For many of us, early January is a difficult time. Credit card and tax bills are looming, waistlines are bulging, and it’s dark by 4pm. As I write, the cost-of-living crisis is hitting hard and strikes are paralysing public services. Half the country is doing Dry January, the other half is doing Divorce Month, and some unlucky sods are doing both simultaneously. Happily, though, austerity guru Jack Monroe has a new book, Thrifty Kitchen to cheer us all up.
Some of the suggested “home hacks” in this book have attracted particular mirth, seeming as they do to involve great effort and even high personal risk for exceptionally low reward. For instance, should you be desperate to get your hands on an egg ring — that is, a metal ring that helps you form perfectly round fried eggs — but unable to afford the £2.10 that would obtain you one from Amazon, Monroe suggests removing the lid and the bottom from a tuna tin, sanding the rough edges away, and washing afterwards to remove “any tiny dusty bits of metal”.
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Should you be poor enough to lack a tin opener, meanwhile — currently on sale in Tesco for 60p — she suggests using a “small sharp knife that you are not particularly attached to, a hammer or mallet, a bit of vigour, some patience and a VERY steady hand”. As the internet has pointed out, combining both of these suggestions to produce an egg ring seems to make it likely that by the end of the process, you won’t be particularly attached to your fingers either.
It is hard to know to whom these tips are really addressed. It seems improbable that the average cash-strapped and harassed parent is going to need — or indeed have time for — any of them. The most obvious candidate for lacking a tin opener is someone homeless or in temporary accommodation, but having perfectly circular fried eggs is surely an unlikely priority here. Other tips in the book involve making firelighters by stuffing cardboard toilet rolls with tumble dryer fluff; filling worn-out socks with lavender for a microwaveable “hot pocket”; making a rolling-pin out of a glass bottle filled with ice; and gluing ring-pulls into your handbag to keep your sunglasses secure. Perhaps, then, the envisioned reader is a pastry chef living in the woods, but still with access to a lot of home appliances.
If you are familiar with Monroe, you’ll know that fearlessly confecting the imaginary habits of poor people is something of a habit of hers. If you aren’t: she’s a queer, tatted, highly articulate and Very Online single mum who mostly writes about low-cost food. Ten years ago, she stumbled into fame at the height of the government’s austerity programme by writing a blog post about not being able to feed her son or heat her home in Southend-on-Sea. Since then, she has authored several cookbooks and continued her blog, heavily mining her own lived experience to evangelise about how to eat cheaply and well when you’re hard up. Nigella Lawson is a big fan and offers a fulsome tribute in the new book.
These days, Monroe seems professionally wedded to a narrative of personal struggle and sudden dramatic changes of fortune, for better or worse. She has a huge Twitter following, regularly detailing physical and mental health challenges, struggles with alcohol, a rollercoaster love-life, and anecdotes that heavily imply that the wolf is never far from the door. She’s helped by a fluent writing style that cycles rapidly through a variety of clickable moods: cheerful resilience in the face of adversity, living-my-best-life showboating, sassy clapbacking, ruefully relatable parenting moments, and so on. In short, she’s the acceptable face of modern poverty in the eyes of many middle-class progressives — and they adore her for it.
Equally though, the very characteristics that make her so pleasing to some make her absolutely infuriating to others. And just imagine — some of these infuriated people are actually poor and/or working-class. It’s no doubt a hard job to stand in for an entire demographic in the public imagination but still, Monroe’s apparently inability to keep a story straight about whether she’s really a downtrodden victim of a cruel system or rather #winningatlife tends to get on the nerves of readers feeling permanently crushed by rising interest rates, rents, energy bills, and food prices. In the last year or so, an army of determined internet sleuths has arisen to challenge the official back story of poverty, obsessively documenting internal discrepancies within Monroe’s voluminous Twitter output, cross-referenced with her many heartfelt Guardian op-eds, interviews, and blog posts. Understandably wounded, the writer is now apparently psychologically locked into an escalating and ultimately unwinnable confrontation with a multi-headed hydra of critics on Twitter.
Personally, although I find Monroe’s online persona more grating than — as she might have it — a metal sheet into which you’ve just punched several large holes with a sharp knife, I don’t think she’s a deliberate scammer. She strikes me as more of a disorganised, constitutionally inconsistent type who can’t remember what she last said from one moment to the next. Either way, I’m not too bothered. I’m just grateful for the lolz provided by some of the recipes — and specifically, the juxtaposition of Monroe’s middle-class culinary sensibilities with her cheap, ultra-processed ingredient list.
Think Nigella-does-Asda. Descriptions of unctuous smatterings and glossy meldings are one thing when enthusing about béarnaise or Sachertorte, but they take on another register altogether when the subject matter is Sainsbury’s Baked Beans or Instant Mash. A much-derided blogpost of Monroe’s from last year suggests buying a tin of spaghetti hoops, washing the tomato sauce from the hoops, then grating some cheese on top to produce “Anellini Con Cacio e Pepe”. (Readers are also told that the washed-off tomato sauce can be reduced down “in a vigorous boil to concentrate it” to make something approximating tomato purée.) In the latest book, Monroe waxes lyrical about such culinary temptations as “moonshine mash” (Instant Mash mixed with pureed tinned sweetcorn), chicken cooked in Fanta, and cornflake ice-cream.
Once you have unscrewed your face, consider that the real attraction of Monroe’s writing for readers cannot possibly be that it gives impoverished people genuinely delicious things to eat, still less that it saves them lots of money. After all, no amount of repurposing stale cornflakes or fiddling about with ring pulls is going to make even the smallest dent in household bills these days. Rather, the main appeal of Monroe’s writing is surely that it taps into an old and perennially satisfying literary tradition, which for want of a better term I’ll call Thrift Lit.
In this genre, fearless housewives — often abetted by a calm and steadfast husband with carpentry skills — marshal all their domestic forces against a hostile local environment. They build shelters, repurpose natural objects into domestic ones, find ingenious uses for old things, and waste nothing. They pickle, salt, ferment, and store up for winter; mend, patch, darn, and husband; plant crops then tend and harvest them; look after animals. Slowly, over time, they produce gleaming, quiet, well-ordered homes in which to bring up docile children, safe little shelters from the chaotic storm of life outside, lit warmly from within. Classics of the Thrift Lit genre include The Swiss Family Robinson, the Little House On The Prairie series, and The Country Child.
Viewed in this light, despite all the contemporary trappings (non-binary, tattooed, neurodiverse), Monroe becomes a surprisingly traditional figure, grounded in Puritan values of self-restraint and respectability: a castaway, pioneer, or farmer’s wife, ingeniously building a succession of bright, glowing homes for herself and her child out of nothing, in the midst of a punishing economic wilderness. The virtues to which she exhorts us by her own alleged example are thrift and frugality, not as means to any further ends but as wholly satisfying moral and aesthetic ends in themselves.
Of course — because we are limp and useless spoilt softies who can’t do anything right — we get the heroes we deserve. Our own modern-day Ma Ingalls is a pale shadow of her stoic forebears in terms of stiff upper lip at least. Still, the appeal of her message is timeless, and a good one for a cold and pitiless January. You too can use your own resources to make order out of chaos. It may be a fantasy, but it’s a consoling one. And if that doesn’t help, there’s always the circular eggs with a light smattering of metal dust to look forward to.