We all know that fresh food cooked from scratch is more fun to eat and better for us than mass-produced, processed food. Just about the best thing you can say for most processed food is that it has a long shelf life.
Cooking fresh food does take some time, some money and some skill, but cookbook author Leanne Brown argues that it doesn’t have to take as much as you might think.
Brown wrote “Good and Cheap,” a cookbook meant to show that kitchen skill, not money, is the key to eating well, even on the tightest of budgets.
“Everyone can eat well,” Brown said. “Food should be a joyful part of life instead of a fearful part of life.”
The “Good and Cheap” cookbook started as part of Brown’s work for her master’s degree in food studies. After she posted a free PDF on her website, www.leannebrown.com, it went viral, racking up nearly 100,000 downloads in the first few weeks. She launched a Kickstarter program to get the book printed, and the first edition sold out in a few months. Sales of the printed edition have a “Buy One, Give One” feature; people who buy a copy can easily donate a copy to a family in need. The book has since become a New York Times best-seller, more than 36,000 copies have been donated, and the PDF has been downloaded nearly a
Food Lifeline, a local nonprofit providing food to low-income people, distributed hundreds of books at its 2015 conference for food bank operators and participants. A food bank in Ferndale acquired and donated copies of the book to its clients.
Jenn Tennent, partner programs manager at Food Lifeline, said Brown’s book is unique in that it is appealing to look at. A lot of material distributed through food banks comes from old, black-and-white books that don’t make people excited to cook. The ingredients Brown requires are also accessible to food bank patrons, Tennent said.
“Her recipes didn’t call for anything you wouldn’t be able to find at a food bank or wouldn’t be able to purchase on a limited budget,” Tennent said.
The book is designed to cook meals for $4 a day. Brown’s goal was to demonstrate that people could have good food on a small budget, and she designed the recipes to fit the budgets of people living on SNAP, the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps. Her calculations are based on the SNAP benefits available in New York state, since that’s where she did her work. The benefit formulas are complicated, but the rule of thumb is that you end up with about $4 per day per person to spend on food.
Brown said the book has more than accomplished what she hoped, and changed along the way.
“It’s funny, I suppose my vision for it has morphed,” Brown said. “I expected to get it out to nonprofits that I worked with in New York City … when it went viral, it surpassed my own expectations.”
She says she’s particularly pleased that it’s being used in libraries in ESL classes, and the next project is publishing it in Spanish.
Our report on this book has also outgrown the original intention. The plan was to write and publish a simple review of the book. What we ended up doing was testing and costing out some of the recipes.
We picked several recipes, one complex, the others very simple. We had alternatives in case the store we went to didn’t have everything we needed, because people on a very tight budget can’t usually run all over town looking for the best bargains.
Kress IGA on Third Avenue downtown served as a good test store, given that it is easily accessible by public transportation. It’s a fairly small store, but not a classic convenience store because it has a variety of fresh produce and meats. We realized that there are many variables at work, but figured this would give us a good handle on some of the costs and the availability of some ingredients. We cooked food with ingredients found at the store, and figured out how much they would cost. Brown gives cost of preparation on most of her recipes, and we compared what it cost us with the figures in her book.
One person’s share of each of our four recipes would cost less than $4. (In the case of the main dish, each person could have more than their share. We did not buy beverages or anything specifically for breakfast, and we didn’t represent a completely balanced diet. Still, it could be balanced within the $4 a day if you plan weekly.
We made a main dish, Filipino chicken Adobo, a side dish of roasted vegetables, and two recipes that can be snacks or lunch, hummus, and avocado on toast. Our cost per person for our recipes was $3.19, and it would have been less than that if we’d taken the suggested portions of chicken Adobo.
I wanted to make roti, an Indian flatbread, which is listed in the book as costing 3 cents per serving. The Kress IGA had no roti flour, so I gave up on that and chose hummus.
There are no green leafy vegetables in our selection. Those are generally not very costly per serving, and are easy to prepare, so could fit in on another day, or in this one.
There is also nothing specifically for breakfast, but if we added a serving of roast vegetables for 61 cents and an egg for 13 cents, we are still under our $4 benchmark.
One very expensive item was the tahini paste needed to make hummus, $8.95 for a 15-ounce can. We only used a tablespoon, but still that’s more than two days’ worth of food allowance for the whole can! Brown suggests building a pantry slowly, maybe reserving part of your budget for a once-a-month purchase.
It became clear while working with the book that it may be useful for many low-income people, but it would not be to homeless people.
Brown writes the book assuming that the users have some cooking tools and appliances available, and that the person has a reliable means of storage. Still, there are plenty of people who are housed but still hungry who could easily benefit.
For the newly housed who are just getting started, Brown said it was important to have the courage to just start cooking.
“If you have a stove, a pot or a pan, you can make many of the things in my book,” Brown said. “You just need the confidence to pay attention ... If you have never truly done it, you have no idea how, but once you begin, you realize it’s often the same processes over and over again ... It’s just a muscle, you have to work it.
“Cooking may not always be immediate gratification, but the gratification is so, so worth it,” she added.
Brown has little patience for many who give advice on saving money on food purchases, saying that simply telling someone to buy in bulk, for example, is often patronizing and unrealistic. She points out that many people don’t have the money up front, or a car to get such purchases home, or storage space to put them when they get there.
“Even the word ‘advice’ is sometimes patronizing,” she said, adding engagement with each individual is the way to be of real benefit.
Brown brings a joy and humanity to her task of finding cheap food, and, after all, who wouldn’t like to have good food and spend less? Joys and pleasures are often few when we don’t have much money, and her book can help more of us see our way to enjoy the simple, healthful pleasure of good food.
To view recipies, click here!