Review: Eating Cheap Without Eating Poorly, The Poorcraft Cookbook

The Poorcraft Cookbook
By Nero Villagallos O’Reilly
Iron Circus Comics

If there’s one thing old people know it’s that young people are dumb. Selective amnesia makes each generation’s youth-haters forget they were likewise labeled as ignoramuses in their day. Yet the current olds persist in bashing the kids for their love of Tide pods spread over avocado toast, and their complete inability to operate rotary phones.

The perception of blanket idiocy extends to homemaking skills. The world’s scolds make themselves feel smarter by shaming those who lack knowledge; as if knowing how to sew a button, change a sink trap, or iron a shirt is inborn rather than learned. Indispensable yet unrewarded, homemaking skills are indeed something everyone should have. But in defense of the yutes, such skills have become difficult to acquire as roles change, technology intervenes, and capitalism has its way.

Surprise, society’s to blame. Long considered women’s work, homemaking skills were once handed down from mother to daughter in a gendered generational train of domestic slavery. As the Little House books well-illustrated, however, there was naught else to do on the prairie. Pragmatically speaking, housekeeping skills were also passed on because if you didn’t know how to keep house, everyone died—and horribly.

In the late 19th century, formalized education in the science of homemaking—dubbed home economics, or home ec for short—took hold. Running a household—cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, hygiene, sewing, budgeting, and basic maintenance—was taught as part of the middle or high school curricula. But in time, home ec classes were sheared from many school budgets, viewed as chauvinistic relics or defunded in favor of politically popular courses in STEM and the industrial arts. Throughout the 20th century, food acquisition became easier and disposability became the norm, eliminating the need to keep a house in the classic sense. Thus, a homemaking hole was left behind for older generations to mock as a moral/intellectual shortcoming rather than society’s failure to impart wisdom. 

Holes fill. Scolds and courses were replaced with earnest and skilled individuals eager to share their knowledge and make more happy homemakers. Video-sharing platforms, blogs, and social media sites conduct billions of easy-to-follow domestic tutorials. Virtual cooking classes and meal kit services provide ingredients and low-pressure instruction in creating delicious/nutritious meals. Finally, educational comics neatly combine words and pictures to teach lessons in cooking, repairs, and self-care. 

Food comic/cookbooks have experienced an upswing, with titles like Let’s Make Dumplings! and Let’s Make Ramen!, Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts, Lucy Knisley’s Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, and for those who like to combine cuisine with immortal mercenaries, Cooking with Deadpool. Iron Circus Comics, which, two years ago, published Meal, a graphic novel about the benefits of bug-eating, has a new entry with The Poorcraft Cookbook.

As the title suggests, Poorcraft isn’t about preparing fancy meals or setting up a haute-cuisine kitchen. Cooking basics are stressed. Never mind knowing how to slice the poison from a puffer fish. Where does one learn how to properly chop vegetables, find fresh produce, or simply save money and time  on food prep? Poorcraft provides; and in fairly adorable circumstances.

Poorcraft’s characters Penny and Milli are a classic comic strip duo. Ever-ready brunette Penny is never at a loss to provide a lesson in kitchen science to our surrogate Milli, a culinarily uninformed rather than dumb blonde. Penny is an earth mother in a kerchief; the black-haired yin to Milli’s Veronica Lake peek-a-boo haircut yang. She serves as the perfect guide, knowing her stuff without editorializing or pushing dietary quackery. For the first 75 pages, Penny walks Milli through the whys and wherefores of shopping, cleaning, cooking, and other kitchen specifics. Milli is an empty vessel, hesitant but ready to absorb Penny’s gastronomic/economic knowledge so she can eat up and get to work on time. 

The book thankfully avoids the usual Mickey Mouse/Goofy dynamic of sage and blithering idiot. Milli is more scattered and stressed than dimwitted. She’s first seen returning from an inexplicable four-hour(!) visit to the store for three(!!) bags of groceries. She may not know enough not to soak her cast iron pans or prevent her dish sponge from festering  into an E. coli breeding ground (both to Penny’s chagrin), but she’s willing to learn. 

And Penny is ready to teach her, and us, about homemaking folkways. We learn the difference between expiration and sell-by dates. Where to shop for food besides the big chain and box stores. Why dollar stores are good sources of low-priced grub (but not everything—Penny hilariously grimaces when Milli suggests buying dollar-store meat). Tools and utensils every kitchen needs. Buying staples like beans, rice, flour, salt, and pepper in bulk. Defrosting a freezer and where precisely everything goes in the fridge. Et cetera. No off-the-grid lunacy about all-meat diets or starting a victory garden fertilized by your own excrement. Just good, solid, real-world advice. 

Writer/artist Nero Villagallos O’Reilly’s artwork is an adorable medley of early cartoons, anime, and the internet. Main characters Penny and Milli are simply drawn, but the backdrops are well-defined. The art doesn’t skimp on portraying gear—pots, pans, knives, bowls, and such—either; a necessity for an instruction manual. While static, the comics format can provide better better instruction than the non-illuminated text of a cookbook. The “camera” moves, granting the side-by-side and over-the-shoulder perspective necessary to any cooking lesson, along with the gentle instruction of a teacher who’s available without actually being present, or real for that matter.

The tips are handy, but what about the recipes making up the last three-quarters of the book? They’re rudimentary and easily made with little chance of starvation, burning, or tears. Most suit the post-collegiate bachelor/bachelorette repertoire and palate. Honest meals pulled together from simple ingredients, whipped up in an hour, half hour, or less. You’ll find foundational recipes here for homemade tortillas, basic bread, pizza dough, and such like before moving on to instructions with more ingredients and steps. Yet even these are easy enough, and interesting besides. Saving money doesn’t require a Spartan diet.

Who is the Poorcraft Cookbook for? The jacket copy says it’s for folks experiencing “new and independent living, a recent college graduate, or just downshifting to a simpler lifestyle.” Clearly, though the comic format is likelier to appeal to young hip comic-readers, it’s easily consumed (pun unashamedly intended) by anyone. Frugality motivates Penny and Milli, but one of the bigger ideas explored is time, described by Penny as “the most expensive ingredient.”

Early on Milli expresses the common dilemma of trying to eat well before racing off to work. This leads Penny to show her how to prepare a bowl of tamago kake gohan—rice, raw egg, onions, and broth—as a rapid meal. Notably, Penny has no visible means of support. Mayhap, Penny has a trust fund, or is so penny-wise, she doesn’t need to work any more and spends her days obsessively cooking meals for the entire week, and containing them in sealable bins and recycled spaghetti sauce jars. Clearly, Penny is one of those admirable yet irritating individuals ordained by the household gods and blessed with having her shit together. One gets the impression Penny does nothing but beautifully prepare food all day—an utter eidolon for those of us who consider not ordering out every night and successfully boiling an egg a personal victory. But despite Penny’s irksome but genial perfection, The Poorcraft Cookbook doesn’t promise to be a cure-all. Just an enjoyable guide to better, smarter, and cheaper eating.

The Poorcraft Cookbook is available through Iron Circus Comics.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.