Like many other parents of teenage girls, I not only watched my daughter tear through “The Hunger Games” trilogy this spring, I picked up each book as she finished it and devoured it myself.
Devour is the appropriate word.
Suzanne Collins’ young adult novels are about love and violence in a post-apocalyptic future, where the decimated population of North America struggles under the yoke of a totalitarian regime to end all totalitarian regimes. But these books are also about food. Food both foraged and crafted, food withheld from some and lavished on others, food as the agent of control and as the foundation of community.
This fact wasn’t lost on many bloggers and writers, who have engaged in “Hunger Games” tribute cookery with a zeal they usually reserve for cupcakes. Some have turned to “The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook: From Lamb Stew to ‘Groosling’ — More than 150 Recipes Inspired by The Hunger Games Trilogy, ” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Medina, $19.95). Groosling? It’s a game bird, and if you shoot it from the sky and roast it over an open fire, it may keep you from starving.
But many more ingenious cooks throughout the land have devised their own recipes. There has been a frenzy of baking as fans attempt to reproduce the speciality breads of each of the 13 districts of this future dystopia, called Panem. Should District 4’s seaweed bread be made with crumbled nori, shredded kelp or simply green food coloring? It’s a raging debate.
Why do readers care so about what the characters of these books eat? That’s the more interesting question.
The food in this extended narrative spans all of human experience, from the meanest subsistence diet — rats, grubs — to the most decadent feasts imaginable, served at parties complete with a vomit-inducing cocktail that permits the guests to stuff themselves anew. (Spoilers ensue: This would be a good place to turn to another article if you’re planning to read the books or wait for the movie sequels.)
As the story begins, our teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is a crack forager and hunter who supplements the meager starvation rations of her district with wild strawberries, squirrel and the occasional hapless dog. She is the ultimate locavore, a country rube who lives off the land, unaware of any notion of gustatory sophistication. Her modest diet offers only the barest of pleasures.
That changes overnight. Katniss soon finds herself on a train, hurtling toward the Capitol, to participate as a tribute in the Hunger Games — a fight-to-the-death competition among children selected from each district. There, she discovers fresh oranges, chocolate cake, breakfast pastries. Glories beyond imagination.
Once in the Capitol, seat of the brutal totalitarian government and home to a decadent, frenzied consumerist society, Katniss encounters gourmet cooking. She balks at the wanton waste, thinking of the starving children everywhere outside the Capitol, but she thrills to the parade of new flavors.
During the week before the start of the games, Katniss moves from banquet to buffet to futuristic all-hours food console in her room. Collins describes Capitol gastronomy as a kind of mashup of echt-Food Network fancy and Ottoman court excess. The flavor of lamb stew with dried plums entrances her; she has never eaten anything so delicious. (This passage alone has motivated food bloggers throughout America to force down murky Crock Pot concoctions of Sun-Maid prunes and lamb chuck.)
But when the games start, Katniss (whose name is that of an edible wild plant) goes back to survival mode. Forget chocolate cake, she has to ration crusts of stale bread and bits of greasy groosling haunch if she is to keep her wits about her and not get killed.
(Once again, I sound a spoiler alert for any people who may read the trilogy.)
Katniss does survive the Hunger Games and soon finds herself fighting with rebel forces in a revolutionary war. Her home base is an obliterated district where the population has been forced into an underground warren and live in a highly controlled collective society. Food rations are meted out according to each individual’s nutritional needs and body weight. They eat a healthy diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and small amounts of meat.
Katniss balks at a runny fish-and-beet stew (as anyone would) but learns to appreciate this nutritious fare on its good days. Yet the approach to eating here is nearly joyless. It takes an elaborate wedding cake to reintroduce the very concept of pleasure for its own sake into this society.
The experience of the Hunger Games and the war turns Katniss into a fighter, a killer and a foodie. Even when she faces near-certain death, she stops to taste and catalogue every dish put before her. Though she detests the inequities of her world’s food system, with its many have-nots and precious few haves, she appreciates the results on a gut level. Her experiences with the gourmet cuisine of the Capitol awaken her sensual nature, define her sense of self, make her look for a better life beyond mere subsistence.
While Katniss’ love of good food never wavers for an instant, her heart toggles incessantly between the two boys who love her. (This may have been the part that most attracted my daughter.) Fittingly, one is a fellow hunter and survivalist, the other a baker’s son whose great specialty is decorative frosted cake. These two, and the choice between them, represents the societal fissure in her universe.
The moral center of this tale is unflinching in its ambiguity. For most of the denizens of this kill-or-be-killed world, food is survival, the commodity that prevents them from dying of starvation as well as the tool used as a means of systemic subjugation. For a select few, it represents pleasure and culture, an evolved state of being.
Which, come to think of it, isn’t so unlike our own world.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog