Q & A with Emily Ansara Baines: The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, T.C. Boyle and Foraging Skills, Sourcing Squirrel in L.A. + What Muskrat Tastes Like
If you live in any proximity to a middle school or teenage girl, you probably know all about The Hunger Games, the young adult dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins. You will also know that the movie comes out in March. What you might not know is that there is also a cookbook about the trilogy: Emily Ansara Baines' The Unofficial Hunger Game Cookbook, published this month by Adams Media.
Baines, who grew up in La Canada and Pasadena, has had a fairly circuitous path to culinary dystopia: Flintridge Prep, USC, a gig as an assistant on Californication, a New York internship at The Onion, and a job as an in-house baker at a post-production sound studio. Actually, it sounds like perfect training for someone who has developed, tested and published a recipe for 75th Hunger Games Dutch oven tree rat.
It should perhaps come as a relief that Baines credits her culinary training more to her Lebanese grandmother ("she owned a restaurant in St. Louis") than to anybody at The Onion -- or Californication. Turn the page for the interview. (And we're working on that recipe for Dutch oven tree rat.)
Squid Ink: As you point out in your book's introduction, a cookbook about a trilogy involving hunger as a major conceit is not the first thing we'd expect. What was the motivation for the book?
courtesy Emily Ansara Baines
Emily Ansara Baines: My motivation for the book... well, as I was literally inhaling the series, I realized that a great deal of the food Suzanne Collins mentioned sounded freakin' delicious. Especially the dishes served at the Capitol, and all the bread Peeta bakes. (What can I say? I love my carbohydrates.) Working at Sound Lounge, I had willing taste-testers for many of the recipes. I mean, I was expected to come up with a new dish every day, what better way to try out the more feasible cooking options than at my work?
However, the reason I started cooking in general... I think that harks back to my eating disorder. And now we're WAY off-topic, but whatever. In college I went through a rather soul-shattering break-up, and the best way I had to cope with it was to give in to those evil little voices that had been whispering in my ears for years and fall in to anorexia. I gave up carbs, I gave up delicious food. If I binge ate -- which is frequent with anorexia as you're starving and eventually give in -- I'd then spend two days not eating. Now I can't even imagine how I did that, I'm starving if I miss a meal, but there ya have it.
It scared the shit out of my parents, and I was very close to being put in this facility in El Monte. But seeing those girls-- who I thought I looked nothing like, though at 89 pounds I'm sure I did -- woke me up. I mean, those girls looked hideous. (My visit there inspired a short story I wrote.) Anyway, I started some serious therapy and slowly, slowly got better.
Anyway, perhaps you already know this, but anorexics are obsessed with food. We want to know everything that is in our food from how much oil the chicken is sauteed in to the amount of butter on the steamed vegetables. It's sick. But I used this obsession with what was IN my food to start caring about what I was cooking. And then, as I got healthier -- and found out that the best desserts have a shitload of butter; just look at the cookbook to see that -- I started letting myself have more and more fun with my cooking.
SI: Wow. That's kind of awesome. I think the number of us in this field with a history of eating disorders is a whole lot larger than people realize. So how did you come up with the recipes anyway?
EAB: Well, first, the minute I signed the deal with Adams Media and I knew this was no longer a "have fun on my own time" deal, I went through each of the Hunger Games books and highlighted ANY mention of food. It didn't matter if it was just a side mention -- such as on page 6 of The Hunger games where Katniss mentions how "a few brave souls sneak into the woods to harvest apples." I'd highlight that, then note it down on a Word document. So I ruined my copies of the trilogy with highlights and sometimes side notes/ideas on a theme, and then I'd go back to the word document where I'd written up all the mentions and just start experimenting.
The Wild Game recipes, while not as big a part of the book as a lot of the press makes it seem, I had to do a bit more research. I was lucky enough to have friends who like to hunt and were willing to test out the recipes, but that was definitely a stretch and hard to do.
SI: The book is "unofficial." What does that mean exactly? Were you in touch with Suzanne Collins about it or was it a completely independent project?
EAB: The book is "unofficial" because neither Suzanne Collins, her publishers, or the movie-makers asked me to do or have anything to do with the project. It's totally separate from them. I just hope she realizes this is in honor of her genius and not because I'm trying to rip her off and make a quick buck. If I wanted to do that, I'd have done a Twilight or Gossip Girl cookbook, where food is not nearly as prevalent a theme.
SI: Does Collins like to cook, do you know?
EAB: I have no idea if Suzanne Collins likes to cook, though by the way she describes the food I have to think she at least enjoys eating and fine presentation. I hope she likes to cook. I hope she gets the cookbook -- I'd totally send her a free copy or ten if she asked.
SI: Was there something that drew you to young adult fiction as the subject of your book? Don't you write in that genre yourself?
EAB: I do write YA. My first book didn't sell, which breaks my heart, but I am working on a second book and I think it's lovely. I don't want to talk about it more than to say it's historical fiction because I'm terrified someone is going to steal my idea and get it ready for publishers before I do. But I love it, and it has a strong heroine.
I like YA fiction because it feels looser, somehow, than say literary fiction. I went to USC wanting to write "serious fiction" and then "the great American novel." I wrote stories about fucked up women. Seriously, when people would ask me what I write, I'd reply "I write about fucked up women."
But then I started reading YA fiction and I started to think, I can do better than this. I can give girls a respectable heroine. Like Jo from Little Women, or Nancy Drew if you disregard her love for shopping or clothes or whatever.
I like writing YA for the same reason I like substitute teaching. I remember how freaking hard it was to be a teenager. It sucked. A lot. I remember feeling like nobody could understand me or what I was going through, and I learned a lot about relationships and life through books. So I hope that by writing some decent YA I can show girls (or boys, though at least with this most recent novel mostly girls) that they are not alone, I've been there before, and here's some advice to make it a little less hard and lonely. If I had the funds to go back to school I'd consider going to be a shrink just to help teenagers.
SI: Why The Hunger Games Cookbook and not, say, a cookbook about To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby or The Twilight Saga?