Thursday, 4 December 2014

Poverty, Fortnum and Masons and Christmas

I do feel very lucky. Seven years ago I was a single mum on benefits, struggling to find a job. I couldn't find one so I started... not only my own business, but a whole new type of business. It was risky and sometimes frightening starting a restaurant in my living room and blogging about it. I haven't really let people know about the pressure I've been under at times, legally and in every other way, to keep going. Hell, the crap I've been through. And all I was ever trying to do is earn a living.
So blogging, which was an essential part of my story, changes lives. Another person for whom blogging has changed her life for the better is Jack Monroe who had in some ways a similar story to my own, being a single mum on benefits. I've never really blogged about being on welfare. Why? Because I was ashamed of it. I didn't know how to get out of that situation, I felt trapped, humiliated and helpless. My only difference of opinion with Jack is that, once the terrible bureaucratic nightmare interim period of not getting your benefits has passed (and yes, I was so broke my mum had to come over with a pint of milk so I could give my three year old a drink), the ONLY THING you can do on welfare IS eat. It's the most economical form of pleasure, a holiday in your mouth. That's why poor people in Western countries are fat. Carb me up, boost my serotonin, stop the feelings, anaesthetise the pain and the loneliness. Caitlin Moran wisely said in 'How to be a woman':
“Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that's why it's come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It's a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren't indulging in the "luxury" of their addiction making them useless, chaotic, or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone. And that's why it's so often a woman's addiction of choice. All the quietly eating mums. All the KitKats in office drawers. All the unhappy moments, late at night, caught only in the fridge light.”
The borough next to where I live, Brent, has the highest diabetes in the UK - 23,000 people at the last count. This is partly because it has a large Indian sub-continent community where overweight starts at a BMI of 23. It is also because of inner city poverty, of which a large proportion are single parents and their children. It seems counter-intuitive but Diabetes 2 is inextricably linked with poverty.
So in the last six years my life has changed for the better. It's still tough to be freelance, especially in an economic climate where you have to stand your ground to be paid for your work. You never really relax when you have your own business: no paid holidays, no sickness pay, the lack of security, the feeling that you are only as good as your last blog post, recipe, dinner or book. 
But this is not a whinge fest. I am celebrating. 
Earlier this year I won the award for Best Online Food writer at the Fortnum and Mason awards which, seeing as it's one of my all time fave London landmarks and food shops, I was pretty damn pleased. They've just sent me their little Christmas booklet featuring contributions from la creme de la creme of British food and drink writing: Rose Prince, Diana Henry, Pete Brown on beer, Nina Caplan on wine, Victoria Moore on spirits, Yottam Ottolenghi, the Hairy Bikers, Dan Saladino for Radio 4's The Food Programme, Claudia Roden, Matthew Fort, Helen McGinn of the Knackered Mothers Wine Club and others. So you can see my work is in unbelievably exalted company. It's a very pretty turquoise and gold (F and M colours) booklet with fine illustrations (plus they sent me a box of salted caramels to munch on while I read it.)
The book features my classic gingerbread house recipe from my new book MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party. Even if I say it myself, this is a perfect Christmas present, have you ordered yours yet?
Oh go on. 

12 comments:

  1. I'm really in awe of you. I've had some tough times myself over the past few years but I didn't have a child to support on top of that. I was on benefits for a bit but had to go off them in order to do internships. The only way I could do them otherwise was to disclose I was on benefits to do an official "job trial"; I feared the stigma would scupper my chances of a job offer. There's no flexibility in the system to arrange your own work experience.

    In January I start my first full-time, permanent job since arriving here over 7 years ago. Previously it was all temporary contracts, 1 week notice (or no notice but what can you do when you have no money or power?).

    The financial crisis was a blessing in disguise though. I've taken risks I might not have otherwise and found a career I really love.

    Thank you for taking about this stuff. It's still hard to but it needs to happen.

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    1. I'm in awe of all single parents, which is why I dedicated my first book to them. They are the heroes but so often treated as the problem.
      I totally agree on the lack of flexibility in the system. When the newspapers go on about Next employing Polish workers, and why don't British people take those jobs I feel like screaming. BECAUSE they don't want a temporary job which means they will have to go through that terrible delayed period of waiting to get benefits again which is so stressful. The people on question time and any questions have obviously never been on benefits. They don't know what they are talking about. Most people aren't lazy, they are just beaten.
      I'm so glad it's all worked out for you now Sarah and thanks for your comment, it's heartening. xx

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  2. I completely agree with your observation that when you are poor, the only thing you can do is eat.

    I have spent the last year trying to build two businesses and my income has been practically non existent (at one point 75% of my take home went on rent.) Cooking and blogging about it, even if everything I used was from the reduced isle, was my singular form of pleasure. I felt it was OK to spend money on food, because you have to eat right?

    I'm glad to hear things have got better, I'm still waiting for it to happen to me, but I live in hope.

    http://www.audacityoffood.co.uk/

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    1. Hi Bethan,
      I do believe that courage and hard work are rewarded so I'm sure it will get better for you. The trouble with eating as an addiction is that you are confronted by it at least three times a day, you can't go cold turkey from eating. Thanks for commenting xx

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    2. Congratulations! I am so happy for you. Please know that your blog is touching a life here in Canada, too. Your honesty is a balm for others, and even though we are all in different situations, we can relate as women and nurturers, for in that way our lives are very much the same! We get it - the pleasure and the pain of using food as our 'medicine'. Kudos to you for sharing, and a high-five to you for your successes! I love to read your blog!

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    3. Thanks so much Margaret. I'm so glad my post touched you for it is hard to open up in that way in public. Thanks xx

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  3. So proud of you, Kerstin!! You've come a long, long way from those early days in Paris - I remember our very first meeting with our small girls who are now young women already...Fortnum and Masons no less!!! You are indeed an inspiration. Hugs.

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    1. Hey Juanita, thank you and I'm still hoping you will visit London one day. xx

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    2. I didn't realise that you had it so tough....and I know that feeling of being a freelancer. I was for quite a few years too.
      I didn't realise that life had been so tough for you but congratulations !For being such a good writer ...your blog is one of my " must read immediately it's posted "blogs, for getting yourself where you are today through hard work and brilliant ideas......and for being such a good role model for your daughter.

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    3. Thanks Bridget. The toughest part of being a single parent is the low self-esteem and the rock bottom esteem in which you are held by the rest of society plus the relentless isolation.Not having any money wasn't the worst bit. Bizarrely I've always felt rich even when I had no money at all. I'm not saying that in a spiritual way but more 'am I a bit delusional?'

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  4. Great stuff K. MsM is in my Fav Toolbar.
    Always in interested in T2 since I was diagnosed. Fortunately not on meds so gone low carb and exercise... and it's odd.... I eat like a horse, never feel close to full after a meal, gone from 95 to 75kg and really look at the food industry and wonder how they get away with all that sugar... reduced fat my arse...
    Your writing and photos are a real tonic, good on you and thank you.

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    1. Thank you. Poor you but well done for getting it under control.

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