Many people can’t imagine feeding themselves on $4 a day. But with unemployment spiking, millions more people across the country face the possibility of reduced food budgets, and many will rely on SNAP benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Author Leanne Brown came up with the idea for a cookbook to help people learn to cook — not just frugally, but deliciously — on their public benefits, and what started as a thesis project in graduate school wound up as the James Beard Award-winning 2015 book “Good & Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day.” (Brown offers the book as a free PDF in English and Spanish.)
With SNAP enrollment rising and many people, even those who aren’t on the program, trying to cut their grocery bills, we thought it was a good time to check in with Brown, who is hunkered down with her family in Brooklyn. We talked to her recently about living without luxuries, finding solace in frugality, and why cheaper isn’t always better.
Q: Your book feels particularly needed at the moment, with SNAP enrollment soaring. Of course, you could never have predicted a pandemic, but how relevant is it right now?
A: So many more people have been messaging me and sharing the book. I’ve been feeling this very strong desire to create content and try to help these days. So I’ve been trying to meet it by pointing people to the book. And the [SNAP] numbers are so high, and I’m scared about that, that the system won’t be able to meet the demand.
Benefits are still around the same as when the book came out – $4 a day is the average. It’s not a lot. People often ask about that number, like, ‘Oh, what a cool challenge!’ I don’t think of it like that, it’s just that that’s the reality, and I wanted to create something that addressed it. There are recipes, and there’s also more of a philosophy of cooking that’s not so different from my own, and that’s to find joy, be flexible, and to not waste food. Which is a good, nourishing human feeling.
Being home and cooking three meals a day these days, it’s been a lot. But there’s something about cooking and eating in a way that is frugal that does feel good and right, right now. Like that we’re in tune with the world – that we’re taking what we need and no more.
Q: There’s also a lot of anxiety about food and cooking.
A: Yes, first off, there’s so much concern getting food. Especially at first, I know a lot of people were scared. ‘Do I need to have food for the next two months? Will I even be able to get it?’ The fear got so intense, it was unimaginable.
But now it’s feeling OK, at least for us – we have a routine and we’re in that groove. We’re all going longer in between shops. Using that last bit of crusty bread, and really, really using things up – that’s new for some people. Maybe not for people who have been food insecure for a long time. And for them, there are new worries on top of the old ones.
When people have just enough, they have to shop more frequently. Buying in bulk is great advice, but, literally, some people can’t do that. They might not have transportation or storage, or they simply don’t have enough upfront money. All the inequalities that were already there are being exacerbated. All of us are living in a time where our options are more limited – we’re all experiencing that differently.
Q: What lessons or recipes in the book have clicked for people?
A: My book is different from other approaches, because it’s about being joyful about food and being flexible. A lot of the books I looked at while I was researching – the advice given in them was, like to buy vegetable oil. The emphasis was on having a lot, and the cheapest things. I say if you can, buy butter – sure, it’s a little more expensive, but you can do everything with it, and a small amount of it gives so much flavor. Vegetable oil . . . well, all it does is keep things from sticking to the pan.
I think the question should be what is going to give you the most rather than what is going to give you the most quantity. Of course there are recipes, but I was hoping to teach through recipes how to be flexible – there are lots of substitutions. What I want is for people to know that they deserve to eat delicious food everyday.
Infused into the book was permission to be yourself and to know you deserve to get pleasure out of food even when you don’t have money. If you don’t have a lot of money, food might be one of the few good parts of your day – a time when you can sit down and feed yourself – and that can only do good. Food is just so much more than nourishment.
Q: Frugal cooking is entirely new to some people, and it can feel daunting.
A: This is a shift for many people, a huge change. And big change is scary. What people are experiencing is cooking in a state of fear, which is really tough. Cooking frugally requires flexibility, and that’s hard when you’re scared. What comes along with fear is a sense of hopelessness – you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, it’s going to be bad.’ It’s just such a hard place to be in. I hope “Good and Cheap” and a lot of resources are helpful here.
