While poking around the corners of the Internet recently, looking for the next great food idea, I ran into something tremendous: A free downloadable cookbook that teaches you how to eat well on as little as $4 a day.
Written by Leanne Brown, Good and Cheap, was originally envisioned as a resource to help people receiving government assistance eat better with the funds provided available. However, the idea has taken off, as you’ll see in our interview with Leanne. Her Kickstarter campaign for producing printed copies of the book had a goal of $10,000 — it has already surpassed that, and generated more than $38,000. Her excellent recipes are not only available in her books (her vegetarian cookbook, From Scratch, is also available for free) but on on her website. Check out all things Leanne here.
Obviously, the time has come for an idea like Good and Cheap. I was delighted to talk with Leanne about this wonderful book — the recipes are simple and delicious, by the way — as well as the reaction to it thus far.
Interview with Leanne Brown
You created the book as the capstone project for your Masters in Food Studies at NYU. How long did it take for you to come up with recipes that fit your criteria?
I started working on the book in mid-June last year and completed a rough version in December, so I guess it took me about 6 months to develop the recipes. There was a lot of trial and error with the dishes themselves and the photography. After that, I sat on the book for a while. I posted the initial PDF on my website in April, and it was discovered by Reddit pretty quickly, which prompted my partner and I to finally finish editing it. Now, thanks to Kickstarter backers who sponsored 20 new recipes, I have to start experimenting again! But I love doing it, of course.
Why do you think it continues to be a difficult task to eat well and healthfully while on a limited budget — is there a basic misunderstanding out there about how to eat well?
There are so many messages everywhere, from our televisions to our grocery stores, that tell us cooking is hard. But cooking is not innately difficult; it’s just a basic skill that requires practice, and the benefits of that practice are a joyful and delicious life! Compare that with packaged foods, which offer little in the way of immediate pleasure, yet cause your health and wallet to suffer in the long term, not to mention your sense of self-worth. If we can change our national attitude about cooking, we can all be a lot more satisfied with the way we eat—oh, and healthier, too.
Cooking and food shopping should be mandatory classes in every public school. They have traditionally been taught in the home, but many grow up without that knowledge, and they’re daunting to learn once you’re on your own. How are you supposed to eat well when you can’t cook, or begin to cook if you don’t know how to shop?
The book really appears to adhere to the Tips for Eating and Shopping Well that you share at the outset. They’re very simple tips, too — buy foods that you can use in multiple ways, buy smaller amounts of produce so that it stays fresh, gradually build a pantry, use veggies for flavor, always buy eggs, and stay away from prepared drinks. If you do nothing else, will following these tips help you to save money?
Thanks for noticing! Yes, I really think those things make a big difference. At the same time, the advice to build a pantry is perhaps the most controversial idea in the book. The institutional assumption is that food-stamp recipients ought to buy the very cheapest foods, and ought essentially to live paycheck-to-paycheck. But that’s not good budgeting in the financial world, and it’s not good food budgeting. Saving up for a bottle of medium-quality olive oil every few months can really make a difference in your quality of life!
Why did you decide to release the PDF of the book, as well as your first cookbook (a vegetarian cookbook, called From Scratch) for free?
I made my first book, From Scratch, essentially for myself. Once it was complete, however, it didn’t really make sense for it to just sit around on my hard drive. The specific idea to make the books free ultimately came from Cory Doctorow, a science-fiction author who is one of the editors of the blog Boing Boing and a persuasive advocate for free culture. It’s pretty clear that giving the PDFs away for free is a great way to spread the word!
For Good and Cheap, it made even more sense for the book to be free — after all, it was designed for people who are already stretching every dollar to feed themselves. I didn’t want them to waste that money on a cookbook.
Were you surprised by the reaction to Good and Cheap?
Yes, positively floored. I certainly hoped that the book could be useful for some people, but there are thousands of books published every year, and mine isn’t even properly published; I never imagined that this many people would even hear about it! My favorite thing is waking up every morning to new emails from people who tell me how Good and Cheap is changing their life, or that it would have helped them in the past, or that it’s changing their approach to cooking. I can’t read too many at a time or I get really choked up.
Do you feel people are just aching to find and learn how to make, good, inexpensive, satisfying meals?
I guess they must be! And I think some people were just unaware that nice, modern dishes could be had for so little money, because the food movement doesn’t often talk about price. I’m happy to be able to help in my own small way.
Do you regularly make the meals found in Good and Cheap?
Heck yes! Last night I made the kale salad, and this morning I had berry oatmeal.
Why did you decide to create a Kickstarter campaign to fund printed copies of Good and Cheap? What do you think of the reaction to the campaign, which has raised almost $30,000, when you only wanted $10,000 initially?
At the end of April, someone posted a link to the draft version of Good and Cheap on Reddit. It received intense interest and was downloaded 90,000 times in just a week. That made me realize that this was something people really did want, but I felt it was particularly important to get the book to people who may not have access to a computer, or who may not be very internet-savvy. The people backing the campaign—at this point, more than a thousand of them!—clearly feel the same way.
The funds they’ve contributed are just spectacular, because they mean we can print a truly huge number of copies of the book. The initial $10,000 goal was really the minimum viable amount, but we were always hoping for much more, since a lot of that $10,000 goes to the one-time cost of setting up the printing press. With that cost behind us, each new pledge helps print a bunch more copies—some to give away for free, and some to sell to organizations dirt-cheap (about $4 per extra copy).
What recipes have people said they’ve liked the most from both Good and Cheap and From Scratch?
You know, there is no clear consensus winner, I am surprised to tell you. The variations on oatmeal and toast are both surprisingly popular, which is interesting, because you would never find those in a normal cookbook. A few years ago, when my friends got From Scratch, many of them said they really liked the chana masala. That’s a lot of the reason I included the chana masala in Good and Cheap as well—plus the fact that it’s so inexpensive! I’ve also heard a lot about the banana pancakes and the eggplant-and-tomato pasta. But people are drawn to a wide variety of the recipes. It just goes to show that there is no one best food or recipe—it’s all a matter of taste.
You’re a food studies scholar — from your viewpoint, what are the most important issues in the world of food right now?
Gosh, there are a lot, but they are all very interconnected. First off, the way that the vast majority of our food is produced is environmentally unsustainable. The distribution of our resources is also insane: there are about the same number of people on the planet who are starving as there are people with illnesses related to overconsumption, like diabetes or heart disease.
This is a bit selfish since home cooking is my pet issue, but I think so many things could be solved by a return to cooking for yourself. If everyone cooked from scratch, we could focus on growing more fruits and vegetables, grains for human consumption, and smaller numbers of animals for meat and dairy. We could promote farming practices that allow the land to heal instead of polluting the rivers and eroding the soil. It just takes an attitude shift about how we balance our time and what we value.
In North America, we have a really unhealthy relationship to food. We use it to reward and punish ourselves. And, like I said above, cooking isn’t taught in schools, so it is becoming a lost skill.
After Good and Cheap, what’s the next food subject for you to tackle?
I’d love to start a community-kitchen program, like a cooking library where people could have access to a central kitchen space and could borrow equipment as needed. I cook a lot, but even I only use my stand-mixer maybe once a week; why should it just sit there? A lot of occasional cooks can’t justify that kind of expense. It becomes a catch-22, because if you don’t have the right equipment, there are a lot of dishes you can’t easily make. Shared resources could really help draw some of those occasional cooks back into the fold.