Sometimes it’s the little things that ram home how far downwards Britain has slid. If you are accustomed now to not being able to rely on the ambulance service or swim in the sea safely, and if you are numb to those studies suggesting that 50,000 or 130,000 or 330,000 people have been killed by austerity, here is another canary indicating that the coalmine is filling with gas: with the well-intentioned one-off show Jamie’s £1 Wonders (Channel 4), Jamie Oliver has moved into crisis-budget cookery.
For more than 20 years Oliver has been an aspirational shortcut for relatively comfortable home cooks, who have loved serving their families or dinner-party guests something delicious before admitting it was a Jamie recipe. Now some of those folk are finding their income doesn’t cover their expenditure, Oliver has responded with a portfolio of still-toothsome dinners that come in at less than £1 per portion. It is an awkward watch: however good it is, there is a constant voice in one’s head bemoaning that it needs to exist at all.
Oliver has sustained his success because his recipes have always been smartly constructed, and that is still the case with his grim new task. There are two regular criticisms of cheap meal guides, neither of which has much force here. Yes, the dishes are flavoured with items that those who are struggling to get by may not have in their cupboard, but the dried oregano and mint, fresh ginger, curry powder and so on are priced into the £1 limit and can be used in subsequent meals. The more serious problem for people forced to count every penny is that ingredients are not the total cost because they have to be cooked – Oliver’s budgets don’t deal with that, but he does provide a guide to the most efficient appliances, with the oven last and the microwave first. Sound tips are also offered on making the most of the oven by cooking two dishes at once, and when to use a lidded pan on the hob instead.
Where he goes wrong isn’t on the content of this show, but the tone. We know he is a millionaire who could order from Nobu on Deliveroo every night, and he knows we know. As a result of a bold creative decision – or just long-ingrained instinct – Oliver’s solution to this bleak conundrum is to place heavy emphasis on the idea of poverty cuisine as a fillip, a pleasure, a reason to keep smiling, darlin’. “This is going to be a beautiful, colourful, optimistic family dish,” he says of his one-pan meatloaf with spicy tomato sauce. “The fun hasn’t stopped yet!” he exclaims, as he grates own-brand cheddar over it, for extra comforting ooziness. “Joyful”, “an event” and “exciting” are descriptions of the completed dish, which is served on a bed of mash made more economical via the useful finesses of cutting the potatoes into smaller chunks, only just covering them in the pan with water, and not boiling the water in the kettle first. When it’s all plated up: “It’s optimistic, it’s tasty, it feels celebratory.”
This use of “optimistic” is jarring, yet Oliver keeps returning to it. Embarking on a Cajun chicken traybake, he holds up three peppers, red, yellow and green: “Peppers. Optimism! Colour! Sweetness!” In reality, at home, the moment where you try to find joy in a standard supermarket mixed-pepper trio might be the point where you shed a tear and hope the children don’t see.
Oliver, who is at the point in a TV chef’s career where they are desperate for themes they haven’t already done, is open about the way sub-£1 cooking is an intellectual exercise for him. “It’s got me really thinking creatively,” he says: the section where he cooks a vegetable curry and rice entirely in the microwave is full of self-deprecating humour about his inexperience with that kind of oven. Pointing up the disconnect between himself and those who will benefit most from this programme again risks irking the audience, but he might as well be honest, and the microwaved curry is undoubtedly a clever idea. In any case, his advice often has merit beyond saving money. Doubling the size of spag bol by bulking out mince with lentils, for example, is a handy tip with environmental and health benefits, whether you need to economise or not.
In the last shot, the jolliness cracks. “I hope this helps,” says Oliver, with the sort of closed-lipped, apologetic half-smile you might offer a new widow as you back politely out of her porch. Throughout £1 Wonders he is trying his best to say the right thing and not usually managing it, but his efforts are sincere. If people need all the help they can get right now, there is a decent portion of it here.