Jamie Oliver's Budget Gourmet Delusion


Jamie Oliver would approve, I thought as my daughter and I sat down to dinner. Even though the recipe was one of Nigella's.

Potatoes, red capsicum, onions, garlic, black pepper and olive oil, topped with slices of haloumi cheese. All served with a loaf of freshly-baked home-cooked bread. Tasty, healthy, and (importantly, given that we are suffering a temporary cash-flow problem) low-cost.

I had managed to buy the haloumi plus enough fruit and vegetables for this meal and several more for a grand total of $23.40 at the market just down the road from our apartment. Surely this would dish would rate a gold-star mention on Oliver's new show, Jamie's Money Saving Meals (screening in Australia on Channel 10).

Oliver's own credibility on the budget-living issue has come under fire after he claimed in an interview that living on a low income is no excuse for an inadequate diet. “I'm not judgemental, but I've spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty,” he said.

According to Oliver, families trapped in “modern-day poverty” could eat well if they just got their spending priorities right. He cites that emblem of the underserving poor – the “massive fucking TV” that sits in the background as they munch on their junk food.

And why do they remain enslaved to the supermarket, when the local market is cheaper and allows you to buy fresh food in smaller quantities? “The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.”

At first glance, my dinner looks like a good advertisement for Oliver's philosophy – except that my meal wasn't really a budget effort, if you included all the elements involved.

The olive oil, flour and yeast had been stockpiled in the pantry prior to the onset of the lean times. The rest of the ingredients had been easy to obtain at a low price because we pay a high enough rent to live a short walk from a good market in an inner-city suburb.

I would not have bothered to bake the bread if I hadn't owned an expensive kitchen gadget to do most of the work for me.

And perhaps most importantly of all, I know that my temporary cash-flow problem is, well, temporary. My tax return ought to come through soon, I'm starting a new contract in a few months, and underpinning all of this is the knowledge that I have friends and family members with the means and inclination to ensure that no matter how bad my personal financial outlook might become, my daughter and I will never have to sleep rough or seek refuge is a shelter for the homeless. Many single mothers lack all of those resources, including that basic bottom-line safety-net.

I'm not suggesting that Oliver's recipes are no use for low-income households. Many of them look inexpensive and achievable. However, describing some of the others as “budget” is to underestimate the cost of production.

For example, Oliver tells us to make good use of the “amazing texture” that stale bread can add to a meal. And indeed, I can testify to the deliciousness of Oliver's recipe for bread and tomato soup (or pappa al pomodoro, if using the Italian name tantalises your and/or your lover's tastebuds).

It pays to read the fine print, however. “PS – Use a stale white cottage-style loaf – not cheap sliced white factory bread.”

Just as I can testify to the amazing texture of good-quality stale bread, I can testify to the slimy gunk that's produced by cheap stale bread – and that's if it even gets as far as going stale. As Alex Andreuo notes in The Guardian, “poor people's bread does not go stale, Jamie. It goes mouldy”.

I would file Oliver's comments under “irritating stuff celebrities say” if it didn't so perfectly encapsulate the grinding moral onslaught that families on low incomes are subjected to day after day, week after week, year after year.

I was able to treat my budget grocery shop as an interesting project and shrug off remarks like his as a minor irritant. But (having experienced long-term as well as short-term financial constraints) I am mindful of the fact that low-income families are short of more than just cash. Their limited incomes are often the product of poor health (a fact overlooked by those who scold them for allowing damaging their health with poor dietary choices). Even those who are in basically sound health become drained of energy by the sheer hard work of making-do. It's a viscous circle that quickly descends into a downward spiral.

At least Jamie Oliver tells us that he “just wants to hug them” and teleport them to Italy or Spain so that they can witness how easy it is to produce fantastic food on very little money. Successive Australian governments have settled for mugging welfare recipients rather than hugging them, subjecting welfare recipients in some Indigenous communities to “income management” to ensure that they are spending their meagre payments on necessities such as housing and food – as though wefare payments are lavish enough to splash out on anything else.

Sigh. On balance, I suppose I'd rather be hugged by Jamie Oliver than mugged (or, God help us, hugged) by Tony Abbott. And after watcing Abbott and daughters “cook up a storm” for Annabel Crabb on Kitchen Cabinet, I know who I'd rather put in charge of providing dinner.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.