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Annette John-Hall: A timely book on eating cheaply and healthily from Philadelphia's "Dollar Diva"

I made a quick run to the dollar store to pick up some last-minute Christmas decorations the other day.

Elizabeth Fisher and her new cookbook, 'Dining With the Dollar Diva,' at a Dollar Tree store on City Avenue. (Clem Murray/Staff)
Elizabeth Fisher and her new cookbook, 'Dining With the Dollar Diva,' at a Dollar Tree store on City Avenue. (Clem Murray/Staff)Read more

I made a quick run to the dollar store to pick up some last-minute Christmas decorations the other day.

Or so I thought. Discount shopping? For sure. Quick run? Not so much.

The place was full of the usual shoppers buying traditional dollar-store items - you know, stuff like greeting cards, cleaning supplies and toiletries.

But what surprised me was that instead of going to conventional toy stores, some folks were doing their Christmas shopping right there, at the dollar store.

I'm talking carts full of games, puzzles, dolls, and coloring books. The checkout line looked like Toys R Us during crunch time.

And here I was thinking of the dollar store as an afterthought, not as a go-to haven for all of us who could use change back from our $5 bills.

Well, unlike me, Elizabeth Fisher never slept on a bargain. Growing up as one of five kids in Conshohocken, she'd scrounge Main Line thrift shops, where the well-to-dos' castoffs would become her treasures.

"My friends used to make fun of me all the time, but it was OK," Fisher says. "Those places were like my Neiman Marcus."

Whether it was clothes or items for the house, Fisher had a knack for making her things "frugally fly," as her friend Sheila Vance describes.

She uses the same concept when she cooks, turning inexpensive ingredients into gourmet meals. Which she's turned into a cookbook, Dining With the Dollar Diva: Divalicious Menus With Ingredients Costing $1 or Less. Its title is pretty much self-explanatory.

I don't have to tell you how hunger has reached epidemic proportions in Philadelphia. Healthy food is an essential but costly necessity, one that more and more people can't afford. Which is why Fisher's cookbook comes right on time.

After test-marketing her book, Dollar Tree stores, which she frequented long before writing a book, bought 54,000 copies to sell for - you guessed it - just $1. They're being stocked in stores now.

For a book that retails for $15.95, it's definitely a victory for the cost-conscious consumer and a promotional coup for Vance, her Paoli-based publisher.

For Fisher, 56, it's a dream come true. After all, what first-time author can boast of scoring an initial run of 54,000 books?

Living economically

Dining With the Dollar Diva came out of practicality. Like many women in her age group, Fisher takes care of her mother, 88.

"A lot of my mother's things, like toiletries, I could pick up at the Dollar Tree," says Fisher, a gregarious single woman with a 30-year-old son.

One day, she bought some colorful placemats and glasses - but decided to pick up some food items, too, which she combined with ground meat and veggies that were in her mother's fridge.

"As I'm in there cooking, I'm thinking, 'This tastes good and it's really pretty,' " says Fisher. "With everything, it came to about $10 for both of us."

Some dollar stores sell meat and vegetables, but many don't. Which is why Fisher's menus include fresh ingredients that she recommends buying at farmers' markets or on the sale aisles in discount supermarkets like Aldi.

But the most important thing is constant: All the ingredients "are $1 or less," she insists.

Each recipe tells a heartwarming story related to Fisher's life.

For instance, her favorite main-course meal of Salisbury steak, creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, and tea biscuits pays homage to family sojourns to the old Horn & Hardart Automats in West Philly, those giant vending machines where you'd pull the food out of the glass mail slots.

There are also simple, but tasty, recipes for appetizers, main courses and desserts. (How does Fisher love canned biscuits? Let her count the ways.)

Vance has tested most of Fisher's recipes. Her favorite is the creme brûlée, which doesn't call for biscuits but does include ingredients that all can be bought at a dollar store.

"It's fabulous," says Vance, who would love to see her childhood friend follow up with a book on frugal decorating tips.

Fisher doesn't, uh, discount the idea. But for now, she's just happy that "this book may be able to help somebody. . . .

"I'm grateful."