BOOK REVIEW/ Heather Seggel

Creative Cuisine on Food Stamps

Food stamps inspire a lot of alarm in people for reasons that escape me. Republicans propose cuts to the program using ugly rhetoric about takers, and lefties take the bait and overstate the threats (recent reports that Wisconsin residents would be prohibited from using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy dried beans turned out to be exaggerated). I mentioned that I’m currently a recipient in casual conversation with a guy recently, only to have him huff, “That’s why I work.” I work, too, sir, I just don’t earn a living wage; not long ago I was holding two jobs but my food budget was $95 per month, which definitely inspired a lot of creativity with ramen. Leanne Brown developed Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day [Workman Publishing, 190 pages, $16.95] to enable anyone to eat well on the $4 a day the average SNAP user is given to live on, but she clears that bar handily; this book is a godsend for anyone new to the kitchen.

Brown created this book originally as part of a master’s degree in food studies. The PDF she created and gave away (800,000 downloads and counting) led to a Kickstarter drive to fund a print version. That sold out, and many of the contributors donated to ensure people who needed copies could get them at no charge. This edition from Workman Publishing has several new recipes, and for every copy purchased a copy will be donated via food banks and other low-income outreach services. All well and good, but when do we eat?

Good and Cheap suggests easy substitutions to meet your budget and dietary needs; its all-purpose approach can easily be made vegan, gluten-free, or whatever your personal kink is. It emphasizes fresh produce but includes meat and dairy, and there are ideas about how to build a pantry, which pricier foods are worth the investment, and a slew of Cooking 101-style recipes. If you didn’t know how to make basic tomato sauce, roast a chicken, or make ricotta cheese, this will arm you with the basic techniques as well as the confidence to make them your own.

Students who often need to grab a quick bite between classes will find suggestions for “Things on Toast” (like salty broccoli and leftover black-eyed peas and collard greens) and “Stuff on Hot Dogs” (homemade salsa, quick-pickled cucumber slices) that take ordinary, inexpensive food and bump up the flavor and presentation. It’s easy to be discouraged by a fridge full of wilted vegetables, but learning how to incorporate them into a soup or crustless quiche means taking better care of yourself is within reach. Ideas for dressing up oatmeal and popcorn help keep cheap staple foods from getting boring, but there are also dishes worthy of a dinner party, like barley risotto with peas, a “deconstructed” cabbage roll casserole, and beef stroganoff. Some colorful smoothies and rich desserts round things out nicely.

Possibly the best thing about this book is that it offers so many fun ideas and tweaks to dishes you may already be familiar with. I had shopped to make my usual starving student version of red beans and rice, but a few last minute additions turned it into an unorthodox but delicious pot of vegetable jambalaya that lasted all week. I will never flip past a recipe for noodle salad and not be spurred to make my own sesame noodles as soon as possible; the “Cold (and Spicy?) Asian Noodles” here were no exception. The taco salad lends itself to ingredients you’re likely to have on hand, making it a great last-minute lunch choice (or a killer dinner with visual pop when made with soy chorizo and blue corn chips).

If you’re curious about the original project, the PDF is still available as a free download at But the book would make an outstanding back-to-school gift, a valuable resource for a senior living alone, or a thoughtful offering to someone simply trying to save money. I have been a SNAP recipient a few times in my life, but regardless of how many hours I’ve worked I have always income-qualified for benefits, which means there has never been a time when this information wasn’t useful to me. I can promise you I’m not alone in that. Good and Cheap offers readers the tools to eat well and live within their means; it’s upbeat and inspiring and well worth your time.

Heather Seggel is a freelance writer currently between addresses in Sonoma County, Calif. She looks forward to finding permanent housing and buying a toaster oven to make the jalapeño-cheddar scones in Brown’s book.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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