Post Edit: This recipe won Hunger Games Lamb Stew recipe contest with Stapleton-Spence.
In the third book of the Hunger Games Trilogy, The Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen, by this point, a heroine who is mentally and physically flattened, yet not defeated, delivers a powerful commentary on the wonderfulness of comfort food:
“I’m starving and the stew is so delicious—beef, potatoes, turnips, and onions in a thick gravy—that I have to force myself to slow down. All around the dining hall, you can feel the rejuvenating effect that a good meal can bring on. The way it can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it’s not a mistake to go on living. It’s better than any medicine.” -Katniss Everdeen.
Collins, Suzanne (2010). Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) (pp. 238-239). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition.
By now you have heard of the Hunger Games trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. Originally written for teenagers and young adults, as a futuristic boy meets girl with a gladiator theme, the Hunger Games have swept the country. The above quote from the third book isn’t about this lamb stew but it was to me the most poignant statement regarding the allure of food.
I had avoided the books for a long time because, reading anything with gruesome violence and blatant injustice is not my thing. As an artist and writer, I become too affected by fictional details to remember it’s fiction. Once I saw that the first movie was coming out this month, and people were already buying tickets, I downloaded it to my iPad and was hooked on page one , reading all three books in a few days. But not for the reasons you may think.
The theme is domination. A new government (the Capitol) now exists in Panem, what used to be the United States, and is divided into 12 regions. A previous attempt to rebel against the harsh domination and control of a big brother type regime has resulted in the cruelest reality television the world has ever seen. The Hunger Games.
Every year, a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 will be chosen from each region and put into a technologically manipulated arena equipped with mutated creatures and incredible unexpected hardships all employed by the gamemakers behind the force field, which keeps the tributes from escape. It is mandatory that every citizen must watch the games. Twenty four tributes go in. One tribute comes out alive. Many are killed in the first hour by the mass hysteria to grab weapons from the landing point and run. Some are killed by the gruesome manipulation of nature that the gamemakers have rigged up. Some lose their soul. Some find their soul, although any mention of God or any higher being is noticeably silent.
The winning tribute will then become a mentor for the rest of their life, helping future tributes survive and mostly watching them die. Even if you win, you lose, because you can never escape your role in the Hunger Games. Promoted as a teenage love triangle (as there is a boy meets girl meets another boy plot), I found that to be quite secondary to the theme of survival, dominion, the brutality towards children and the devaluing of life and in a unexpected twist, the power of good food.
The love story for me was not the story here. The story is man’s inhumanity to man, as the romance is clouded by the depths of darkness in which man will go to in order to gain and maintain power. They use hunger to weaken the people. They use children to terrify them into submission. Those same terrified people get caught up in watching the games and cheering tributes on. They choose sides and each region needs its tribute to win, for there is a food payoff for the people for a whole year. It’s the government’s way of slowly sucking the life out of any humanity that is left. Except one thing.
What perked me up along the pages of torture and deception, was the attention the author gave to food. The protagonist, Katniss, comes from what was formerly Appalachia, a poor region, where it was vital for her family’s survival to sneak into the woods and hunt rabbits, wild turkeys, squirrels and then some animals we may never consider food and either eat them or sell them in the black market. In such a culture, even strawberries can bring a nice bounty.
At times, the pains of hunger are drawn out over the pages, as meat is eaten raw, evergreens are used to make soup, tree bark becomes dinner and cubed rat becomes a good meal. At other times, there are mouth watering descriptions of banquets in the Capitol where gluttony prevails as it did in the Roman Empire. People gorge on vast amounts of rich, succulent food, drink a vial of medicine, throw it up and return to the feast. During the preparation for the games, the twenty four tributes are treated like celebrities, dressed by a team of stylists and fed like kings and queens, because after all, for twenty three tributes, these are their last meals. In between the starkness of not enough and the over indulgence of feasting on 30 different dishes, are the days Katniss simply eats what I would call good comfort food, savors every bite and experiences momentary happiness. Katniss has a favorite meal. During a macabre live interview to generate enthusiasm with the crowds, Katniss is asked a question.
“So, Katniss, the Capitol must be quite a change from District Twelve. What’s impressed you most since you arrived here?” asks Caesar. What? What did he say? It’s as if the words make no sense. My mouth has gone as dry as sawdust. I desperately find Cinna in the crowd and lock eyes with him. I imagine the words coming from his lips. “What’s impressed you most since you arrived here?” I rack my brain for something that made me happy here. Be honest, I think. Be honest. “The lamb stew,” I get out. Caesar laughs, and vaguely I realize some of the audience has joined in. “The one with the dried plums?” asks Caesar. I nod. “Oh, I eat it by the bucketful.”
Collins, Suzanne (2009). The Hunger Games (p. 127). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition.
Lamb Stew with Dried Plums. It’s hard not to try to envision how this must taste to Katniss, because it’s one of the few times she seems to take pleasure in anything. She is a tragic character, haunted by the terror forced upon her. Only when she is enjoying a meal, does the reader get any rest or reprieve from the intensity of human sacrifice. The lamb stew with dried plums shows up in all three books, as does attention to the details of food. We learn a lot about what they eat for breakfast lunch and dinner, whether it’s in their own home regions, before after or during the games. The author understands the basic satisfaction that food provides, especially when it is prepared properly and elevated in flavor, and she uses it to help the reader understand the pains of hunger, and the difference a good meal can make to the spirit of survival. The joy of good food that hits so many senses at once in the human body (many we probably don’t understand) can never be replaced by a pill, or a needle that might be able to keep one alive.
Good food transcends tragedy and brings the human spirit a sense of hope. I chose to make the lamb stew because it was the favorite meal in all three books, and when Katniss ate it, you could feel her momentary happiness.
The Stew and My Secret Ingredient
I have never made a lamb stew before, but I felt a kindred spirit with Katniss if only in what a pleasure a good meal could bring in a harsh time. Her descriptions of food tell me that if she were here today, she would be called a nose to tail foodie who eats everything, fresh from the land, wasting nothing.
I have never cooked with dried plums before (prunes) and now I wonder why. The savory lamb with rosemary and thyme, sweetened by the dried plums created a very unique flavor, and I brought it all together with a bottle of beer in the stew. I decided to load the stew with slices of onions, not diced, and build my flavors from there. I used fresh rosemary and thyme from own garden (two herbs that I can enjoy year round.) I minced some of the herbs into the flour that I used to dredge the lamb before browning. I added ingredients in stages and went back and forth about how to address the dried plums. I had a discussion with other foodie types. Once thought I should mince the dried plums and one thought I should quarter them. I decided to leave them whole because they are so beautiful in the pot. This is a winning dish and one that deserved to be mentioned in all three books. I pulled it all together with a bottle of beer.
Stay tuned as I bring a few more Hunger Game food recipes to you. Tell me have you read the Hunger Games and did it ever make you crave your favorite comfort food?
Collins, Suzanne (2009). The Hunger Games (p. 127). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition
- 4 pound leg of lamb
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 teaspoons finely fresh thyme
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsely
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 4 tablespoons grapeseed oil or canola oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large onion, sliced into long slivers about ¼ inch wide
- 2 cups diced celery
- 1 bottle beer (see note)
- 4 cups beef stock
- 12 ounces of dried plums
- 2 large sprigs of rosemary
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- handful fresh Italian Parsley
- 2 cups diced carrots
- 3 potatoes, cubed
- Trim fat and any grizzle off of the lamb. Cut into two inch cubes.
- In a shallow bowl add the finely chopped herbs to the flour.
- Season the meat with salt and pepper.
- Dredge the lamb in the herb-flavored flour.
- Heat a heavy pan with enough oil to brown lamb.
- You may have to do several batches so the lamb browns easily. Don’t crowd pan.
- Slice onions into long slivers. Heat a dutch oven or large sauce pan with oil. Add onions and mix cook over medium heat for about five minutes until softened. Add in celery.
- Add in garlic. Mix well. Add meat back in.
- Add in ½ cup of beef broth. Add in 1 bottle of porter beer. Cook down for about five minutes. Add remaining beef broth.
- Add in dried plums (seeded and cut in half, which is how they are often purchased)
- Cover and place in oven at 350 degrees for 1½ hours.
- Add in chopped carrots and potato and cook until potatoes and carrots are soft.
- Remove herbs. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
- Serve over wild rice or as it.