Eatin On The Cheap: 1877 to Today…
When Leanne Brown moved to New York from Edmonton to earn her master’s degree in food studies she couldn’t help but notice that Americans on a tight budget ate a lot of processed foods.
There’s been a long standing concern within the health community for those below the poverty line. Due to their circumstances, the poor take in a large percentage of their total calories in the form of low quality, highly processed foods.
“It really bothered me,” she says. “The 47 million people on food stamps [SNAP] – and that’s a big chunk of the population – don’t have the same choices everyone else does.”
The U.S. food stamp program, SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, only provides a budget of $4 a day. Leanne Brown decided to combine her master’s degree work with her passion for helping those on SNAP and wrote a cookbook filled with recipes that budgeted for their $4 allowance.
The result, Good and Cheap, is free online and has been downloaded over 1,000,000 times. A Kickstarter campaign in 2014 raised $145,000 for a print copy. The cookbook is available for purchase on Leanne’s website and she donates a copy each time someone buys it. More than 70,000 copies of the printed book have been sold.
Her book is simple and practical. Her recipes allow for endless variations and substitutions. They are also primarily vegetarian, a way to afford nutritious and flavourful food on $4 a day. Most importantly the book does not come off as either preachy or condescending. It admits to not being perfect.
Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food. This cookbook is a celebration of the many delicious meals available to those on even the most strict of budgets.
There are several practical tips such as:
- Buy in Bulk: Buying larger amounts usually brings the price down. When you’re working within a tight budget, you won’t always be able to afford to shop for the future, but do it when you can.
- Start Building a Pantry: If possible—and admittedly this can be difficult for people living on their own—reserve part of your budget to buy one or two semi-expensive pantry items each week. Things like olive oil, soy sauce, and spices are pricey at first, but if you use just a little with each recipe, they go a long way.
- Think Weekly: Each week, mix things up by buying different varieties of staple foods like grains and beans.
- Think Seasonally: During their local growing season, fruits and vegetables are generally cheaper and definitely tastier than outside of season.
- More Vegetables Means More Flavour: Nothing livens up a bowl of rice like summer squash and corn! Vegetables make the best sauces: they’re earthy, bright, tart, sweet, bitter, savory, rich.
- Always Buy Eggs: With these babies in your fridge, you’re only minutes away from a satisfying meal.
- Make Your Own Broth And Stock: In almost any savory recipe that calls for water, homemade broth or stock would be better. To make broth, start by saving any vegetable bits that you chop off and would normally throw away, like onion tops, the seedy parts of peppers, and the ends of carrots. Store them in the freezer until you have a few cups, then cover them with water, bring to a boil, and simmer on low heat for a few hours.
New York seems to have a long tradition of innovative cookbook authors focused on helping the poor. Leanne Brown certainly wasn’t the first. Julia Corson, predates her by almost a century and a half.
Julia Corson was born in Boston in 1841 and opened the Free Training School For Women, at the age of thirty-three. Before this, she didn’t know how to cook. She hired a French chef, thought to have been the celebrated Pierre Blot to run it. Two years later she had moved to Manhattan and started giving cooking classes out of her home. She called her classes the New York Cooking School and had over a thousand students a year.
There was always an air of social conscience in everything she did. She tried to make her cooking classes affordable for everyone. For her rich students she charged enormous fees, for the middle class a nickel a lesson and the poor could attend for free.
During the Long Depression of 1873 to 1879 New York’s economy declined dramatically. This was especially felt by the poor. In response, Julia Corson published a series of pamphlets including Fifteen Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families and How Can We LIve If We Are Moderately Poor. The following except are from Fifteen Cent Dinners.
This little book may not be a welcome guest in the home of the man who fares abundantly every day; it is not written for him; but to the working man, who wants to make the best of his wages, I pray it may bring help and comfort.
It is the similarities and the differences that are most interesting between Leanne Brown and Julia Corson’s works. The practical advice on saving is very similar, the tips used of buying in bulk and preparing versus buying have remained the same.
To the Wives of Workingmen :
In planning how to make the wages of the working man provide his family with the necessaries of life, the first point to be considered is the daily supply of food. If this little book shows the laborer’s wife how to feed her husband and children upon one half, or one third, or even, in times of great distress, upon the whole of his scanty wages, its object will be accomplished.
The cheapest kinds of food are sometimes the most wholesome and strengthening; but in order to obtain all their best qualities we must know how to choose them for their freshness, goodness, and suitability to our needs. That done, we must see how to cook them, so as to make savory and nutritious meals instead of tasteless or sodden messes, the eating whereof sends the man to the liquor shop for consolation.
The food most generally in use among the masses is just that which meets their requirements. No hungry man will spend money for what he knows will not satisfy his appetite. For that reason the receipts given in this book treat of the articles in common use among the working classes, with the exception of lentils and macaroni, which are foods that I earnestly beg them to try. In meals made up of bacon, potatoes, and bread, of corned beef and cabbage, and of pork and beans, there exists an equal and sufficient amount of nourishment; but if other dishes are added to these, the variety will result in better general health and contentment.
