“First take 4p worth of porridge oats, bought in bulk for value. Then add 200ml of water – free! – or the same volume of milk for around 10p, if you’re feeling frivolous. The hedonists out there can add an extra 6p worth of honey – although I’d caution against such blatant extravagance. Don’t you know there are kids going hungry? Microwave for two minutes. Do that for every meal, every day, for the rest of your life. Be grateful.”
Every time child poverty enters the news cycle, social media feeds are swept up in po-faced scold-recipes for frugal, joyless struggle meals, each complete with a smug price breakdown. A slew of half-raw eggs, boiled chicken and grey potatoes are offered up as exhibits in an ongoing moral case against the working class. To prove once and for all that hunger is a symptom of household mismanagement, profligacy and stupidity – and that they therefore deserve the punishments of poverty.
Recently, Annunziata Rees-Mogg took a moment out of her busy schedule of managing her family mansion and hefty stock portfolio to chide an unspecified public for eating ready-made oven chips rather than the marginally cheaper option of raw potatoes. Her implicit message – that choosing the latter is a symptom of laziness, stupidity or both – telegraphs the idea that the struggles of poverty are a choice continually taken by feckless plebs who waste their money on fags and football tickets. Why should we (and the “we” here is important) indulge such irresponsible behaviour? it asks. Why should the state pick up the tab for individual moral laxity?
Tesco 1kg potatoes =83p, 950g own brand chips =£1.35
Tellingly, the remedial recipes conjured by Conservatives tend to neglect not only cupboard staples like salt, pepper and cooking fat, but also the cost of equipment, gas, electricity and transport. They also overlook one vital ingredient of which the UK workforce is terminally short: time. Working hours have crept upwards as living standards and wages continue to fall. The less you earn, the more likely you are to be pulling long shifts – we now work the longest hours in Europe – that leave little time or energy for fussing over a stewpot for hours of an evening. That more expensive ready meals and pre-prepared food might save chronically overstretched working people some time and worry looks far too much like comfort to be thinkable.
Let’s retreat to the obvious: millions in the UK are living in poverty, and most of them are in work. Foodbank dependency has shot up, as have the many health conditions, mental and physical, associated with food insecurity. The profligate parent visiting their sins on their children is a conservative bogeyman; 1 in 4 UK parents skip meals so their kids can have enough to eat. Jack Monroe’s thrifty recipe planning is touted as proof it’s possible to live well on shoestring – something Monroe continually refutes. Those accounts, they point out, always neglect the many side-effects of penury that cannot be managed out of existence with canny budgeting: the despair of mounting debt; the daily nightmare conundrum of heating vs eating; the letters of demand; the bailiffs pounding on the door; the endless grind of anxiety involved in trying to stay just the right side of starvation. Monroe is clear: their recipes are a “sticking plaster” on a gaping wound. No cookbook will transform not enough money to live on into enough money to live on.
The slew of half-raw eggs, watery porridge and boiled chicken pics with price breakdowns is always so grim. Upper class people fetishising their own talent for selective misery to justify the idea that child poverty is about bad household management – and therefore deserved.
It matters little. This is not about sensible frugality or ingenuity with kitchen scraps. The faux-struggle recipes are not science. They are not economics – domestic or otherwise. They are pure theatre. A spectacle in which the comfortably-off fetishise their own miserable talents for selective frugality to try and show up everyone else as self-indulgent. Indeed, it suggests a cruel kind of karmic symmetry in wealth inequality. By touting their genteel fiscal restraint they prove themselves far more worthy of wealth than the childish peasants who would only waste it on petty luxuries from which they know to abstain. It must be comforting for the likes of Gary “Big Dinners” Sambrook to think he earned his spot at the top of the ladder by the action of some ineffable ethical-economic justice. Rather than, say, the witless grinning good luck paid for with the bad luck of countless other people.
Foraged Chanterelles are nutritious and free!
I have the au pair pick mine from the South Pasture, cook them on the Aga in a little truffle oil, and serve on home-made sourdough toast for a cheap and easy meal.
Delicious with grouse.#ToryFoodTips
The theatrics of tactical miserablism pantomimes a political universe in which the struggles of poverty are symptoms of moral failure – and therefore always at least a little deserved. If you are hungry, that must be because you have not budgeted properly, because you have spent too frivolously, that you have been lazy or self-indulgent, selfish or thoughtless. If you need help, you must surely not deserve it, and if you deserve help, you must not need it.
Knotted to the heart of this issue is an age-old Tory paranoia about working-class fecundity; that the problem of child poverty is first and foremost a problem of children existing at all. It speaks to a profound contempt and resentment for the lives of working-class people; as if each new baby is a new burden on the over-stretched generosity of aristocrats, who can no longer be expected to fund the sexual over-indulgences of their subjects. For some, the innocence of hungry children makes them hard to turf onto the ideological dumping ground of the ‘deserving poor’. For others, each hungry child is further proof of a parental irresponsibility that must not be encouraged by state help.
We might well wonder why the government is prepared to take such a big political hit over a relatively cheap week-long free school meals which would cost about the same as half a day of the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme. But it holds firm to an uncompromising cruelty fundamental to modern Toryism: the government must be allowed to let children starve to discipline their parents.
Indeed, it’s hard not to be struck by the self-congratulatory joylessness of the Tories’ poverty recipes. Of course, the point of this soul-clenchingly bland parade of porridge dregs and flaccid vegetables is clear: to chasten any aspirations to pleasure. For there is always a “how dare you” lurking at the heart of debates that claim to be about good housekeeping. How dare you demand anything more than a bleak slop of subsistence knocked back in three-minute bathroom breaks. The Tory Twitter poverty cosplay meal scorns the notion that everyone is entitled to the basic human joy of food; of unctuous steaming puddings; cheesy chips eaten from the paper at 3am; milkshakes and stinging-cold cider; gleaming piles of fruit; long-stewed hotpots that remind you of home. It scorns every unjustified spoonful of jam, cream or spice as a further outrage against their own bottom line. It scorns the idea that working-class people deserve not just survival, but delight.
The classic sins of which the prodigal daughters of England perennially stand accused – booze, cigarettes, spontaneous takeaways – are those which betray an unforgivable instinct towards fun. The English ruling classes will always fight tooth and nail before handing over a red cent beyond what is necessary for its workforce to crawl back to the office, worksite or fulfilment centre the next day – and resent even that. So they pantomime their own momentary parsimony, in the hopes the public will be persuaded to accept it as a permanent economic solution and perpetual dunking-stool of moral worth.
It’s worth wondering what politics would look like if we did not have to justify our claims to the necessities of life’s pleasure, of the small luxuries many people – especially a parliamentary cadre of volunteer domestic miserablists – take for granted.
Everyone deserves good, wholesome, delicious food. Everyone deserves the wages to pay for it, the time to cook and enjoy it. Everyone deserves the ordinary pleasures of life squeezed thin by an economic settlement securitised on plunging wages and rising hours. We deserve this, and so much more.
Eleanor Penny is a writer and a regular contributor to Novara Media.