Add a touch of tripe to your coleslaw…

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Sainsbury's coffee ad

Wandering past my local Sainsbury’s today, I was delighted to notice a poster in the window advertising various pieces of Halloween-related tat. Not that I’m particularly fond of Halloween, you understand; my happiness came from the hope that this new ad campaign might spell a merciful end for its predecessor.

In case you’ve been judiciously avoiding all media, social and otherwise, for the past month or so, I should probably explain what I’m on about. In its “Little Twists” campaign – I can’t quite bring myself to include the obligatory hashtag – Sainsbury’s encourages us to wax experimental with otherwise familiar meals, adding horseradish sauce to macaroni cheese, instant coffee to spaghetti Bolognese and pickled herring to banoffee pie. (I may have made one of those up.)

It’s not that I’m opposed to innovation in cooking – quite the contrary – although as I’ll come to in a moment, these suggestions aren’t really innovative at all. And I can just about accept the fact that they persuaded the otherwise impeccable Jarvis Cocker to do the voiceover – even though a little part of me dies every time I hear it. My greater problem – and admittedly, it’s a terribly self-centred one – is that people seem to think I must be all in favour of it. “Ah, that coffee Bolognese thing – that’ll be right up your street, won’t it, with, you know, your make-it-up-as-you-go-along no recipe whatnot?”

Well, it’s not up my street. It’s not even in my council ward, postal district or school catchment area. This isn’t creative cooking; it’s just babble – reminiscent of a concussed Manny in Black Books spouting jumbled-up entries from the Little Book of Calm. Not all of the suggested combinations are necessarily awful – Alison Lynch wrote in Metro that she’d tried out the coffee-in-Bolognese idea and found it surprisingly palatable – but that’s not really the point. The problem with the Sainsbury’s ads is that they represent the worst of all cooking worlds: miserable conformity, dressed up as innovation.

For all the [adopts best Christopher Morris voice] FURORE about this campaign – which, of course, is exactly what it was designed to generate – there’s nothing revolutionary about putting coffee in a Bolognese sauce. People – albeit not that many – have been cooking with coffee for years. It even gets a semi-honourable mention as a last minute stew addition in my own food bible, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book. It’s vaguely rich and vaguely savoury, and as such, makes a vaguely OK addition to most dark, meaty dishes – though a decent beef stock cube will do much the same job, but better.

Ultimately, just as you’ll struggle to come up with an idea that nobody’s had before (cf. every proprietary argument about a Twitter joke ever), there’s barely a combination of ingredients that hasn’t been explored. Be it coffee, Irn Bru or blue WKD, if you can drink it – and in this, blue WKD finds itself on the borderline – you can probably get away with bunging it into a casserole. As long as its predominant characteristics correspond roughly with the effect you’re after – coffee for savour, Irn Bru for sweetness or blue WKD for, er, blueness – you won’t go far wrong.

When it comes to adding the weird and not-so-wonderful to your food, the relevant question isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, or possible or impossible: it’s why you’d want to. Without a coherent answer to that question – an answer that might encompass flavour, colour, availability and necessity, among other factors – you’d be well advised not to bother, pending further investigation.

This is where the Sainsbury’s ads fall down: they rely on us asking “why not?”, rather than the more pertinent question “why?”. They remind me of QT, the forgotten-but-not-gone instant tea, which was advertised in its early ’90s “heyday” with the somewhat plaintive tagline: “Try it – you might like it.” (We did – and we didn’t.)

If you’re in the food business, and the best selling point you can come up with is “well, you never know, it might not be awful”, you probably need to ask some serious questions of your product development and/or marketing teams. Yet, nearly 25 years on, this is effectively what Sainsbury’s are doing. Moreover, it seems to be working, in that their sales of spaghetti and instant coffee have apparently boomed since the campaign began. Which just goes to illustrate one thing: we really are a bunch of pliant, unthinking, head-nodding numpties.

Why else would we go through the joyless exercise of making the same handful of largely boring meals again and again, to exactly the same prescription, then suddenly decide to stir utterly random things into them because some bright spark in an ad agency has planted the idea in our heads? I don’t believe in God, but if I did, this is exactly the sort of situation in which I’d implore him/her/it to help us.

This isn’t just an advertising phenomenon; it occurs on an even more startling level via food programming, when an ingredient used by a TV chef one day becomes virtually unobtainable the next, as thousands of us rush to mimic what we’ve just watched, because it seems easier than thinking for ourselves. How wonderful it is to live in a society in which we can think and do largely as we please; and how depressing to discover that, given the opportunity, we generally elect not to bother.

Is there a better way? Well, of course there is. And because I’m good to you, I’ve already taken the trouble to write about it. Just use the same skills you employ every time you pick a meal from a menu, or decide which components of your fry-up should form the next forkful. In other words, pick the flavour and texture combinations that seem right to you. Add something if it fits with what’s there already and the effect you’d like to achieve; and if it doesn’t, don’t. Develop your meal as you would a painting, pausing for thought before you add to it, and it will make sense in its final form, because every decision in its development will have been the product of your own critical analysis and taste.

And if, by that process, you end up adding coffee to your Bolognese, Monster Munch to your burger or Kia Ora to your duck, then that’s absolutely fine. You might just happen upon something surprising and wonderful. At worst, you ought to end up with something unusual (if not entirely new) but still edible.

More often, though, you’ll come up with a meal that may not be radical or outlandish, but is original nonetheless: your own creation, not one of Jamie’s, Nigella’s or Sainsbury’s(‘s). Instead of putting horseradish in your macaroni cheese, you might decide to add English mustard instead: similarly warming and spicy, but in both flavour and colour, a more appetising addition to the cheese sauce. And if you don’t feel like eating the same boring Bolognese, then make it with different meats, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, whatever. As long as you remember to think and taste as you go, it really will turn out fine.

And don’t worry too much about whether the dish still qualifies as a spaghetti Bolognese. If something tastes good, it doesn’t much matter what you call it. And in the extremely unlikely event that you get a knock on the door from the authenticity police, you’ll have an irrefutable defence: “At least I didn’t put instant f***ng coffee in it.”

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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.