You’re all right, Jack

Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to lose interest in writers’ and artists’ work, and to doubt its worth or significance, as their success and profile rises.

I’m far happier in a cellar bar among an audience of 50 people, sharing the secret of a brilliant but undiscovered band, than in the arena or football ground they might eventually graduate to playing. Once they do, I tend to leave the adoring masses to watch their gigs – often from 100 yards away, while nursing a £5 pint of piss – and return to my preferred dingy haunts to discover someone new.

It’s an attitude that’s both healthy and unhealthy at once. It’s healthy because it allows me to discover new and potentially exciting artists as a matter of course, and so to maintain a state of near-constant renewal and curiosity.

But it’s unhealthy, not to mention illogical, because there’s absolutely no good reason to turn your back on someone whose work you’ve long enjoyed and admired, simply because other people happen to have noticed it too. That’s nothing more than cultural snobbery, which is hardly an attractive trait. And it’s hard to escape the uneasy feeling that such changes in perspective have relatively little to do with the quality of the artist’s work, and plenty to do with your own tacit resentment of that person’s success.

In the modern world of blogging, social media and instant celebrity, there’s more scope for scorning the successful than ever before. A blog post that happens to go viral, usually by virtue of a well-placed retweet or two, can be the catalyst for turning a virtual unknown into a ubiquitous media personality. And when success really does arrive overnight for a select few, but never at all for the vast majority, it’s little wonder that some of the latter group should come to resent the former.

All of which brings me to one Jack Monroe.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that you haven’t yet heard of Jack Monroe. In case you haven’t, she’s a food writer who rose rapidly to prominence through the frugal, meticulously-costed recipes on her blog, A Girl Called Jack. Now, she’s a Guardian columnist, Labour Party activist and anti-poverty campaigner, with two books and (surely) a TV series on the horizon.

Other than Nigella, I doubt there’s a food writer or broadcaster who has occupied more column inches over the past six months or so – thanks in large part to the Daily Mail and its perennial rent-a-prat columnist Richard Littlejohn, whose ill-researched character assassination (I refuse to link to it, but search it out if you like) was promptly and brilliantly dissected by Monroe herself.

In Monroe’s case, the majority of the backlash has come not from her blogging and tweeting peers but from the reactionary right within the “old media”: those who genuinely seem to believe that anyone who’s ever called on the social security system is, by definition, a workshy scrounger. Given that I believe that view to be complete bollocks, it’s probably unsurprising that I’m inclined to take her side on most things. But there’s a further reason too: I’m convinced she’s doing something that’s not just new but genuinely important.

Now, on the face of it, I don’t cook like Jack Monroe. As regular readers of this blog will know, I believe in shopping without lists and cooking without recipes. So her approach – recipe-driven, measured to the gram and costed to the penny – might appear to be the antithesis of my own.

But in reality, it isn’t; because without a cogent, costed demonstration that home-cooked can be cheaper as well as better than mass-produced frozen filth, the single biggest justification for my way of cooking is removed. All the other reasons for home cooking – recipe or none – are, to me, secondary to the fact that it makes financial sense. With that point proven, cooking for yourself can be seen as a logical lifestyle choice. Without it, a sceptic could reasonably argue that it’s little more than an indulgent hobby.

By breaking down all her recipes into exact unit costs – based, it should be said, on a single supermarket (Sainsbury’s) that she began using, like most of us, purely for reasons of proximity and convenience – Monroe gets us thinking about one of the more important but ambiguous words in the English language: “value”.

Take a look at her latest piece for the Guardian, published online yesterday. It chronicles her attempts to create home-made versions of cheap ready meals for a lower price. In all but one case, she succeeds; but that’s only part of the point.

When we think of value, our first association is likely to be the one I’ve made already: monetary cost. But “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better value”. If you were looking to debunk the Jack Monroe rationale – and God knows, enough people have tried – you might observe that it fails to take account of the value of people’s time. After all, no-one could reasonably claim that it’s quicker to make a lasagne from scratch than to microwave a shop-bought one.

But this is where other, less obvious notions of value come in.

Monroe’s lasagne, as well as being cheaper than the bought version, uses free-range meat – whereas most ready-made ones contain unspecified, untraceable mince that, for all we know, could well be somewhat horsey. So if you place value upon the provenance of what you eat, the DIY approach enables you to feed your family with a relatively clear conscience, while still undercutting the frozen food giants. (Try to find a ready-made lasagne that uses free-range meat, and the cost differential will come into far clearer focus.)

And, as the dietitian Sasha Watkins points out in the same Guardian article, going home-made gives you far more control over what goes – and what doesn’t go – into the meal. Excess fat can be poured away and excess salt omitted. So, if you have your eye on another kind of value – nutritional – there’s a further reason to cook for yourself.

The only reason I haven’t cooked any of Monroe’s recipes – though I’ve certainly taken several ideas from them – is the same reason I rarely follow anyone’s recipe to the letter: because it takes the fun out of both shopping and cooking. And one of the things I value about creative cooking is that it’s stimulating and fun; whereas following a recipe, however good it might be, feels like a chore. When I cook, the satisfaction of a job well done – or, more specifically, a set of instructions well followed – isn’t quite enough. I want to be able to say, “I invented that.”

Nonetheless, as I make my way round the supermarket, my thought processes are, I suspect, very similar to Monroe’s own, rooted in the time-honoured principles of home economics.

In other words, if an ingredient is on the cheap, I’m much more likely to buy it. I might fancy some cashew nuts on my stir-fry; but if I can’t find the “value” brand at one-third the price of the regular one, I won’t bother – or, more likely, I’ll seek out an alternative way of delivering the desired crunch. (Fried breadcrumbs – a Monroe favourite garnish – offer a cheap and effective option in this case. Granted, you’ll never find them on a Chinese restaurant menu – but really, what does that matter?)

