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Carrot soup and Peeta Mellark's cheese buns

From the bag I pull two fresh buns with a layer of cheese baked into the top. We always seem to have a supply of these since Peeta found out they were my favorite.

– Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire, chapter 10

This month's Food x Books post is a double digest for August and September. Though I baked the cheese buns last month, I wasn't able to complete the blog post due to personal reasons. Originally, I was only going to focus on certain aspects of this series, but then I started re-reading from the beginning – dystopia is oddly comforting during trying times because it makes you realise that things could be worse – and found so many more references to food than I remembered that it made sense to focus on several aspects. Which is perfect for a combined post, as it turns out.

This trilogy made quite an impact on me when I read it in 2013, even though I knew quite a bit about the plots. During this re-read, I find myself appreciating Katniss' dry sense of humour and sarcasm, contrasted by the rarer emotional moments. It still has the depth and nuance that it did the first time, tackling a gamut of important issues and dispelling tropes and stereotypes.

Food takes over from the very beginning. In the first chapter, Katniss explains the difficulty of putting food on the table, the far too common deaths by starvation, and how she learned to forage and hunt outside the fence and trade in the black market even though it was punishable by death. She is the bread-winner for her family, and she does what she needs to do to get by, including taking out the measly tesserae – food in exchange for risk. Life-threatening risk. 

Despite the focus on absence, there are many mentions of food in the opening chapter as Katniss and her kin prepare for the Reaping (reaping, geddit? The harvesting kind, the vengeance kind, the you-deserve-this-for-generations kind.) There's Prim's goat cheese, good bread from the bakery, foraged greens and strawberries and fishing with Gale, almost ominous after everything we've heard. It makes you think things aren't so bad, until, alas. 

These are the Hunger Games, and the tool of choice for control is food, or the lack thereof. I don't think I've ever dissected the title this much before, but there are so many layers. Hunger, literally, but also for power and control; game, for entertainment, but also a reference to hunting. The hunting games. Hunting to the death.

And then there's Peeta. The boy with the bread. Caring, generous, ever attuned to Katniss' needs, long before they get to know each other. He is the moral compass of the books, and eventually for Katniss as well, who learns from him the importance of not becoming a pawn, not sacrificing innocent people for revenge, not installing another megalomaniac as a leader. Peeta is incorruptible, and the only way to use him is to literally interfere with his mind.

I can't do anything," says Peeta. "Unless you count baking bread." "Sorry, I don't. 

Despite his strength and his excellence at wrestling, Peeta represents all that is gentle and creative – his baking, his painting, his icing, his camouflage, his warmth, his humour, his love. He's often sidelined, for soft skills are often mistaken for weakness even in a non-dystopian world. It was refreshing to read a male lead and romantic interest who defied stereotypes of masculinity, and equally a female protagonist who really believed she had more vital things to focus on than romance.

He sets a loaf of fresh-baked bread on the table and holds out his hand to Haymitch. [...] Peeta keeps all of us in fresh baked goods. I hunt. He bakes. Haymitch drinks.

Bread, of course, has a spiritual significance, especially in Christianity and Judaism, representing generosity, eternal life, a gift of sacrifice. It is a staple food around the world, reflected in the fact that each district in these books has its own distinct type of bread. Both Panem and Peeta are names with a reference to bread.

In the world of The Hunger Games, where food is scarce, Peeta literally and figuratively nourishes Katniss – with purposely, purposefully damaged bread (and a damaged face as a result), a kindness that gives her hope and becomes the catalyst for her to fend for her family. In the Victor's Village, he provides her favourite buns even while he's hurting. He enables and empowers her so that she can fight her own battles.

The supper comes in courses. A thick carrot soup, green salad, lamb chops and mashed potatoes, cheese and fruit, a chocolate cake. [...] I'm stuffing myself because I've never had food like this, so good and so much, and because probably the best thing I can do between now and the Games is put on a few pounds.

This fairly "normal" meal on the train is the first for Katniss and Peeta after they leave District 12, sort of like a bridge between their home and the Capitol, before the food and abundance starts to become truly ludicrous. The first course is carrot soup, which seems healthy and wholesome, until you remember why it's there.

The sense of enjoyment and wonder, especially when experiencing food, throughout the train journey and in the Capitol is carefully undercut by the author before it gets out of hand. Katniss enjoys the food until she feels sick. Her meal with Cinna, including "tiny" peas and onions (small-ness often associated with luxury), creates a sense that all is not well, that even vegetables are different here. Katniss constantly uses food for comparison, realising how the rolls at lunch could feed her family for a week, or how the Capitol residents look like they've never missed a meal.

You only need whisper a type of food from a gigantic menu into a mouthpiece and it appears, hot and steamy, before you in less than a minute. I walk around the room eating goose liver and puffy bread until there's a knock on the door. Effie's calling me to dinner. Good. I'm starving.

She almost loses herself, "stuffing", "gorging", living the moment, and who can blame her? Food appears at her command, there are delicacies at every meal, as though the Capitol is trying to distract, taunt, tempt, overwhelm, punish (and even comfort? There's hot chocolate!) by providing an ample taste of luxury before it is taken away forever, by lulling the tributes into a false sense of security and fattening them up like lambs for slaughter. Too much of a good thing. But a flaming cake and a familiar Avox provide a timely jolt for Katniss.

During the Games, food becomes Katniss' preferred survival strategy and mode of attack. She proves that she is more self-sufficient than stronger tributes. She bonds with her ally, Rue, over shared meals. She shoots arrows at the Gamemakers' roast pig and the Careers' mountain of food supplies (both via apples). She realises that her mentor rewards good behaviour with food, and performs accordingly. Ultimately, she defies the system with a handful of berries.

I was a bit nervous about baking these buns, even though I found a straightforward and appetising recipe. My prior experiments (well, not plural) hadn't gone well, with hard pizza dough that refused to rise. This time, armed with advice from friends, relatives and the internet, I proceeded to activate the yeast – can't remember if we neglected this last time, but it would explain a lot – with sugar and water, and turned my back for a few minutes to attend to the other ingredients. The yeast happily bubbled and overflowed all over the mug it was in, and so it began.

The ingredients were mixed, and I'd been warned to be gentle with the kneading; but perhaps I was too gentle, because the dough blob didn't look smooth and stuck all over my hands. I turned to another tip – to get some oil on your hands and then work on it. This worked like a dream, and soon a smooth mass of yeasty flour was sitting in a large bowl, covered with a damp cloth.

After my lunch break came the moment of reckoning. Would this be like last time, when the doubling failed? Nope. It had grown, all right. Divided into circles, with some mozzarella and oregano in the centre, pinched closed, shaped and transferred onto an oiled Silpat mat. A final sprinkle of cheese and the buns were ready to go into the oven and rise and brown and melt (the latter for the cheese). It might be best to sprinkle the cheese on later; mine became too dark and had to be scraped away and re-done, which I was actually rather pleased with as it looked more like "a layer of cheese baked into the top." They tasted divine, soft, buttery, cheesy...

Appropriately fiery

The carrot soup was a Monday afternoon project – a good reason to work for yourself, right? It was oddly soothing. Peeling carrots; hearing them sizzle in oil in the oven while the onions and spices mingled; adding the roasted carrots to the party; cooling, lemon-pepper-butter-ing, blending, eating. I've never had carrot soup before, which is the case with all but two of the dishes in this project, so yay for growth.

Just like carrot soup and cheese buns, even though I didn't end up eating them together (I made some cheese toast with the soup, though), Katniss and Peeta balance the universe. We need the mockingjay, but we also need the boy with the bread.


  1. Lovely piece! The soup and buns look wonderful and the way you write about the books makes me appreciate them even more. I hadn't noticed, for instance, the significance of bread and the 'purpose' of Peeta (I've been guilty of receiving his character as a sad, flat lad whose only redeeming feature is his kindness and gentleness. Hadn't thought of him as being deliberately written to defy stereotypes of masculine heroism.)

    1. Thank you! Ahhh, Peeta is my favourite. I think Katniss often dismisses him or views him as a burden. But I always felt what she sees as weakness is actually strength (restraint and gentleness and control of impulse in the face of adversity is always harder than reacting!) I also liked Finnick and his "secret" in Mockingjay as a defiance of gendered tropes, because the position he finds himself in due to his looks is usually written for women.

  2. Your carrot soup looks absolutely lovely. Would be great in the winters too I imagine. May be with a swirl of cream on top :D

    1. It was! Very comforting :) And really not hard to make if you account for roasting and cooling time.


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