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Well, here we go.  I’m officially jumping on the “Hunger Games ” train.  This review, however,  is completely unofficial, and here are 3 reasons why:

  • I’ve read the books, but haven’t seen the movie.  Husby and son have, but I was too much of a wimp to go along;
  • I haven’t tested the recipes (for cookbooks I’ve fully vetted, see my reviews page), so any judgements of culinary merit given herein are speculative;
  • in fact, I may never have a chance to review this book officially, as mega-author Suzanne Collins is an old friend of my husband’s…conflict of interest alert!

With all those caveats out of the way,  I have to say that the Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook is a pleasant surprise.  The headnotes and intro are sharp and clearly written by an avid fan.  There’s a sprinkling of insightful literary analysis regarding the role of food in totalitarian culture, and a dash of food-symbolism commentary.  Each recipe notes which chapter and book it references, which gives you an excuse to go get your copy and get sucked back in.

And the recipes?  Well, they’re a mix of indulgent Capitol food and subsistence District food, as you’d expect.

Some recipes merely fill out a sketchy reference in the book with a conventional recipe; these tend to be fairly pedestrian: Hot and Crispy Hash Browns, French Bread from the Mellark Family Bakery, Parcel Day Applesauce.  If the headnotes didn’t explain their origin in the books, these recipes would offer nothing you couldn’t find on the Internet or in mainstream cookbooks.  Their association with the Hunger Games is purely conceptual.

On the other hand, some recipes clearly wouldn’t exist without the trilogy’s explicit mention:   Grilled Tree Rat with Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce, Rue and Katniss’s Stir-Fried Milkweed Buds, Flowers, and Pods, and the Apple-Smoked Groosling, which is actually turkey.

How seriously are we to take the Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook?  Good question. Well, don’t look for any tips on skinning tree rat.  And any ingredient list that starts with “1 (6 pound) beaver, cut into pieces” seems to me to be assuming a lot.

But I am willing to guess that over half of the recipes can be taken just as they come; the author is an East Coast caterer and writer, and her technique looks solid enough.  The baking recipes in particular look like perfectly doable, normally edited recipes which ought to work in any home kitchen.  I have firm plans to try Katniss’ favorite lamb stew with dried plums, which is the only specific food my son specifically requested while reading the books.  (Remember, folks, dried plums are simply prunes! Don’t believe the hype!)

A final question: How faithful does a tie-in cookbook have to be, anyway?  The Hunger Games trilogy is the act of a bold imagination, and I don’t see why this unofficial companion shouldn’t be as well.  Indeed, the most jarring thing about the cookbook is the same as what’s jarring about the books and the film:  the sense that true human misery (hunger, warfare, brutality) can at some level always become a source of entertainment.  As consumers of The Hunger Games and its merchandise, we may be uncomfortably aware of that fact.  But it doesn’t diminish our appetite.

 

Something odd is going on in cookbook merchandising, and I’m trying to understand it.

We’re all familiar with the explosion of food websites and food blogs in the last 10 years and their inevitable transition into print. From Heidi Swanson and the Tipsy Baker to Food52 and Serious Eats, there’s an abundance of popular online hosts or communities who’ve turned author, and there are more every day.

Many, like Ree Drummond (the “Pioneer Woman Cooks”) and Fifi O’Neill (the “Romantic Prairie” magazine) sell a DIY kind of lifestyle that their readers don’t necessarily have the time or life circumstances to undertake themselves.  It’s not the first time that  cooks who are also talented photographers and stylists have taken off in print. It’s certainly not the first time a domestic-shelter editor has successfully sold a lifestyle (see “Stewart, Martha”.)  So that’s not what’s odd.

What I don’t quite get is that if you look at these recipes closely, something doesn’t add up.  Consider the Romantic Prairie Cookbook (by an expatriated Parisian living in Florida). Grilled chicken with mandarin oranges?  No mandarin oranges on the prairie, unless I’m mistaken. There are sausages and breads in the recipes, but they’re mostly storebought. Recipes for salmon, mussels, fish in a salt crust?  Exactly where is this prairie?  And is it near Balducci’s?

The new Pioneer Woman Cookbook: Food from My Frontier makes me wonder, in the same sort of way, which frontier we’re dealing with: Italian meatball soup? Thai chicken pizza?  Chicken Parmesan? Mango margaritas?  It’s true that there is a recipe for pickles and a recipe for jam in the back.  But the language of sustainability, self-reliance, and rugged wholesomeness conveyed by the photographs is not spoken equally by the food.

