Before she became a YouTube celebrity, food blogger and author of The Working Class Foodies’ Cookbook, Rebecca Lando was simply a hungry person on a budget who balked at the prospect of “survival eating”–just getting by with the convenience food or cheap boxed options that so many turn to. Lando and her boyfriend-cinematographer Kit were living in an Upper East Side apartment they could barely afford when they decided to document their attempts to eat well on limited incomes by shopping at local farmers’ markets and avoiding the depressing and expensive supermarket food that surrounded them. “We started taping what we cooked, at first just as a way to archive the recipes,” Lando says. “But then we edited what we had and they became sort of episodes.”
Soon, they realized they had a show on their hands, one proving that farmer’s markets were not just for rich yuppies, and that people on tight budgets could indeed afford good quality, locally and sustainably grown food in those markets. Lando says that’s when the name “Working Class Foodies” came to them. “Yes! You can eat well on a tight budget–and still care about your health and the environment too!” she recalls realizing.
Creating a cookbook that would showcase the flexible, frugal menu style Lando is known for was always in the back of her mind, but she says she didn’t know how to make that happen. In a moment of serendipity, the Working Class Foodies show (then playing on NY1, New York’s nonstop news channel) was spotted by an editor at Gotham Books, who then approached Lando about doing a cookbook.
Lando says that the intense eight months she spent creating the book was “a lot of work”–and a different kind of hard work from producing her own YouTube show. “I’m not a trained chef. Not a culinary school graduate,” she stresses. “My experience is: I AM HUNGRY and I don’t have money to go to a restaurant!” She wasn’t used to measuring things out or writing her recipes down, and so she learned a lot and “became a much better cook in the process.” She says she tried to think about how to approach shopping and cooking “from the point of view of a college student or a young mother who wants to eat more healthily and shop at farmer’s market but get the most for the money–what would I want to know?”
Her answer, in part, was to make a basic item–such as homemade ricotta–then “follow it up with four other things you can do with that ricotta. I encourage people to think in terms of everything you buy, how can it be used not for just one dish, but how many additional uses can you take from it?” This mentality encourages less food waste, and is better for the budget and for the environment.
Though she doesn’t focus directly on the environmental impact of her practices on her show, blog or book, Lando happily acknowledges such indirect benefits of the approach she teaches. “That’s something I’ve personally struggled with in the show or online–I don’t want to be preachy because people stop listening–so I put it more in terms of how to put your money to best use.” Buying quality locally grown produce and meats from those who use sustainable practices is better for the person’s budget and the planet, she reasons. “So I sneak an environmental message in without being an activist.” The recent grim economic climate has made her frugal menu spin both timely and welcome. And though Lando feels that it’s an unfortunate thing to capitalize on, she also feels like her message of “here’s how to be thrifty–which is good for you and for the world” makes the most of a bad situation.
But Lando’s central desire is to help people feel at home in their own kitchens, empowered to tackle recipes and put their own personal stamp on them. One of the most common mistakes new cooks make is simply not trusting themselves, she says. “New cooks have a hard time at first feeling like it’s something that they can own.” For her, the most inspiring and unexpected consequence resulting from writing this cookbook is that she’s helped people feel more confident in the kitchen. “I think that it’s very humbling to be able to reach people,” she says. “I haven’t put in the years as a chef or in culinary school,” Lando points out. “But I am really excited about the message I think I can deliver: That you don’t need those credentials to be able to cook well for yourself, your family and your friends.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. When she isn’t reading, writing, or teaching, she enjoys dreaming up new recipes, some of which she enters into cooking competitions, and all of which she tries out on her husband and two daughters. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.