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.)
courtesy Emily Ansara Baines
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?
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?
EAB: The Hunger Games mentions food all the time. There's enough in those series to fill a cookbook -- I know, I did it. But Twilight barely mentions food at all other than like the first date or the fact that the vampires can't eat it. So a Twilight book would make no sense. Same with Gatsby. The Hunger Games is literally all about food or lack thereof -- it's in the title. The Capitol has food, the Districts do not, etc etc. So I felt like a cookbook made sense, though I know there are plenty of critics who think differently.
SI: You've worked as a baker and caterer, but you're also a writer. In fact -- as you've mentioned -- you studied creative writing at USC with T.C. Boyle. Does he talk about food much in classes? Tortillas, maybe?
EAB: Ha. Nice Boyle joke. He doesn't talk about food, not that I can remember at least. However, my all-time mentor and heroine, the writer who I wish I could be like and I'm lucky still talks with me, Aimee Bender, wrote a novel that deals with food: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. That is a writer who can write about food. I'm still trying to get down the lemon cake she describes in the book. [Editor's note: Actually, we're big fans of hers. Read Margy Rochlin's Q & A with Aimee Bender here.]
SI: Writing recipes isn't much like writing fiction. Well, unless the recipes don't work. Did you find that your training as a writer helped you to write a cookbook?
EAB: Being a writer helped me have the discipline to sit down and deal with writing recipes every day. It helped me know how to outline/make a chart of what recipes I had vs. ones I needed, and it helped me to just get organized in general. Also, I like to think that a lot of the asides and such in the cookbook are well-written (though I know a lot got edited down/changed by publishers) because I am a writer and (hopefully) know how to turn a phrase.
SI: You include an appendix on wild herbs, as Katniss uses her foraging skills frequently in the book. Foraging is a lot more useful than making pâte à choux -- do you think it's a skill teenagers should learn? Never know when you may need it. Or decide to become a Nordic chef.
EAB: I think it's a useful skill, but I don't think it's necessary. At least not until the machines rise to take over the Earth. (Joke.) I mean, I wish I had known more about foraging when I would go traipsing through Sierra Madre wildlife as a kid and come back with poison ivy.
But I think I'd suggest knowing how to forage. That's what seems to be the death of a lot of the careers and folk who enter The Hunger Games... they don't know how to survive on wild life. So just that knowledge more than any single recipe would be important. That, and knowing how to start a fire. Maybe some bows and arrows, too. And the ability to aim.
SI: What do you think of The Hunger Games movie coming out next spring? And have you seen the Winter's Bone? [Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in the latter film, plays Katniss.]
EAB: I loved Winter's Bone. I thought Jennifer Lawrence was amazing and I've had a huge crush on John Hawkes ever since he guest-starred on an episode of The X-Files. They're both incredibly talented actors and that was just an extremely well-done movie. So the fact that she's in The Hunger Games movie makes me super happy. She obviously knows how to to be tough, or at least pretend to be so.
SI: Jennifer Lawrence's character in Winter's Bone also has issues with hunger and feeding her family. And she does a pretty great job killing, skinning and cooking a squirrel. Speaking of squirrel, you have a few squirrel recipes in your book. Can you tell us about those?
EAB: Squirrel recipes were the easiest recipes to come by because there are entire communities online (mostly based in the South, not to stereotype) of hunters and gathers willing to try out squirrel recipes. I had to watch a lot of YouTube videos of skinning squirrels and it made me nauseous more than once, but I wanted to know. I don't, however, recommend anyone else go check them out.
SI: Did you have to kill your own squirrels for those recipes?
EAB: I tried to get squirrel in New York (I was still living there when I wrote the cookbook), and even paid through the web a dude to send me a squirrel he caught, but he missed the fact that he was supposed to skin it for me (I just wanted it to come as frozen meat so I could pretend it was chicken) and instead I literally opened a box to find a dead squirrel in it. I don't know how it hadn't started to smell. I screamed and threw it out, there was no way I was dealing with that. And I'm still fairly sure that has to be somehow illegal.
So while I experimented with the recipes using chicken, the actual cooking of squirrel I left to my friends who hunt and the people I had met on the internet to test out. They sent me samples sometime, but I have to say the meat of squirrel and muskrat and all those animals are far too stringy for me. Plus, I can't get over the fact that I am eating a squirrel.
SI: How exactly do you source squirrel in L.A.? Are we really meant to go find squirrels, or was that more of a metaphorical recipe? What would you substitute for squirrel anyway?
EAB: Getting squirrel in L.A.... I'd suggest talking to butchers and surfing the web. That said, I think all the other recipes that aren't wild game recipes in the cookbook are much more feasible (and frankly less gross) to make. I loved making The Capitol dishes, they were so decadent and delicious. However, that said, coming up with the recipes that Katniss had to eat in District 12 was super educational. But I had the most fun with the desserts and the breads, though this could be because I love making desserts... and bread. I am a baker at heart more than a cook.
SI: If you -- or your imaginary little sister -- were chosen to participate in The Hunger Games, is there one recipe you'd be sure to make, or maybe have your sponsor make and send to you?
EAB: If I were ever called to be in The Hunger Games... dear God, I'd accept the fact that I was going to die. I'd likely hide in a tree for as long as I could. I can be sneaky and hide, but the idea of killing someone with my bare hands... I don't know. That said, if anyone tried to hurt someone I love I'd take them out in a heartbeat. So I don't know.
SI: Finally, were there recipes you developed that didn't make it into the book? One always wonders about this sort of thing, especially in a cookbook that includes a recipe for grilled tree rat.
EAB: All my recipes involving alcohol weren't able to be used because this is technically for a teen audience. Which is sort of silly considering the fact that Haymitch and the gang eat a cake of "spirits." But oh well. So none of those recipes made it in, which is sort of a pity because there's some great cakes out there (or even stews) involving liquor.
SI: Okay, really last question. Where did you get the wild tree rat? And the muskrat?? And were they good?
EAB: Muskrat is disgusting. That's all I can say on the subject.
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