I think you just need to just be gentle with yourself and tell yourself you can do it, and it will be OK. You really can eat on a limited budget. It will be difficult and it will be more work. But you will have food and you will be OK. You will be OK without lox and bagels or whatever luxury things that you’re used to.
Q: What’s your advice to people suddenly learning to spend less on food and cook a lot more?
A: Having to build new habits – it’s hard. And it’s hard for me to give specific advice. Many people are having to work at things we didn’t want to work at. I’m thinking about people who chose to focus on their work or who didn’t want to embrace the domestic for whatever reason – maybe because they didn’t want to be like their parents. That’s the lifestyle we chose, and now people might feel incompetent or bad at these things. Now here we are in our homes, and we have to face the domestic sphere.
I would just say that you should believe in yourself and have hope that is grounded in reality and not something that’s Pollyanna-ish. When we face our fear, we find out about ourselves. You might find that you can do something you thought you couldn’t, and wouldn’t that be a cool thing to find out?
POTATO LEEK PIZZA
Active: 35 minutes | Total: 45 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Cookbook author Leanne Brown suggests these simple, individual pizzas become a weekly habit in your house. She likes to stretch her dough thin and big, but it is up to each cook as to how thick to make the homemade or store-dough dough. These pizzas can be made even more flavorful with crisp-cooked, crumbled bacon or prosciutto. Or, sprinkle them with grated Parmesan, crushed red pepper flakes or fresh basil.
Baking times will vary depending on the thickness of the dough.
Make ahead: If making dough, it can be portioned, coated lightly in olive oil, sealed in resealable bags and frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator and then let it come to room temperature for 30 minutes before shaping and baking.
Storage notes: Place pizzas in airtight container and refrigerate for 3 days.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 russet potato or 3 small potatoes (12 ounces to 1 pound), sliced into 1/8-inch circles
Freshly ground black pepper
3 leeks (1 to 1 1/2 pounds each), washed, white and tender green parts sliced into 1/8-inch thick circles
All-purpose flour, for rolling out dough
1 pound homemade or store-bought white or whole wheat pizza dough
Cornmeal, for dusting sheet pans
1 pound fresh mozzarella, shredded
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1. Position two racks in the upper third and middle of the oven and preheat to 500 degrees.
2. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil until shimmering. Add the potato slices in an even layer, making sure each slice is touching the bottom. If you don’t have a large enough pan, fry the potatoes in batches. If you slice the potatoes thin enough, they’ll turn out like chips.
3. Once the potatoes begin crinkle around the edges and turn brown, about 5 minutes, flip them over and brown the other side, about 3 minutes. Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then toss to make sure they are evenly seasoned.
4. Heat the remaining oil in the same pan and add the leeks. Cook, stirring occasionally until soft, about 5 minutes. Toss the leeks with the potato slices.
5. Lightly sprinkle a clean counter with the flour. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, use a rolling pin or just slowly use your fingers and hands to roll out or stretch the dough into a 7- to 8-inch circle (or thinner and larger, if you prefer). Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
6. Dust the back of two large, rimmed baking sheets with flour or cornmeal to keep the crust from sticking, then place two rolled-out doughs on each pan.
7. Layer each dough with a quarter of the potato-leek mixture and a quarter of the shredded mozzarella. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the crust is light brown and the cheese is melted and starting to brown on top. (If your crust is very thin, check the pizzas after 5 minutes; if it is thicker, it may take longer.)
8. Sprinkle the pizzas with the crushed red pepper flakes, if using, and serve.
Nutrition | Calories: 583; Total Fat: 32 g; Saturated Fat: 17 g; Cholesterol: 80 mg; Sodium: 757 mg; Carbohydrates: 46 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 27 g.
(Adapted from “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day,” by Leanne Brown. Workman, 2015.)