[Content Note: Starvation, Disordered Eating, Obesity Epidemic Bullshitery]
Hunger Games Recap: In Chapter 2, Katniss volunteers to be the girl tribute from District 12 in place of her little sister Prim. The boy tribute is picked -- Peeta Mellark -- and it is revealed that Katniss owes Peeta a debt because he once fed her, at physical cost to himself, when she was starving.
The Hunger Games, Chapter 2
You may miss it, what with all the fighting and dying, but The Hunger Games is a series about food.
Hunger. Hunting. Fire. The basic things that compel us as people: the need to eat, the drive to find food, the desire to make it as digestible as possible. Rare is the chapter that doesn't mention these things, and the concepts of food, of eating, and of the privileges involved are woven deeply into the series. Katniss herself was named after food, a detail that will be revealed in Chapter 4:
In late summer, I was washing up in a pond when I noticed the plants growing around me. Tall with leaves like arrowheads. Blossoms with three white petals. I knelt down in the water, my fingers digging into the soft mud, and I pulled up handfuls of the roots. Small, bluish tubers that don’t look like much but boiled or baked are as good as any potato. “Katniss,” I said aloud. It’s the plant I was named for. And I heard my father’s voice joking, “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” I spent hours stirring up the pond bed with my toes and a stick, gathering the tubers that floated to the top. That night, we feasted on fish and katniss roots until we were all, for the first time in months, full.
Peeta is the son of a baker, his name a homophone with "pita". He is "the boy with the bread", a silent friend who risked the wrath of his abusive mother in order to give bread to Katniss when she was slowly starving to death. He is introduced here in Chapter 2:
The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him. Because of the bread, because of the red weal that stood out on his cheekbone. What had she hit him with? My parents never hit us. I couldn’t even imagine it. The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back on the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. The second quickly followed, and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tightly behind him. [...]
To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.
Katniss does not just hunt food in order to provide for her family; she provides food for the entire town. She sells squirrels to the baker, and her meats go into the community stew pot at the local market. She gathers fruits and vegetables in order to sell them door to door. When Katniss volunteers for her sister, the mayor of the District recognizes her: not just because she is the friend of his daughter or the child of a tragically dead miner, but first and foremost because she brings food to his table:
“Lovely!” says Effie Trinket. “But I believe there’s a small matter of introducing the reaping winner and then asking for volunteers, and if one does come forth then we, um…” she trails off, unsure herself.
“What does it matter?” says the mayor. He’s looking at me with a pained expression on his face. He doesn’t know me really, but there’s a faint recognition there. I am the girl who brings the strawberries.
I do believe there is hardly a chapter in this series that does not deal closely with food. Chapter 1 opens with Katniss eating the fruits of her sister's labor -- the goat cheese -- before heading out into the forest to hunt meat for their table. When the two tributes are whisked off to the Capitol, one of the first things Katniss notices is the rich variety of food, and Effie 'compliments' the two tributes for not being so starving that they forget their table manners.
Once in the Capitol, Katniss continues to be overwhelmed by the food on display, and she struggles with trying to fill herself in anticipation of the Hunger Games without becoming so full that she loses her fighting edge. Meanwhile, Peeta wins the hearts of the Capitol audience by complimenting their food and discussing his favorite dishes -- later, when Katniss and Peeta are playing romance-reality-television for the viewing audience at home, Haymitch tugs on the Capitol's heartstrings by delivering that same favorite dish into their waiting hands. Katniss, playing the good nurse, feeds Peeta with her own hands -- later, she will drug him in the same way, in one of the more controversial scenes of the book.
Food is central to the world-building of the book. The districts are divided by their produce, which in many cases include food -- it is by noting what food shortages are occurring that Katniss can piece together the extent of the rebellion. Those the Capitol deems criminals have their tongues removed as a brand marking them for life; their punishment robs them of the ability to taste food, even while they are condemned to serve it to their captors. Food also provides pivotal plot events, such as in Catching Fire when Gale is captured and flogged for selling game to the authorities. And in Mockingjay, one of our first introductions to the constricting life within the mysterious District 13 is the revelation that food is so closely regulated that eating more than one's allotted share is a criminal offense.
Most of all, the food in The Hunger Games is used to illustrate privilege. When Katniss first meets Cinna, he takes her to a room where rich food is on display, slowly spoiling in the open air and ready to be thrown uneaten into the trash at the day's end:
I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions from the woods. I don’t recognize the grain, our own tessera ration cooks down to an unattractive brown mush. Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can’t even guess what’s in it. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitution for the Capitol version.
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
I look up and find Cinna’s eyes trained on mine. “How despicable we must seem to you,” he says.
The food in the series isn't mere food porn for the sake of the reader. The food in The Hunger Games is used to illustrate the difference between the privileged and the marginalized in this world. The people in the Districts are kept weak and submissive through hunger and starvation; the people in the Capitol are given more food than they know what to do with. Back at Katniss' home, it is not unusual for whole families to starve to death -- only Peeta intervened to save Katniss and her family -- but in the Capitol, the citizens widely practice social bulimia in order to eat as much variety as possible when attending parties.
