Four MPs converged at a Nottinghamshire school last week to show how it was possible to feed a family of five for seven days for just £50.24. Ashfield Conservative MP Lee Anderson joined forces with an acclaimed chef and the team behind a local food bank to demonstrate the range of meals that can be made on a tight budget.
Together with Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw), Marco Longhi (Dudley North) and Matt Vickers (Stockton South), he cooked up enough food to provide an estimated 140 servings in a ready, steady, cook-style challenge at Sutton Community Academy. Their dishes included chilli con carne, chicken curry, spaghetti bolognese and sweet potato curry.
Mr Anderson has no pretensions to being a “great cook” but says he does not mind “having a dabble” and wants more people to get into the kitchen.
Describing how he was forced to pick up skills, he said: “I was a single parent for about 17 years – two boys living with me, so you learn how to cook cheaply, learn how to cook nice meals and I enjoyed doing it…
“This is all about tackling food poverty. It’s about people having nutritious meals.
“It’s about tackling obesity as well. If you’re going to eat nutritious meals, the chance are you’re not going to be overweight.”
Stockton South’s Mr Vickers, clad in an apron, admitted that he was outside of his comfort zone but said children should leave school able to cook more than scones or a Victoria sponge. He said: “You can make people’s lives better because they’ve got better food to eat. I think once people dabble with cooking they probably get a bit hooked.”
Bassetlaw’s Mr Clarke-Smith confessed he had put on weight since becoming an MP. He said: “[We] get so used to buying ready-meals and I’m probably the worst culprit at this because in Westminster we’re always very busy and never have time to cook things… I’ve put on one or two stone in weight since I’ve gone there and basically it’s because I’m not eating healthily enough. But this has shown you can actually cook in advance, store stuff away, you can live a lot cheaper and lot healthier.”
He said he was not very good at “peeling stuff” but he highlighted other benefits to cooking. “It’s very therapeutic,” he said. “Instead of bashing away on the phone at Whatsapp every five minutes it’s sometimes nice to be able to put the phone down and do something.” Dudley North’s Mr Longhi grew up in Rome and learned to cook in the family home.
He encouraged people to experiment with pasta dishes, saying: “The thing about pasta is that you can literally – if you want to – just make up the sauce you want. If you want to have a pasta sauce with a particular food that maybe the Italians wouldn’t, fine, as long as you like it – that’s the most important thing.” However, he urged people not to cook pasta for “more than 10 minutes”.
“One of the worst things I found when I left Italy to come to England was that people would just chuck the pasta on and leave it for half an hour,” he said. “It would be a horrible gooey soup… It needs to be ‘al dente.’”
Dave Marshall, chef at the award-winning Porterhouse by Barlows restaurant in nearby Annesley, supervised the MPs’ efforts and regularly delivers online cooking classes. He is now preparing to cook 1,000 Christmas meals. Describing how he developed his passion to end food poverty, he said: “I split up with my partner and then lockdown happened and I was at home dead depressed. I thought instead of being at home being miserable I’d try to help people.”
He helped out at food banks and then harnessed the power of social media to show people how to turn raw ingredients into delicious meals. “I believe in educating people to be able to help themselves,” he said. Mr Marshall was delighted at the MPs’ performance in the kitchen. “For a chef, seeing people cook fresh is, like, amazing,” he said.
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