Last night, Town Hall hosted Jonathan Franzen in their upstairs Great Hall. You can tell a Franzen crowd from three blocks away — lots of corduroy jackets and elbow patches. That woman yelling at the parking lot attendant because it’ll cost her $8 to park her fancy car in the lot behind Town Hall? Total Franzen person. The miserable-looking bald man in a suit dragging his wife up the sidewalk as she staggers behind him in her too-high heels? Yeah, they’re Franzen people.
Meanwhile, Town Hall’s downstairs venue hosted the exact opposite of the Franzen crowd: smaller, less homogenous, varied in age and clothing and financial background. Maybe the one defining trait I’d give to the room was that, unlike the Franzen crowd upstairs, nobody downstairs at Town Hall was likely to have recently yelled at a minimum-wage employee. Hell, most of them likely were minimum-wage employees, or something close to it.
It’s so easy to give away stuff for free on the internet, you guys.”
Upstairs, Franzen spoke of Purity. Downstairs, a young author named Leanne Brown talked with Seattle Times food writer Rebekah Denn about her cookbook, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day. Only one of those authors has changed the world for the better in the last year-and-a-half, and it’s not the one preaching Serious Literature to the elbow patches.
Brown came up with the idea for Good and Cheap as her graduate school food studies thesis. As a Canadian, Brown was shocked to learn that more than 47 million Americans are on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and other assistance services colloquially known as food stamps. She created the book to be a resource for people on food assistance — to help them cook healthy meals, primarily from fresh ingredients, on a budget of no more than $4 a day. From vegetable jambalaya to salads to oatmeal to fresh pasta, her recipes are mostly vegetarian — meat is expensive — and all are easy enough for first-time cooks to adjust based on the contents of their pantries.
Brown explained that she originally wanted to title her book The SNAP Cookbook, but she quickly learned that most Americans don’t know what SNAP is. So she considered calling it The Food Stamp Cookbook, but she realized that didn’t sound very appetizing; the name evoked images of Spam-based recipes and turgid, oily casseroles, which was exactly the kind of thing she was trying to fight against. So she went the truth-in-advertising route and settled on Good and Cheap.
Once she had compiled what became the first edition of Good and Cheap, Brown uploaded the cookbook to her website and offered it as a free .PDF download. She didn’t really think about it again until Reddit discovered the cookbook and turned it into a viral sensation, with thousands of downloads in a matter of days. (“It’s so easy to give away stuff for free on the internet, you guys,” Brown exclaimed to the crowd last night.) This was last summer, and the momentum hasn’t really stopped since.
As much as they loved the book as a free digital download, people kept asking for hard copies. This made sense to Brown; not everyone has access to a computer or the internet, and it’s tough to cook off a screen. So Brown and her husband established a Kickstarter with the modest goal of $10,000. The idea was that for every physical copy of the book sold to Kickstarter supporters, Brown would donate another copy to a nonprofit that feeds the hungry. She hoped to give away a few hundred copies of the book. But within 36 hours, Good and Cheap had already blown past its goal; the book went on to raise almost $150,000, which easily made it the most popular cookbook project in Kickstarter history.
Workman Publishing took up the Good and Cheap cause, printing an expanded second edition of the book — it’s now a bestseller — and supporting Brown’s buy-one-give-one policy. To date, almost 15,000 copies of the book have been given to people in need thanks to nonprofits in 49 states, and many thousands more have been sold at cost to nonprofits working with poor and hungry people. (The PDF is still available for free and has been downloaded some 800,000 times.) The “Impact” page of Brown’s site lists a number of Seattle-area nonprofits that have given copies of Good and Cheap to families who need them, including Northwest Harvest, Pike Place Market Foundation, Seattle Goodwill Industries, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, and YMCA of Greater Seattle.
All this charity would be useless if the book wasn’t useful. Happily, Good and Cheap is possibly the best how-to-cook cookbook I’ve read since Mark Bittman’s essential How to Cook Everything. Brown doesn’t just tell her readers how to cook recipes her way, she teaches them how to improvise with the ingredients they have on hand. She explains so many basic topics that other cookbooks leave out — a good primer on what a well-stocked pantry should contain, a helpful graph of what produce is in season at which time of year — that Good and Cheap should be a textbook for kids heading off to college. Denn praised Brown for including a chapter of “Things on Toast” — peas and lemon, onions and cheddar — because most cookbooks wouldn’t deign to include something so simple.
Brown still puts a lot of thought into the book as a work in progress, and it’s clear that she understands she’s working from a place of privilege. Onstage, she agonized over her claims in this passage of the book: “More expensive eggs are usually worth the money—they taste so much better than cheap eggs. Even at $4 a dozen, you’re still only paying 33 cents an egg. Really fresh eggs, like those from a farmers’ market, also make a big difference in flavor.” She believes what she wrote, but she doesn’t want expensive eggs to be a barrier for someone considering one of her egg-based recipes; she assured everyone in the room that cheap eggs were better than none. She expressed disgust that some people have referred to Good and Cheap as the “four dollar diet book.” Eating on a budget of “four dollars a day is not something I’d ever encourage,” she said. But still, “it’s a reality for so many people.”
After years of working with food — Brown gave tours of grocery stores to poor and immigrant populations in New York City — she has plenty of opinions about what we're willing to eat. “Cereal’s a total rip-off,” she advised the crowd last night. “Oatmeal’s a much better bang for your buck.” She also knocked “flavorless” jarred pasta sauce, saying it’s almost as easy to crush some garlic and simmer some tomatoes. When Denn said Brown inspired her to whip up an improvised Indian dish from some cans she found in her pantry the night before, Brown seemed genuinely enthused to hear it. “Go team chick peas,” she said.
At the end of the evening Denn asked Brown what she’s working on next, and Brown seemed genuinely flummoxed by the question. She said she wanted to collect the stories she’d been hearing from poor people all around the country somehow, to make these stories public. In so doing, maybe she could remove some of the stigma of being on public assistance.
“I hate that this is a secret shame for people,” she said, “that being hungry is a mark of shame or a sign that you’re a bad person.” Brown said she talked to a Seattleite months ago who thought food stamps should be considered “a badge of honor.” If you’re able to shop and cook nutritious meals for a family on those limited resources while doing everything else it takes to survive on a low income? Brown said there should be no stigma for someone who provides for their family in that kind of a situation. “That’s badass.”
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant