Like many people, I’ve just cottoned on to the greatness of The Hunger Games. It is a world where districts are dominated by their isolation from one another, where the only information that passes is what can be gleaned from the censored broadcasts of the games. This rolls two forms of oppression into one, combining domination by the state with the exploitation of labor. No one wants to work in the mines; for district 12 (at least) the corollary lies in the pleasure people take in interacting with the natural world around them: baking, hunting, caring for the sick and injured, devotion to family. It is an important message: People are happy when they get to work for themselves and those they love. Even if the world they inhabit is bleak.
With the possibility of victory in sight, Katniss wonders what life as a wealthy victor will be like. She is afraid her very self will be lost once her time will no longer circle around the acquisition of food. By the end of the series, she has been so damaged that this question is put aside, or at least marginalized in comparison to the process of healing. I read these books like wildfire in about a week, so the Katniss that begins the trilogy in the woods was still very fresh in my mind even as the story came to its conclusion. Ability, skill, care, thrift, connection to home, and the natural world all loom large as beneficial virtues for rebuilding District 12. The same things that make the oppression of the Capital survivable could also make life enjoyable and strengthen the community in better times.
It’s worth noting what doesn’t fit. There is an essential element of freedom in the novel that is necessary in order for food to be such a powerful form of resistance: Katniss (hard, a hunter) and Peeta (loving, a baker) transcend expectations about ability and household roles. This didn’t happen because the characters were “free” to choose what they wanted to do. It happened because when the previous generation passed on skills they did not enforce divisions. At the same time, it was up to the children (Katniss and Peeta) to respond to their parent’s teaching, taking their lessons and developing further on their own. You can’t make someone want to express themself through frosting. Prim is hopeless at hunting, but she was offered the chance.
Plus, I especially like Prim’s goat.
In honor of the book, I wanted to share this hearty spring potato soup recipe. It’s not the clear green broth that Katniss tries at the Capital, but something that uses foraged and homey ingredients. (If you do want a good recipe for a spring green soup, check out Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups. The secret ingredient is sorrel.)
Within Season’s District 12 Potato Soup:
Potatoes (peeled, cut into 1 inch cubes)
Slab of Bacon (cut into 1 inch cubes)
Milk and / or Cream
Stock (Chicken or Veggie)
Olive Oil or Lard
Heat a glug* of Olive Oil (or a scoop of Lard) in a good-sized soup pot to medium-high heat. Brown the Bacon, about one minute per side. (Don’t overcook it though.) Add the Onions and Garlic, turning heat down to low until translucent (5-10 minutes). Add the Stock and Potatoes, enough to cover everything. Bring to boil, then turn the heat down to med-low and allow to simmer for 30 minutes until potatoes are tender. Have a chat with someone while the soup cooks, or maybe plan to learn a new skill. Add the Milk or Cream when you are ready to serve, just enough to make it creamy. (You do not want the dairy to boil, though, as it can cause your soup to “break”. Reheat leftovers gently.) Taste your soup to see how much salt and pepper to add. Enjoy!
*Don’t be too concerned with measuring. Just balance the proportions as you go.
1. We don’t yet grow our own potatoes (no space), but there are lots of different varieties to try. Some will be better for baking, others for boiling; some will be big, others small. Some are purple. Try out a variety.
2. We used our own bacon, which is pork belly that has been cured with salt and air-dried. We don’t have a smoker yet, but the flavor is great. Curing your own meat would be a key skill to have in District 12!
3. We are trying to improve our foraging skills. I used some “field garlic” I found growing wild to give our soup a unique flavor. They are spicy, oniony, and garlicky all rolled into one, but with a little something extra that comes from their wildness.
4. Making your own stock is really worthwhile. First, compared to store brands, you get to control the flavors in your base, particularly its saltiness. It is also something that you don’t usually make intentionally for a soup, because it can take a few hours for the stock to boil. Instead, think of it as a little extra skill that you practice when cooking something else. For example, when you poach a chicken, you end up with a great chicken stock. We usually only buy whole chickens and piece them ourselves. After we take off the breast meat, legs, and wings, (each of which will end up as a different meal) we’ll toss the remaining carcass in a big pot, add some pepper corns, a few bay leaves, thyme if it is around, and let it boil. Your whole home will smell like the best place to be in the world.
This requires very little extra work, and stretches your budget quite a bit. The best flavor comes from the chicken fat, but this is also where toxins and impurities are found. It’s best to get local pasture-raised chickens that haven’t been given antibiotics (as factory-raised chickens often are) if you plan to start cooking this way. The only way to guarantee that is to get them from a local farmer’s market, and make sure you talk to the farmer.