Reading The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook by Erin Chase is the first time I’ve ever actually gotten angry from reading a cookbook. Chase claims to have spent five years living abroad, but the experience she conveys in The $5 Dinner Mom Coobook is that of a woman who has never mentally left the confines of suburban America. Her recipes, rather disappointing and rarely under $5, lack diversity and an understanding of what resources are available to a poor American. This book is clearly written for the middle-to-upper class suburban mom demographic. Anyone outside of that group will surely find this cookbook confusing, disappointing or just plain useless.
One way Chase’s suburban mentality exposes itself is that her recipes largely rely on resources that don’t exist in lower income neighborhoods. For example, in her “Greek Pasta Salad” recipe, Chase directs her readers to purchase “kalamata olives with Greek seasonings” from the olive bar at their local grocery store. Other recipes call for ingredients like “canned organic tomato sauce.” Obviously, Chase has never lived in a low-income American neighborhood, nor has she visited a supermarket in one, otherwise she would know that finding an olive bar or organic tomato sauce in a low-income supermarket is an impossible task indeed. As someone who once lived in such a neighborhood, I am safely saying this from experience. I never even knew what an olive bar was until I made my first trip to a supermarket in a rich neighborhood.
Another major complaint I have with The Under $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook is that the prices Chase uses to determine how much each meal costs are off. Very off. So off that I’d wager that few of these recipes truly are under $5. $1.36 for two avocadoes? Maybe in Texas, but not in the Northeast. Two cups of shredded Mozzarella cheese for $1.50? Perhaps in 1999 prices. Now readers may argue against these points by pointing to regional price variations, and that super-rare, high-value coupon that reduces the cost of Kraft shredded cheese to $1.50. These points, however, do not excuse other trickery Chase uses to keep her recipes under $5. For example, she relies on homegrown ingredients like “fresh tomatoes from the garden” or “fresh basil from the garden” because these are conveniently priced as “free” in her calculations. Even buying these ingredients cheap at a farmer’s market would put the recipe over $5. Once again, Chase is relying on the idea that everyone reading her cookbook lives the same comfortable suburban lifestyle where everyone has a yard, patio, or balcony to grow plants. More to the point, a cookbook aimed at a general audience should not rely on homegrown ingredients.
As for the recipes themselves, they’re disappointing and lack diversity. The Vegetarian Meals chapter is a perfect example of everything wrong with this cookbook. Let’s take a look at what Chase considers vegetarian cuisine. We’ll start with her BBQ Lentils recipe, which is essentially lentils cooked in bottled barbecue sauce. Or how about Potato Pizza Pie, which is a pizza made with a potato pancake crust. If Chase had ventured outside of the confines of middle-class Suburbia before she wrote this chapter, then she would have discovered the low-cost vegetarian wonders of Middle Eastern lentil dishes or Indian curries. Why torture your kids with lentils drowning in store-brand barbecue sauce when you could serve them Mujadara? Why make a potato pizza when potato curry is cheaper, healthier, and tastier? A wasted opportunity that will certainly reinforce unfair beliefs that vegetarian cuisine is strange and gross.
Additionally, Chase has a strange propensity for including fruit in recipes where they aren’t unnecessary. The weirdest example that I can point to is her Mediterranean Pizza recipe that calls for serving sliced apples as a side dish. I can respect Chase’s effort to create a balanced meal, but serving apples as a side dish to pizza is really stretching it. There are ways to eat healthy diet that don’t rely on unpalatable flavor combinations. People can get their daily fruit servings in other, more appropriate meals.
In the introduction, Chase claims that she spent five years living in the Dominican Republic, which makes all of the problems of The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook even more baffling. After spending so much time in an impoverished county with its own unique cuisine, she squandered an excellent opportunity to introduce Americans to some creative, low-cost ethnic food. Instead, we got pizza with apples and BBQ Lentils. Sad.