Jamie’s Ministry of Food gave me so much more than just recipes

When my mum gave me a copy of Jamie Oliver's manifesto for cooking, I discovered the ingredients for life.

Copy: writer's own. Photo by Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books.

My childhood home wasn’t lacking in books, but the most-loved library existed in the kitchen. I would eat my breakfast staring at the spines of cookbooks, and those in use would layer up on the stand on the worktop, covered in my mum’s handwriting and cooking splatter. Meals would emerge from the usual things - heat, ingredients and alchemy - but also words and measurements, stirred up and served in a bowl.

There are celebrity chefs, and then there are the omnipresent ones. The former splash around on television, famed as much for their bon mots as their bon appetites – Keith Floyd and his glass of red; Mary Berry’s soggy bottom – but the latter work their way into our homes and our lives, not so much household names as adopted family members: Delia, Nigella – and of course – Jamie. 

I remember the year-long fascination with ‘Jamie’s risotto’ of 2000 as clearly as I remember the kitchen it emerged from (blue cupboards, plaid curtains) and my own nascent adolescence. Salty and satisfying, the recipe fell out of the Naked Chef and into our lives, and we’re still all making and eating his mushroom risotto two decades on. 

A hefty new hardback, it made my worktop look filthy.

Today, I'm the kind of person whose default stress relief is cooking something slowly on a low heat and in gently bubbling butter. I am not cheffy: I measure by hunch, take little notice of oven heat, my knives are less sharp than they should be. But I take pride in rustling up a meal on whatever lingers in the fridge and in never sending anyone out the door hungry. These things, along with the truculence of the aging Aga that heated my childhood, are the products of my mother – an unfussy, intuitive cook. But they are also learned from a cookbook she gave me for Christmas one year: Jamie's Ministry of Food

It was early January. I was 20, and returning to the cold galley kitchen of my student house in Newcastle after the festive break. The red spine glinted among the tatty, canonical paperbacks I’d optimistically hauled home for the holidays. Against fey retro wallpaper, Jamie’s (he could never be ‘Oliver’) reassuring smile hovered above a roast. A hefty new hardback, it made my worktop look filthy. 

I remember being taken in from even the rudiments; from how Jamie had outlined a cupboard of essential dry goods – Marmite and chickpeas and cumin seeds – and how it had looked like my mum’s, only easier. Something that I could manage on my food budget of a tenner a week, if I built it up over the course of the term. While the pages held recipes that were wildly exotic in comparison to my diet of pasta bake and Shreddies (biriyani! Seared tuna! Paella!), none of them seemed particularly out of reach. And so, during those largely grim, exam-riddled first weeks of second term, I cooked my way through Jamie's Ministry of Food

Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

The boiler would clank into life for its scheduled hour a day. My flatmate would stand by the back door, smoking in a dressing gown. And condensation would creep up the window panes as I coaxed dinners into being. I smothered beef with pastry to produce little wellingtons. I furiously chopped at salad. I tackled chillies, gingerly, and filled the air with the lurid hit of coriander. Sometimes, I’d try out something new to impress a date – skin salmon fillets clumsily and rub them in curry paste, throw cucumbers in yoghurt – but mostly my culinary adventures were just for my own satisfaction.   

Exams passed, the year warmed up. My reading list turned to fare more befitting an English Literature undergrad. But I still cooked. Between the clubbing and the lie-ins and the deadlines, the routine heartbreaks and lifeblood of gossip, I found my days formed around thinking about what I’d eat, and then making it. I had always shopped at Newcastle’s glorious Grainger market, but having a new charge of recipes – rich in spice and flavour - pushed me further into its nooks and crannies, encouraged me to strike up familiarities with the stallholders. Jamie's Ministry of Food was the kind of book that sent me foraging out to the Middle Eastern butcher to buy a neck of lamb and have it diced for a tagine on two hours’ sleep. It brought me closer to my adopted city.

I remember the importance Jamie placed on giving each meal the respect it deserved.

Ministry of Food showed me things beyond making the meals themselves. Even now, a decade on, I remember the importance Jamie placed on giving each meal the respect it deserved: lay the table – whether you’re eating alone or cooking for eight. Savour the effort and love you’ve put in. It’s a routine I still follow now.

Jamie's Ministry of Food didn’t so much teach recipes, as help to give me a far broader confidence around food and flavour. It taught me the basic proportions of four essential salad dressings – the necessary verve behind a good salad – but also how to nuture in myself the instinct for cooking I’d seen in my mum.

These days, my kitchen looks much like any other: jars of dry goods and serving bowls jostle for space on the shelves, herbs grow on the window ledge. There’s not a lot of room for cookbooks, so Jamie’s Ministry of Food is tucked away in a cupboard.

Instead, that knowledge lives in my head, in the muscle memory I’ve developed from shaking oil and vinegar together in a jam-jar, in the meticulously ordered spices that occupy an entire drawer. It ekes out of the dinners I cook, even after a long day, and feel better.

This article is part of our A Book that Changed Me series. 

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