So, while I’ll leave others to test out Jack Monroe’s recipes, I’ll continue to endorse the principles behind her work – even as she becomes a near-constant presence on our cookery pages and TV screens, as she inevitably will. Should I ever feel any momentary pangs of resentment towards her success, I’ll do my best to dismiss these for what they are: simple jealousy.

And where I fit in – if I fit in – is at the margins of Monroe’s work. She’s doing the measuring, the costing and the testing – and, if I’m honest, taking quite a few of the bullets – so the likes of myself don’t particularly need to. What I’ll continue to do instead is to explore the myriad possibilities that exist beyond the confines of the recipe, and to encourage anyone who appreciates the value (there’s that word again) of her approach to cooking to develop the confidence to take it a step further.

Don’t just make it yourself: make it up for yourself.

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Why I won’t be entering the Nigel Slater food photo competition

What are you going to cook tonight?

Working out the answer to this question is one of the things I look forward to each day, whether I’m planning to shop for the ingredients (I don’t yet know what, of course), improvise a meal from what’s already in my fridge and cupboards, or some combination of the two.

What I’m assuredly not going to do is go shopping for a prescribed combination of ingredients, assemble them to somebody else’s specification, then take a photograph of the results and send it to a national paper on the off-chance of winning a cookbook.

But plenty of people are, courtesy of this competition from the Guardian. Cook your favourite Nigel Slater dish, send in your photo, and you might just win a signed copy of his new book.

Looking purely at the ratio of required effort to potential rewards, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket (and I’m not going to do that either).

But this competition has next to nothing to do with what the entrants might win, and almost everything to do with the kudos of seeing their “creations” appearing in the pages of the Guardian, Observer Food Monthly or wherever.

It’s designed to appeal to the people who habitually photograph their meals and post the pictures on Facebook or Instagram, most probably accompanied by the caption “NOM NOM!”.

The fundamental pointlessness of this is generally well understood, at least by the silent majority who don’t do it. I suppose it’s just about forgivable – apart from the “nom nom” bit, obviously – if you’re posting a snap of a meal you’ve created yourself, perhaps accompanied by some insight into how you made it.

But when the height of your ambition is dutiful emulation, the act of photographing your dinner reaches a new level of ridiculousness. Undertake a household task, take a photo of the results and send it off into the ether. You might as well post a picture of your completed washing up.

In fact, I think I will.

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(My washing up. Today.)

Or, if replication is now perceived as an art form in itself, why not have a competition to find the reader who can produce the most accurate reproduction of the Mona Lisa? It would be utterly futile, of course. But is it really that much dafter than the contest they’re running at the moment?

None of this is intended as a dig at Nigel Slater himself. I like his writing, and I’ve no idea whether he had anything to do with devising this spectacularly silly competition. But what it represents – a perfect storm of obedience and vanity – sums up the flawed relationship we’ve developed with food and cooking.

Years of watching cookery programmes on telly – and, in particular, shows such as Masterchef or The Great British Bake-Off, where cooking meets reality TV – have fundamentally affected our perceptions and priorities.

It’s an inevitable consequence of a visual medium: we can’t taste the food that the chefs or contestants produce, so we become obsessed with its appearance. Even where actual sampling is involved, we can never be the ones to do it, so the analysis of the food becomes secondary to what we can see; except perhaps when things go hideously wrong, and Gregg Wallace and friends get the enjoyable opportunity to dust off some of their more colourful figures of speech. In other words, what food programming isn’t about, and arguably can never be about, is the most important thing of all: the taste.

And yet, rather than allow our own palates, judgements and preferences to guide us, we persist in trying to replicate other people’s creations, whether we’ve Sky-plussed them from the TV or, more likely, read them from a cookbook, newspaper or website. We’ve never tasted these people’s cooking, and we never will; yet we follow them nonetheless, in what amounts to an act of blind faith. And if the end result fails to inspire, we don’t question the merits of the recipe; instead, we presume we must have done something wrong, and vow to do a better copying job the next time. As behaviours go, it’s bizarre to the point of masochistic.

Add to this the many other factors that militate against a recipe-driven approach to cooking – the drudgery, the inherent deference, the potential for wastefulness – and the arguments for an alternative methodology become compelling.

Elsewhere in the Guardian’s pages, you can read the work of a different kind of food writer: the newly ubiquitous Jack Monroe, whose rapid journey from impoverished single mother to successful blogger and Labour Party campaigner has earned her the coveted accolade of being smeared by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. (I can’t bring myself to link to the odious Littlejohn’s original piece, but Monroe’s eloquently indignant riposte is well worth a read.)

Her articles include recipes, naturally – newspaper food editors aren’t ready to let go of that particular comfort blanket just yet – but they also explore more interesting and relevant issues around resourcefulness, inventiveness and cost. In short, she writes about a subject that’s long since gone out of fashion, but remains as relevant as it has ever been: home economics.

While the term itself isn’t exactly alluring, taking your lead from home economics doesn’t mean that cooking becomes boring: quite the reverse. Even if you’re relatively well off, there’s immense satisfaction to be gained from finding value, making use of what you have, avoiding waste and turning the proverbial sow’s ear into an equally proverbial silk purse. And as with any creative process, the act of invention can bring enormous pleasure in itself.

The end results may or may not be worth photographing. That doesn’t matter – and anyway, you don’t want your dinner to go cold while you’re getting that perfect shot. What matters is that the food is nourishing, satisfying and tasty.

Mind you, if the Guardian were to run an alternative competition, inviting readers to photograph and describe the best meals they’ve ever made for a quid a head, that would be a hell of a lot more interesting, and infinitely more meaningful.

In fact, I might even enter it myself.