I thought this cookbook written for the poor would be offensive. It’s not. It’s fabulous

I am such a critic. So when I read about a New York University graduate student writing a cookbook designed for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients, I was ready to start stripping it down before I even clicked on the link for the book. I was already thinking, What kind of condescending, graduate school tripe has someone put out there now?

I’ve done my time as a poor single mom. Everyone and their brother thinks they know how poor people should think and act; and everyone has advice. Like one time, someone gave me a book on economizing to survive tough times. It wasn’t intended as a humorous book, but I laughed all the way through it.

It advised cutting out things like expensive haircuts and coffees. My idea of a haircut is hanging my head upside down over the trash can and cutting. I don’t drink coffee, and I make my tea weak and at home to maximize the life of each teabag and minimize the cost of each cup of tea. I ended up giving the book to another struggling single mother who also reported laughing all the way through it.

I was expecting the food version of that book from Leanne Brown, author of “Eat Well on $4/Day: Good and Cheap,” but it’s anything but that. Rather than condescending, Brown begins by acknowledging the challenges and the inhumanity of trying to survive on an average SNAP benefit of $126 a month. She writes about actually working with folks receiving SNAP benefits and about how this book was born from that experience.

Broccoli, egg, and cheddar empanadas from Leanne Brown's cookbook.

Broccoli, egg, and cheddar empanadas from Leanne Brown’s cookbook.

And, bless her non-condescending soul, she acknowledges her book is not an end all to save all. Her introduction talks about each family having unique needs and dietary constraints that may not be met by this one cookbook, but she offers it as a starting point. She points out that getting comfortable with cooking, with pricing ingredients, etc., is where nutritional empowerment begins.

For example, I’m allergic to eggs, perhaps one of the most affordable, nutritious foods. Major bummer, trust me! I have an expensive egg replacer I use when I am baking because it provides the necessary starch for baked goods. It is not a filler or protein source for other types of cooking, however, so I’d have to experiment with its applications in some of Brown’s recipes. Deviled eggs are out, though — that’s a given!

Also, parents of children with other allergies and parents of children who have sensory issues around food would have to pick and choose recipes from her selection. The amazing thing is, Brown offers enough recipes that families with a variety of needs COULD pick and choose and/or modify her suggestions.

Anyone of any income would benefit from her information about spices and basic cooking processes like making a roux, working with dried beans, or cooking rice. Her instructions are simple and presented in down-to-earth, everyday prose. She draws her ideas from cultures around the world and the pictures provided look gourmet, not ghetto.

The best part is, Brown wrote the book initially as a project for her graduate studies and has been distributing it for free! When it’s first edition had over 100,000 hits in a few weeks, she started a campaign for funding for print editions to be distributed to people who may not have access to the online addition. Like the online edition, the print copies are also available, free.

When it comes to Brown, her motivations, and her cookbook, I just can’t find anything to be bitter about. More than just offering us recipes, Brown sets a stellar example of how to effect social change. Instead of just studying a problem from a distance, she brings her expertise to the people in a very hands-on, practical way.

And now that I’m done critiquing, it’s time to try a recipe this weekend. I have my eye on the Savory Summer Cobbler, page 110.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.