I’m not wearing my reviewer hat, and I don’t mean to denigrate the food itself, which I haven’t tested and which looks perfectly fine.  No matter where it hails from (and I think it’s safe to say it’s not from Kansas), it’s straight-ahead comfort food, like what you might find in hundreds of midrange urban brunch places.

Some may find themselves asking,  “Why make it when I can buy it in Brooklyn?”  I’m not sure I can answer that.  But my guess is that it’s not the cookbook’s content but its aura that you’re buying–that glimpse of a life not lived by most of us–a life of pale sunrises, endless horizons, quiet insights silhouetted on horseback.  Question is: is that life even being lived by those who sell it?

For once, the vernal equinox has arrived in New England acting like it really means it.  The robins and the spring peepers have started up, and the garlic has already ventured one bold inch out of hibernation.  That’s 25 days early, according to my gardening notes from last year.

This year, I decided to make like my serious gardening friends and start my seedlings under lights.  Randy rigged some fluorescent workshop fixtures for me and we hung them from wire shelving.  It’s amazing to see how stout and sturdy the seedlings turn out when they don’t have to crane toward a distant window…

I plant my seeds in eggshells (skewer-punched on the bottom for drainage); this was a tip sent by a reader when I published The Other Half of the Egg.  I like eggshell pots because (1) you can put them right in the soil, making for a very gentle transplant; (2) they hold just enough moisture, and add calcium as they break down later; and (3) they’re adorable.

Randy hates cracking them the hard way (gently, so you can pick one end of the shell off).  You have to rinse them and punch them and fill them.  I suppose we could just buy cell packs.  We could do things an easier way.  But what gardener does?

A happy spring to everyone!, and warm wishes for green growth in all your ventures, little and large.

I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of the online UK lifestyle magazine and website, The Monocle, till last week when they contacted me asking to do an interview on their weekly hourlong food show, “The Menu”.  Check it out–it’s a nicely produced series of segments from around the world.  And I so enjoyed speaking with the charming Markus Hippi about “A Spoonful of Promises” on my UK radio debut!

Hear the interview here, minutes 28:00-35:20.

Today, a review of a fascinating oddity billing itself as “the re-envisioning of the modern cookbook.” By turns brilliant, offputting, and just plain different, the two-volume set seems designed to turn heads and invite commentary.

All that said, testing the book’s one recipe–the “Julian” cocktail-was one of the stranger, better dates Randy and I have had in some weeks.

Read the review here.

A little rumination about my absolute favorite bitter green.  The best part about writing the story was discovering this outrageously good shrimp, escarole, and potato salad from Jacques Pépin.  I could have eaten it for a week.

But the recipes for escarole & bean soup and escarole & butternut pasta are great too.

Click here to read the story.

My fourth radio commentary for New England Public Radio / 88.5 WFCR: Many have asked me what it’s like for my kids, having a mom who reviews cookbooks for a job.  Here’s the answer!

Listen here.

Over the weekend, the Greenfield Recorder (that’s the Recorder of Greenfield, Mass.) ran a nice feature, excerpting along with it one of my favorite stories in A Spoonful of Promises: “The Curious Incident of the Funnel Cake in the Lawn”.  The photographer did a great job of making my not-at-all-presentable house presentable.  Included is a picture of the infamous treadmill desk.

If you’d like to read the story, click here:
Recorder article 03-10-12
(Caveat: file is 42.0 MB, so it may take a long moment to load)

We tested this cookbook about a month and a half ago.  As is the case whenever I test a slow cooker book, this led to a very weird morning routine starting at 5 am:  Pack husband’s lunch for school, pack kids’ lunch for school, make dinner, make kids’ breakfast, make my breakfast.  But I loved the convenience of having dinner all set when the evening rush arrived.

I had the chance to hear Michele Scicolone at a panel at the cookbook conference in NY shortly after; she spoke compellingly about the need for greater authenticity in the understanding of Italian food.  It was an entertaining presentation, which I bought hook, line, and sinker.  It did, however, make me wonder about her French book, which I’d just tested.  Because while it may be decent cooking, and it may be well put together, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly authentique…

Click here to read the review.

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