Book Chat: The Hunger Games

— by Hannah Lee

The next frontier for the savvy and hip gourmet, following up on farm-to-table locavorism, is to source your own food, through foraging and/or hunting.  A timely guidebook for such culinary adventures is The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines, the ultimate in fan tribute to the wildly popular trilogy on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and now made into a film of the same name.

More after the jump.
Baines is a chef and baker as well as one who’d studied creative writing at the University of Southern California with novelists and short-story writers Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle.  She was working as an in-house caterer for a post-production sound company in New York — creating new recipes daily — while reading Collins’ books in her leisure and delighting in the refreshing character of Katniss Everdeen, a fierce, resourceful heroine so diametrically different from another protagonist of current young-adult fiction fame, Bella Swan, the clumsy and passive heroine of the Twilight Saga.  Katniss is an inspiring role model, one who thrives under severe circumstances and who cannot be hurried into love by two different male heartthrobs.

The resulting cookbook pays tribute to the characters and settings of the trilogy, with more than 150 recipes for both the spare, survivalist fare of the residents of the 12 districts as well as the decadent cuisine of the denizens of the Capitol.  There is a chapter on wild game and an appendix of edible wild plants, such as might appear in Katniss’s Family Herb book (from the second book, Catching Fire), including burdock, chickweed, evening primrose, and thistle.  Caution: the poetical recipe titles and descriptive explanations (with source citations) would prove to be spoilers, if one has not read all three books.

A nifty “Tips from Your Sponsor” insert for each recipe shows the author’s professional training, giving helpful advice as such using dental floss to cut sticky cinnamon buns and wetting one’s hands before shaping balls of cookie dough.  She notes that homemade whipped cream will not be stiff as what is sold in spray cans.  These box inserts provide scientific explanations, substitutions, and historical notes (beans were used in casting votes in ancient Greece and Rome, with white bean to indicate “yes” and black beans for “no”).  Medicinal uses are included, such as steeping pine needles for a tea as a cold or flu remedy and basil as mosquito repellant.  
One big caveat is that the author does not list market information for the unusual ingredients not found at your local Acme or even Whole Foods.  For her research, she relied on friends who do hunt, so she was able to add four squirrel recipes in her book, including Mr. Mellark’s favorite, fried squirrel.

This book was thoroughly engrossing.  It has recipes for both the novice cook as well as the adventuresome gourmet.  The chapters on wild game and foraged weeds could prove useful for Scout troops in search of fun projects for wilderness survival badges.   Book club youths may prefer the more familiar baking projects.  Note: most of the recipes are not kosher, but a savvy reader can easily identify (and substitute) the ones suitable for a kosher kitchen.  There are even some recipes using quinoa and yucca that would be suitable for Pesach (Passover).  So, if you’re a fan who hankers to try Katniss’s favorite lamb stew with dried plums, Peeta’s cheese buns, or Prim’s peppermint candies, this cookbook is for you.

Film Chat: The Hunger Games

— Hannah Lee

“The Hunger Games” opened this weekend to robust ticket sales, taking in a record $155 million in North America, according to The New York Times. The film and the book of the same name is about a dystopian future society, Panem, that arose after North America had been destroyed. Panem is governed autocratically from the Capitol, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. After a failed revolt some 74 years ago, the remaining 12 outlying districts are controlled by starvation rations and a cruel annual selection — the reaping — of one boy and one girl from each district to compete for their life in a televised survival competition called the Hunger Games. Beyond natural selection, they are subjected to man-made disasters — fire, creatures engineered to be more lethal, and artificially altered weather — as well as armed violence from the other contenders, the tributes, until only one survivor remains.

More after the jump.
The movie was thoughtfully done, but fans would notice some omissions and telescoping. The author, Suzanne Collins, was listed as a producer, so it was with her approval. Still, it would be hard to understand everything if one had not read the book. For instance, the first interaction of the protagonists, the two tributes assigned to represent District 12, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, was supposed to be when they were 11 — five years ago — and her family was starving after the death of her father and while her mother was subsumed by grief. A baker’s son, Peeta, intentionally burnt some loaves of bread and he was angrily instructed to throw them out to the pigs. He threw them to Katniss, whom he knew was hiding by the pen. The flashback was quick (as were all of them) and the viewer would not know the debt that Katniss felt she owed to Peeta, for giving her hope, especially since she then spied the first dandelion of the season and she realized she can forage for her family, and later hunt for them. A nice added touch in the movie was when Peeta later told Katniss that he regretted throwing the bread, instead of walking outside in the heavy rain to give them to her personally (but we knew he was in trouble with his mother already). The two young lead actors were superb in their roles — Jennifer Lawrence as the flinty Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as the sensitive Peeta.

The movie added some foreshadowing from the second book, Catching Fire, such as a rebellion in reaction to Katniss’s tender farewell to the dying Rue of District 11 (who reminded her of her younger sister, Primrose — whom Katniss had volunteered to replace in an unprecedented act of self-sacrifice — but this allusion was left out of the movie). A clever addition was the punishment for the Gamemaster, Seneca Crane, in which he was escorted to a locked room in which he finds a bowlful of the poisonous berries that were recognized as Katniss’s rebellion.

Fans of the books may denounce parts of the movie, such as Katniss appearing beautiful and well-kept, so the transformation in the Capitol did not make sense. They may deplore the contrast of Katniss in a sleek leather jacket (it was her father’s in the book) and well-made boots to her neighbors in District 12 who were dowdily dressed in Depression-era garb. I would argue that it was a testament to her skill as a hunter that she did not look starved. Her Games costumes at the Capitol, designed by Judianna Makovsky (who also designed for “The Last Airbender” and  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) were delightful and artfully impressed the Panem audience as the “Girl on Fire, ” an unusual and colorful representation of her coal-mining district.

Another caveat is the decision of the director, Gary Ross, to soften Katniss’s character, making her less obstinate and cynical, more likeable but less unique. Coming on the heels of the culmination of the Harry Potter series, Katniss is a fierce heroine who stands apart from the intellectual Hermione Granger. Before serving as tribute for her district, Katniss had to fight for her family’s survival. Starvation is a lonely, quiet battle, but probably no less terrifying than the adrenaline-inducing attacks by tributes wielding sharp weapons.

The Capitol denizens were depicted as ridiculous (with gaudy colorations and body decorations) and morally tone-deaf to the life-and-death situation of the Hunger Games, which they enjoy as entertainment and which they accept as rightful public policy to suppress future rebellion. A shout-out to the spot-on performance by Stanley Tucci as Games host, Caesar Flickerman, one of the two Capitol residents with kind words for Katniss (and broadcast to the entire country!). The other character, Cinna, alas, was reduced to being a less frivolous leader of her styling team.

“The Hunger Games” is a fine dramatization of the first book of Collins’ trilogy (four films are planned). The PG-13 rating meant that some violence was omitted and what is left is mostly obliquely shown or in blurry detail. Younger fans of the book could be taken along, if their parents accompany them in attendance. However, I would not advise bringing younger siblings who have not read the books.