The lives of the people in the Districts revolve around the pursuit of food, and its terrible scarcity. Katniss can provide for her family through illegal hunting, but girls who are not skilled with a bow must sell their bodies to the authorities in order to survive. When Peeta is being interviewed about his unrequited love back home, the interviewer points out that once he returns a victor -- once he has a regular supply of food from the Capitol as his wages -- he can marry any girl he wants. The interviewer, Caesar Flickerman, is trying to be romantic, but the reader knows the reality: Peeta will be desirable if only because his wife will have the 'privilege' of not starving to death; anything else he brings to the table in the form of positive personal attributes is metaphorical gravy. Later, Katniss will note that Haymitch, as a victor, could have had "his choice of any woman in the district", and her words are not an exaggeration. The citizens of the District are so deeply starving that a marriage in exchange for steady food is the ultimate match, above all other considerations.
Over and over, we see that food in the Districts is used to separate the very-marginalized from the less-marginalized. Katniss and the mayor's daughter may be friends, and the two girls may face some of the same daily privations and lack of privileges, but Katniss has her name in the reaping 20 times and Madge only has her name in there 5 times. The tessera -- a "meager year's supply of grain and oil for one person" -- comes at the price of entering one's name in yet another time, and that extra entrance is permanent, long after that hungry year has come and gone. Children who are hungry are therefore much more likely to be selected for the Hunger Games.
Within the Hunger Games, food is still not an equalizer of class and privilege. The privileged children -- the ones from the Districts favored by the Capitol -- seize control of the Cornucopia, literally the Horn of Plenty from which spills more food than the children can eat in an entire Game. The marginalized children are denied access to this resource, and must scavenge for food and water in the surrounding terrain. Katniss, who is not a close-range fighter, is fortunate that both her Games provide water and meaty game; were she in an entirely different environment, such as a desert, she might well starve. Indeed, Katniss' survival strategies revolve entirely around food: in the first Game, she heads for the hills to trap game before coming back to blow up the food supplies of the others. In the second Game, she picks an elderly woman from District 4 for her team in part because she can fashion fish hooks with which to catch dinner.
In America, right now, 16.7 million children live in "food insecure" households. Possibly the angriest I have been this year was during a special episode of "Chopped" that featured school cafeteria workers. While the cooks offered heartbreaking tales of how they cook extra-big meals on Monday because -- for many of their children -- it's their first meal since last Friday, the celebrity guest judge -- a spokesperson for the White House "childhood obesity" program -- chastened the cooks for their portion sizes being too big. Didn't they know that hungry children are attractive children? What were they thinking?
That man, that Celebrity Guest Judge, was a citizen of the Capitol. Hungry children don't exist in his world, and when children die, it is a curiosity to him, not a tragedy. We're not as a country quite at the point where we televise their deaths for the amusement of all, but that distinction isn't much of a compliment since unseen deaths are still deaths. The Cafeteria Cooks, on the other hand, were people who lived and worked in the Districts. Maybe they still had some privilege of their own -- maybe they were Madges and Mayors instead of Prims and Ms. Everdeens -- but they knew marginalization because they saw it close-up and personally, and they saw the ravages and the causalities. These cooks understood that, for far too many people, hunger is a reality and food is not a pretty luxury to be dressed up and dolled up and teased into shape before then scraping it into the trash because, after all, it was only decorative.*
A good dystopia, in my view, holds up a mirror to our own society. It picks a theme -- or maybe two or three -- and runs with that theme, weaving it intricately into the story without overwhelming the reader with the underlying message. I do believe that "hunger" is a theme of The Hunger Games, and not just because it's in the title. And I think that message is absolutely relevant in a country where 16.7 million children go to bed hungry, where that fact was not mentioned (to my knowledge) by either presidential candidate (one of whom is on record saying he doesn't think people are entitled to food), and where a government policy to get children to eat less (and therefore be more attractive!) has more funding and national attention than ones designed to help children eat more -- and therefore not die.
Congratulations on being born in America.** May the odds be ever in your favor.
* Pretty food not is a bad thing in itself, but the juxtaposition of "hungry children" with "decorative meals not to be eaten" without the Celebrity Guest Judge having even a moment of contemplation about his words was enraging to me. Context matters.
** For you readers who were not born in America, here's hoping that this point about food insecurity does not apply to your country.
Update: The comment thread below has had several posts removed. Not because the posts were bad or wrong, but because this is an aggressively safe space for Fat People and Fat Acceptance, and I would rather have a twitchy delete-finger than risk triggering our board readers. Please remember that a Fat Acceptance safe space means:
1. Avoiding seriously using the words "obesity epidemic" as though this is a Real Thing, or otherwise treating fatness like an undesirable, unhealthy, or plague-like state of being.
2. Avoiding imbuing foods or food groups with objective qualities like "healthy" or "unhealthy". If you want to talk about "healthy" foods as in what the Celebrity Guest Judge considers "healthy", maintain those scare quotes and remember that health is subjective.
3. Avoiding explanations of how fat people can lose weight and/or arguments against set point theory. Remember that there is no weight loss solution that works for everyone, and that many people here find weight loss talk highly triggering.
4. Avoiding generalizations of fat people and/or fat children and their supposedly collective actions, habits, tendencies, or lifestyles. This is a basic policy on this board, and I especially ask that it be respected here.