Jamie Oliver vs. Inflation

In times of hardship, cooking shows can make the case that recipes are sources of not just meals, but also resilience.

Sad face made of two red beans for the eyes and a banana for the mouth
The Atlantic; Getty

It was about 20 minutes into Jamie Oliver’s new British cooking show, while Oliver was grating a big hunk of cheddar over a dish he called “mega meatloaf,” that I realized I was going to cry. It wasn’t his fault; the recipe looked lovely. What tore at my heart was Oliver’s commitment to energetic cheerfulness in the face of ongoing hardship, as though he were a newly divorced dad totally intent on proving to his kids that he was fine, terrific actually, he had a can opener somewhere, dinner would be ready in a jiffy. “This is full of flavor,” Oliver exclaimed, the most enthusiastic man to ever encounter a meatloaf. “There’s no shortage of flavor right here. The fun hasn’t stopped!” He brandishes the cheese; the cheese is “the fun,” apparently: “That’s joyful. That’s family food. And for under £1 a portion.”

That we’re in the middle of an economic crisis for families all over the world is no secret—Google inflation cooking, and you’ll find all kinds of listicles, recipe groups, video guides, and how-tos on stretching grocery budgets to their limit. The New York Times has a roundup of “19 Easy and Cheap Dinner Ideas That Everyone Will Love,” including brick-red turkey chili, “glossy” tomato-butter pasta, and toasted bean-and-cheese burritos. A Reddit post asking for “modern day ‘depression’ recipes” has, as of this moment, 972 responses. The website Budget Bytes compiles hundreds of wallet-friendly recipes and dinner options, each as lavishly photographed as a Bon Appétit cover, with the price per serving prominently displayed. Regardless of the medium, the message tends to be the same: Buy in bulk; make lentils your friend; relegate meat to an accent ingredient rather than the star of the table.

Generally, this kind of advice is easy, resourceful, and planet friendly—infinitely better than my dubious grad-school-budget-friendly mode, which was to make a canned-tomato-and-eggplant casserole every Sunday and then return to it, my resentment building daily, throughout the week. So why is Jamie’s £1 Wonders so sad? I think it’s because food and cooking, particularly in Britain, have long been associated with upward mobility and aspiration. Having made it through the rationing years (when Brits endured deprivation with makeshift recipes for “wartime loaf,” “parsnip pudding,” and something called “mock brains”) and suffered through the experimental cuisine of the ’70s (with jellied-meat entrées and every vegetable inexplicably carved into the shape of a hedgehog), we made it to the new millennium, when economic prosperity and New Labour pushed food into a thrilling new era known as “Modern British.” When I was a child, the best you could hope for on a pub menu was a desiccated piece of gammon with oily egg and chips; now even the sketchiest old-man drinking den has Halloumi on the menu, often with a pomegranate-molasses glaze.

Few people exemplified this upward trajectory more than Oliver. His first cooking show, The Naked Chef, debuted in 1999, after an enterprising BBC producer spotted him in some film footage and saw the potential in a young, laddish, tousle-haired bloke who knew his way around a langoustine. Since then, Oliver has come to occupy a paradoxical place in the national imagination: He’s extraordinarily successful (his estimated net worth is in the hundreds of millions; his cookbooks are basically guaranteed to be best sellers), yet he’s quite cruelly derided on the internet. (Everyone, it seems, has a snide opinion about him—mine is that he could stand to learn an adjective for food that isn’t beautiful.) And ever since he went on a seemingly one-man mission in 2005 to make the food served to British schoolchildren healthier, he’s found, like Michelle Obama after him, that people hate nothing more than being told what to eat. Jamie’s £1 Wonders is no different. When I Googled it, the first things that came up were a wave of articles gleefully compiling complaints on Twitter about the show: that the budgetary accounting makes no sense, that Oliver is “out of touch” with ordinary people, that it is tone deaf for the series to be sponsored by the upmarket grocery chain Waitrose.

And yet: I didn’t find the show patronizing, clumsy, or irritating, not even when Oliver described a bolognese secretly bulked up with lentils as “a beautiful, beautiful ragù,” with the ingredients “all becoming a beautiful oneness.” (Okay, a bit then.) There was something deeply poignant about his conviction that these recipes could work for anyone—not just as money-saving, relatively wholesome family meals, but as totems of comfort and resilience. In one hour-long episode, he uses the word optimistic four times by my count. He refers to fuel poverty obliquely (“all this talk about the cost of energy”) but also offers tangible breakdowns of which kitchen appliances are the most expensive to cook with and which are the most economical. He debuts a new recipe—for a sweet-potato curry with chickpeas and frozen spinach—that can be cooked entirely in that scourge of professional chefs everywhere, the microwave, which he says costs just six pence to run for 20 minutes. “I’m still not as fluent as I’d like to be,” he says humbly, fumbling with the buttons.

If you consider food to be a bellwether for the state of the nation, Jamie’s £1 Wonders has an awful openness to it. This is where we are now: too poor to run our electric ovens, swapping pricey Parmesan for cheaper cheddar, reduced to trying to find joy in a three-pack of peppers and a microwaved tablespoon of jam. “This isn’t cooking as usual for me,” Oliver says at one point, brow furrowed. “But I do like the challenge.” The overarching message is that we can too, if we try—that this period of food-bank exhaustion and spiraling grocery prices can be but a temporary puzzle on the road to future plenitude. More than his relentless optimism, I appreciated his honesty and his effort. We expect celebrity chefs to be aspirational, to constantly prod us to try newer, shinier, more elaborate, more enticing things. It’s much less common for them to acknowledge the kind of ongoing, acute hardship Oliver is addressing—and to still insist that people can find some comfort in cooking through it.