In matters of diet variety is not only the spice of life; it is the necessity.
What is different is the shift in ingredients as America’s palate and affordability has changed. Julia Corson relies far more heavily on suet and pork fat while Brown’s recipes are primarily vegetarian. Brown’s work still reflects a generally high percentage of calories deriving from carbohydrates while Corson’s recipes are proportionally high in fat.
With the war on wheat and gluten Corson’s words are particularly poignant today. In describing macaroni, a then unfamiliar pasta she says, ‘This is a paste made from the purest wheat flour and water; it is generally known as a rather luxurious dish among the wealthy; but it should become one of the chief foods of the people, for it contains more gluten, or the nutritious portion of wheat, than bread.’
Corson, like Brown, provides the cost per meal allowing for families to plan and budget their meals. Where Brown relies on vegetarian dishes, Corson relies on second and third cuts of meats, a way to get animal protein while still being affordable. She describes in detail what people should be looking for, for each type of meat:
- Beef: The second quality of beef has rather whitish fat, laid moderately thick upon the back, and about the kidneys; the flesh is close-grained, having but few streaks of fat running through it, and is of a pale red color, and covered with a rough, yellowish skin.
Mutton: The flesh of the second quality of mutton is dark red and close-grained, with very few threads of fat running through it: the fat is rather soft, and is laid thin on the back and kidneys, closely adhering to them.
Pork: The second quality of pork has rather hard, red flesh, and yellowish fat. The poorest kind has dark, coarse grained meat, soft fat, and discoloured kidneys. The flesh of stale pork is moist and clammy, and its smell betrays its condition.
- Fish: Although fish contains more water and less solid nutriment than meat, it is generally useful from its abundance and cheapness; and certain kinds which are called red-blooded, such as salmon and sturgeon, are nearly as nourishing as fresh meat: oily fish, such as eels, mackerel, and herring, satisfy hunger as completely as meat; herring especially, makes the people who eat it largely strong and sinewy. Sea fish are more nourishing than fresh water varieties. Fresh fish have firm flesh, rigid fins, bright, clear eyes, and ruddy gills.
The similarities between the two are endless. Both recommend buying in bulk to save money, offering similar advice:
“When it is possible buy your vegetables by the quantity, from the farmers, or market-gardeners, or at the market you will save more than half. Potatoes now cost at Washington Market from one to one dollar and a half a barrel; there are three bushels in a barrel, and thirty-two quarts in a bushel; now at the groceries you pay fifteen cents a half peck, or four cents a quart; that makes your barrel of potatoes cost you three dollars and sixty-three cents, if you buy half a peck at a time; or three dollars and eighty-four cents if you buy by the quart. So you see if you could buy a barrel at once you could save more than one half of your money. It is worthwhile to try and save enough to do it.” Recommends Corson.
Brown has similar advice, though she doesn’t follow it up with a practical example. “Buying larger amounts usually brings the price down. When you’re working within a tight budget, you won’t always be able to afford to shop for the future, but do it when you can.”
The same can be said for baking bread. Brown has a number of recipes for homemade pasta, pizza dough, tortillas and rotis. Flour itself is cheap, while buying baked goods at the grocery store becomes prohibitively expensive. Or, as Corson puts it, “Homemade bread is healthier, satisfies hunger better, and is cheaper than baker’s bread.”
At the basis of both these women’s works is forward planning and practicality. Using leftovers to create new meals, buying in bulk, and planning ahead. Even reusing ingredients to create new things. Effectively using bones or vegetable peels to create flavourful stocks to be added to dishes later in the week.
Brown includes ten suggestions for turning her recipes into exciting leftovers. “Leftovers are convenient, but can seem unappealing, limp, and cold after sitting in the fridge for a couple of days. That’s why the sandwich, the wrap, and the taco are your friend. Here are just a few ideas for how to give leftovers a makeover very quickly for a whole new meal!”
This may best sum up Corson’s ethos, “In estimating the cost of these receipts I have naturally supposed that the family consists of father, mother, and children of different ages, and not of six adults; for them the quantities given would, of course, be insufficient. I allow a meat dinner every day; but in order to have this the meat itself must generally be used one day, with bread or vegetables, and the next day the breakfast must be the broth or juice of the meat, which, if prepared according to my directions, will afford equal nourishment.”
These practical guides attempted to address a problem, that though extremely severe, most people simply are unaware of. Most of us don’t worry where our next meal is going to come from, whether we will be able to afford healthy ingredients, or if we have to choose between paying for a doctor’s visit or putting food in front of our children.
Both Good and Cheap and Fifteen Cent Dinner for Workingmen’s Families are grim reminders of how many people lived and continue to live today.