighton. I knew this would be a wonderful place to stock up on everything gourmet and organic, so I declined the tourist option and headed for the Lanes. The next thing I knew, I was suffering from a full-blown panic attack, and all I cared about was finding coffee and somewhere with a loo.

Eventually I pulled myself together and we ended up having a lovely time, as usual. But I felt it was time to address what seemed to be a growing problem – that I could never find food perfect enough to satisfy my ludicrous standards. My husband pointed out to me that everywhere we’d stopped that weekend, including IKEA on the way down, I’d loaded up with unnecessary delicacies, terrified of being caught out without an impressive picnic basket.

I simply had to lighten up about food. Why had I got this way? We talked about my childhood, and how at the age of eleven we left a predictable, secure family set-up behind and, having never been allowed anywhere near a kitchen before in case I cut or burned myself, I suddenly had to care for a physically and mentally ill mother in my own. I can vividly remember her collapsing and going up to bed, literally in the middle of cooking the evening meal. It’s a painful memory, and I think it’s filtered through into my adult life and made me anxious about eating ever since.

Like many people in the 1970s, we existed on Vesta ready meals and Birds Eye frozen food – the closest we generally came to home cooking was a huge stodgy bowl of Macaroni Cheese unleavened by any healthy vegetable. And underneath the farmers’ market shopper with her fruit trees and veggie beds, that scared little girl is still much aware of getting it wrong.

Anyway, I’m going on a bit, and it’s early days yet, but once I realised why I was so obsessed about food, and the precise nature of that obsession, it seemed to straighten me out a bit. I realised how much I’d been clinging to chocolate, home made bread and vast mountains of pasta as a security blanket. When I actually took a deep breath and made the changes that were necessary, binning the chocolate biscuits and avoiding the carbs in the evening, I was amazed how quickly I began to feel better, and I’ve already lost two kilos. All without recourse to any official diet plan or low-fat goodies.

I’ve also started running. Only 2k so far, and a good bit of that is fast walking, but at least I’m getting out there.

The diet industry is huge, and it would have you believe that every product they come up with is some kind of magic bullet for what is, in effect, a complex problem reinforced by some extremely dysfunctional social attitudes. But before you shell out for another miracle cure, it might be worth asking yourself whether the answer is inside your head. It can’t do any harm, and it might save you a lot of guilt and money.

I’ll let you know how I get on. It’s early days yet.

When kids are too hungry to learn

Breakfast Club Video

There is a country in Europe where primary school children are fainting in class because they’ve had nothing to eat since their school lunch the day before. Where teachers dread Friday mornings because Friday is payday, and so many of the children come from homes where there’s no food left in the house on Thursday evening.

That country isn’t Greece. It’s England.

In a week were Martha’s No Seconds blog has raised over £100,000 to feed hungry children in the developing world, and raised awareness of the declining quality of school lunches in many parts of Britain, it’s worth reflecting that in our supposedly developed economy there are numerous children in our schools living in families too poor to feed them properly. According to the charity Magic Breakfast, which provides breakfast clubs in over 200 schools, almost 4 million children in Britain are living in this kind of poverty.

There could be a number of reasons for this. Certainly, if the number and type of applications to food banks are anything to go by, there has been a worrying increase in the number of cases where one or both parents are working, but simply not earning enough to get through the week. The price of food is rising all the time. And no doubt there are cases where the money that is coming in is being spent on the wrong things.

Or sometimes family life is simply too chaotic, for a whole variety of reasons, to accommodate a regular nutritious breakfast. The extended families and close-knit communities that once provided a safety net have broken down in many places (a problem that, incidentally, is likely to get worse if changes in Housing Benefit rules force vulnerable people to relocate to places where they don’t know a living soul).

Before we rush to make snap judgements, there’s a story on the Magic Breakfast website of a family where three children, whose parents are addicts, are being raised by a grandmother, who is also looking after her elderly mother and a handicapped son. That’s about more than poverty. It’s about a family living constantly on the edge of collapse. It may be hard to believe, but being able to send the kids to school early for a bowl of porridge and a glass of orange juice could be the kind of thing that keeps them going.

And what about depression? It’s hard, maybe, to sympathise with a mother of young children who simply can’t get out of bed in the morning. Except, I’ve been there. I’m relatively wealthy, intelligent, well-educated. But I spent years in the depths of chronic depression, when my husband or even occasionally friends had to sort the children out for me. We could afford to keep it in the family. But in communities where those networks simply aren’t there, either compassionate people need to step in or the results become all too public.

We can judge. We can wring our hands and say that everybody ought to be able to get some kind of work somewhere and it only costs about 10p to give a child a bowl of economy Weetabix in the morning. But in the end, does it really matter?

Well it does matter, of course. But the facts remain – many children are arriving in class too hungry to concentrate and learn, thus perpetuating the cycle of low achievement and limited options into another generation. Their bad behaviour, though little or no fault of their own, is exhausting teachers and preventing other children from achieving as staff time is monopolised by the disruptive minority. All this is going on while people like me spend six quid on a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and witter on about family breakdown and the undeserving poor and how someone ought to do something.

Once, when I was in the process of withdrawal from my anti-depressants, I was so out of it that I went to a cashpoint, withdrew £50 and walked away without picking it up. I was too mortified to tell anybody, and since it took me several hours to realise it had happened my chances of getting the money back would have been miniscule in any case. It was a problem, but not a disaster. We didn’t go hungry that week.

That’s the kind of memory that makes me hesitate before I start blaming people for letting their children go hungry.

The Guardian blog Breadline Britain, though inevitably drawn from a sample that may not be entirely representative of the nation as a whole, makes sobering reading. Sometimes the anecdotal evidence has a way of staying in your mind and keeping you awake at night:

Magic Breakfast supported school, High Greave infant school in Rotherham, said:  “There are definitely families who can’t afford to buy breakfast. The other day a child came in late for breakfast club and we’d cleared away already. He was inconsolable and sobbed. He hadn’t had any tea the night before – only a pack of crisps. Instances like this show the level of need.”

It costs 22p a day to provide a child’s breakfast. That’s about 10% of the price of a Starbucks latte. As our friends across the pond would say, Do the math.