When a waitress brings over our mac ’n’ cheese croquettes, Jack Monroe’s eyes bulge with joy. “They’re dirty, but sooo good,” the food writer says, proffering one to me. Monroe – who became famous with a blog about a single mother’s life on the breadline – is about to head to a protest to call for David Cameron’s resignation. But first: lunch at a pub in west London.
The child of a nurse and a firefighter, Monroe grew up in Southend-on-Sea and left school at 16. Jobs in a chippie and then the fire service as a call handler followed, but Monroe had to leave the latter after having a son, Jonny. A single parent living on benefits, Monroe started the A Girl Called Jack blog about cooking on a budget. It won 16,000 readers, and led to a bestselling cookbook and a column in The Guardian.
Now, Radio 4 has made a “docu-fiction” exploring Monroe’s adolescent relationship with food. Jaime Winstone plays Monroe (“my fantasy casting”) and June Whitfield is Monroe’s grandmother (“my nan was beside herself ”).
The 28-year-old has also become a figurehead for two groups: single parents, and the trans community after coming out as non-binary (neither woman nor a man). What kind of pressure does being a figurehead impose?
“It can be easy for that community to be disappointed in you, because they finally get some representation, but you don’t sound or look exactly like them, nor hold the same political beliefs. But generally, people are glad there’s a voice out there.”
Monroe only officially came out as trans last year. “I’d already said to my parents, ‘I’ve changed my name to Jack’ and I started presenting as quite masculine and cutting my hair short, and no one said a word. So I thought, ‘Maybe everyone already knows.’ And then it was National Coming Out Day [in October 2015] and I put it out there, and the reaction was immense.”
What does son Jonny, who’s now six, understand? “A boy in his school asked, ‘Is your mum a boy or girl?’ and Jonny said, ‘I don’t know.’ A six-year-old telling it like it is!”
Not everyone has been kind, though. While the publisher of Monroe’s next book wanted to keep the “A Girl Called Jack” branding, Monroe outright refused. “I was like: ‘OK, I tried to kill myself twice in the last three years. A lot of that has been related to my gender identity, and feeling like I couldn’t come out about it because I was in the public eye. You’re asking me to potentially put myself back into a suicide risk for a marketing decision?”
Monroe talks freely about experiencing mental health problems. “I was in a pit of depression because my publisher didn’t want me any more, barely making it out of bed most days because I was so mired in anxiety and pity.”
Monroe crowd-funded the book, Jack on a Bootstrap, and changed publisher; it will be published in January 2017.
Monroe’s attitude to food hasn’t shifted with success, despite having made ice cream for Bill Nighy and cooking for Clare Balding. “My cooking hasn’t changed because my audience hasn’t changed. And I’m at my most creative when I have the least to play with.”
It’s still Sainsbury’s value flour for baking bread. “I could buy better ingredients but why waste money? I do love a jolly to Borough Market to buy mushrooms or a fennel bulb, but I really enjoy taking simple ingredients – things from tins, not other celebrity chefs’ ‘simple’ ingredients like truffle oil – and making some- thing restaurant-quality.”
Monroe isn’t dating anyone but is “in love with about five different people, all for political reasons”, including Green MP Caroline Lucas; Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, and Labour’s Dan Jarvis: “He’s the future of the Labour party. I was saying it before it was cool. I’m a Dan Jarvis hipster.”
Monroe’s mother is disabled, and Monroe was horrified by the cuts to disability benefits outlined (but now scrapped) in the last Budget. So would Monroe go into politics? “Yes. I’m not being coy about this any more. There’s only so long you can stand there, banging your fist on the table.”
Which party is undecided: Monroe is a member of the Greens, but is flirting with the WEP: “I coined a phrase with Sophie Walker the other day – polyamorous politics! That’s the future.” And with that Monroe is off to buy MDF and paints to make a banner of dissent.
A Girl Called Jack begins on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow (Monday 25th April) at 10.45am, and is repeated at 7.45pm